Sexism is all too prevalent in the Nonhuman Animal rights movement. Anyone familiar with PETA’s advocacy has seen their heavy reliance on female nakedness to garner attention and fundraise. Of course, how they hope to alleviate the objectification of Nonhumans while simultaneously objectifying women is questionable. Their inability to respect the interconnectedness of speciesism, sexism, and other oppressions has been criticized heavily by academics and advocates alike.
However, sexism remains indirectly prevalent in other advocacy organizations and activist communities. The problem is so rampant that I would venture to say that the Nonhuman Animal rights movement has become a microcosm of patriarchal domination. This is especially bizarre given that advocating against speciesism (which I define as the structural oppression of the vulnerable) is inherently an anti-patriarchy endeavor.
Femininity and concern for other animals have long been linked. Traditional gender roles view women as creatures of nature with an “instinct” for nurturing. Adding to this, the oppression of women often mirrors the oppression of other animals, and many times these oppressions reinforce one another. So it comes as no surprise that the Nonhuman Animal rights movement is composed largely of female activists (to the tune of about 80%).
As we know, gender stereotypes are not always so flattering. Femininity is also associated with hyper-emotionality and irrationality. This is a socially constructed reality that women of the Nonhuman Animal rights movement recognize. In an effort to overcome these stereotypes and resonate with audiences, female activists often adopt rational discourse and suppress emotion in their advocacy. Sociological research has found that male Nonhuman Animal right activists are perceived to be so rare and so important to lending the movement credit that women (and other men) will praise these men heavily and readily elevate them to positions of leadership. Women are often relegated to the less glamorous and more mundane tasks behind the scenes.
Clearly, we wouldn’t expect to see organizations like PETA prioritizing female empowerment, but other more “serious” liberation organizations drop the ball as well. Some of these factions are so reliant on rational arguments that feminine perspectives are generally unheard of or are dismissed as unnecessary. Femininity is suppressed in favor of rational, unemotional, masculine discourse. This is especially unfortunate because emotionality is actually an asset in affecting social change. Social psychology has shown emotional appeals to be far more persuasive and motivating than rational ones.
To be sure, race and gender intersect as well. Masculinity and whiteness have become normalized and go largely unexamined. White world views predominate and white, thin vegan bodies have become the ideal. Vegan critical race activist Dr. Breeze Harper warns that this has had the effect of alienating people of color. Likewise, T.O.F.U. Magazine recently published a special issue on the detrimental impact of fat-shaming and privileging thinness.
When recognized at all, people of color are often tokenized. While white activists may draw parallels between speciesism and racist atrocities like antebellum slavery, most fail to acknowledge the ongoing discrimination that people of color face. Many campaigns are designed to sensationalize animal cruelty associated with people of color, exploiting racial prejudice for the cause. Still other campaigns default to the white world view and ignore human rights violations, environmental racism, and racialized food politics. Structural racism is ignored, unless it is something advocates can campaign behind.
Ignoring gender and race has real consequences, consequences that hurt at-risk populations. Women find themselves sexually objectified by organizations like PETA, Animal Liberation Victoria, and LUSH Cosmetics, who see them as nothing more than naked bodies to prostitute for media attention and donations. Women who advocate with their clothes on do not escape these consequences either. Sociologist Dr. Emily Gaarder, author of Women and the Animal Rights Movement (2011) reports that sexual harassment is a very common experience among female activists. By pushing men into positions of power and relegating women to subordinate tasks and stripping, the movement becomes toxic for the vulnerable. As for people of color, they are often left out of outreach efforts altogether. Those who are outspoken about this exclusion risk backlash and accusations of “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism.” Like many other critics of oppression, it has even been suggested that I have a mental illness (the exploitation of disability identity in Nonhuman Animal rights advocacy is another topic altogether!).
The Nonhuman Animal rights movement would be wise to consider how gender and race continue to be salient identities that warrant special consideration in a social movement environment that privileges men and whites. Gender and race matter, despite any personal fantasies we may have about a post-feminist, post-racial utopia. Diversity in leadership and advocacy should be encouraged. Femininity and emotional appeals should be given their place alongside rational discourse and the language of rights.
Until the Nonhuman Animal rights movement cleans up its act in its treatment of vulnerable populations within its own ranks, I don’t believe it’s possible to make any real headway for other animals. A coherent battle against oppression cannot be fought so long as the movement’s own oppressiveness goes unchallenged.
This post was originally published on Feminspire on June 11, 2013.
Dr. Wrenn is Lecturer of Sociology. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology with Colorado State University in 2016. She received her M.S. in Sociology in 2008 and her B.A. in Political Science in 2005, both from Virginia Tech. She was awarded Exemplary Diversity Scholar, 2016 by the University of Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. She served as council member with the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section (2013-2016) and was elected Chair in 2018. She serves as Book Review Editor to Society & Animals and has contributed to the Human-Animal Studies Images and Cinema blogs for the Animals and Society Institute. She has been published in several peer-reviewed academic journals including the Journal of Gender Studies, Feminist Media Studies, Disability & Society, Food, Culture & Society, and Society & Animals. In July 2013, she founded the Vegan Feminist Network, an academic-activist project engaging intersectional social justice praxis. She is the author of A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (Palgrave MacMillan 2016).
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