Was Victoria Woodhull a Vegetarian?

Who was Victoria Woodhull?

Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927) was, in the late 19th century, one of the most outspoken and well-known women’s rights advocates. More than a feminist, she was also abreast of many other social justice causes of the era, including child welfare, food reform, and wealth redistribution. Many secondary sources hint that Woodhull had ties to vegetarianism (Donovan 1990, Robinson 2010), suggesting a potentially lost hero overlooked in the vegan feminist annals.

A survivor of child marriage, Woodhull advocated for the radicalization of oppressive marriage institutions and found herself dubbed “Mrs. Satan” for her radical “free-love” politics. Indeed, her influence (or at least tenacity) was so great, she was compelled to run for presidency under the Equal Rights Party in 1872.1 She believed in the human capacity to challenge injustice and progress society, but this position tended to reflect the eugenics discourse that was popular at the time. Indeed, Woodhull’s politics were premised on the supposed social and biological malleability of society:

Social evils are caused, first, by unequal distribution of wealth–no one held morally responsible as regards the methods by which the wealth is acquired; second, too many individuals are over-fed and underworked, and too many are overworked and underfed; third, too many are badly bred.

(Woodhull 1892a: 53)

She adopted a Christian scientific approach, deeply contemplating the animality of human beings and how moral concern for others as well as the cultural advantages of civilization differentiated the species. While such a perspective could certainly be said to diminish other animals who are positioned as morally and culturally stunted by comparison, her aim was to wield modern scientific and ethical advancements to better society (Woodhull 1893). For Woodhull, attention to the possibilities of optimum human intellect and social organization was needed, as slavery, marriage, capitalist exploitation, and other institutionalized inequalities were thought to stifle human progress itself.

For these reasons, Woodhull actually saw herself as a contemporary of Marx. I suspect that, vegetarianism, if included in her ideology, would certainly be positioned in line with her vision for social revolution. I examined some of Woodhull’s work in hopes of uncovering this possible intersection.

The results were disappointing to say the least.

Eugenics, Animality and Social Change

Woodhull’s politics are documented in the pages of her publications, namely the Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly and The Humanitarian. Indeed, her journal would be the first to print Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto in the United States (Johnston 1967). These journals are also reported to feature discussions of vegetarianism. Woodhull had been very successful in the stock market (another feminist first), allowing her to self publish. Her writings are subsequently deeply polemical.

For instance, despite her dedication to socialism, Woodhull’s idea of progress did not bode well for society’s marginalized social classes. In one editorial, she refers to these people as “totally usless [sic] animal weeds” who “choke and sap the vitality of the fit” (1893: 53). She argued that humans, like “horses and roses,” should be bred for betterment, as “progress in evolution is accomplished by the elimination of the unfit” (1893: 52).

Thus, challenging inequality was not just important as a moral matter to those experiencing it, but to society as a whole since social inequality made it difficult to determine who was “fit” or “unfit,” blocking “human progress” (1893: 52): “What wonderful solicitude is shown in the breeding of choice animals, and what utter indifference in the breeding of boys and girls, whereas it ought to be the other way” (1893: 52). I did not read closely enough to determine how she planned to execute this genetic policing.

Perhaps we can grant that the intentions of many eugenicists, particularly those who were ardent social justice advocates like Woodhull, were well-meaning. Disability politics of the late 20th and early 21st century, afterall, are comparatively postmodern in substance, questioning what constitutes “good,” “bad,” or “progress,” upsetting old binaries, and advocating for the radical and compassionate accommodation of all individuals just as they are. These ideas, I can only assume, were not well known at the time or at least failed to resonate given the heavy excitement surrounding cutting edge evolutionary science. The late 19th century was truly emboldened by Darwinism, which instigated a dramatic shift in Western epistemology. It seemed increasingly possible that humans were not just divinely appointed on earth by some unknowable, uncontrollable power that relinquished little control over society’s trajectory. Life on earth instead came to be seen as a work in progress, a work that might be adjusted through human agency.

That said, the particular vitriol of Woodhull’s position on persons relegated to the lower classes, people with disabilities, people with alcohol addiction, and even sex workers leaves little room for grace.

Vegetarianism, Animal Rights, and Humanitarianism

Woodhull’s attachment to eugenics is extremely disquieting, and, given her ardent interest in controlling bodies–human or nonhuman–to achieve her idea of social and biological perfection, I held out little hope that her vegetarian position would offer any redemption as I continued through her periodicals. In fact, in my precursory search of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly (published in the 1870s) and The Humanitarian (published in the 1890s), I was not able to find any promotion of vegetarianism.2 Woodhull’s own writing dominated the periodicals, and primarily made mention of other animals for the purposes of comparison with humans who she believed ought to practice restraint and civility to distinguish themselves as a higher species. Domestication, with its manipulation of nonhuman bodies, was a point of inspiration for her eugenics agenda (Woodhull 1892b).

Dietary pieces were sometimes featured but did not advocate vegetarianism that I could see. A typical example can be found in a submission she published under the “Medical Department” of The Humanitarian, within which the author discusses ways to cure and process animal bodies for optimal consumption (Welles 1893a). In another article, the same physician rejects vegetarianism, as “the teeth of man” are “adapted to the mastication of animal flesh” and “animal food, thence, reorganized, furnishes immediately to man that highly organized and stimulating nerve food, from which the higher and nobler development of brain power is the manifest result” (Welles 1893b: 45). He goes on to justify human “supremacy over other animal life” by drawing on Innuit people of the Arctic and other Indigenous communities of the Americas as evidence to the supposedly natural (read primitive) way of the human species. Oppressing other animals is, on one hand, offered as evidence to the advancement of human civilization, while, on the other hand, the “uncivilized” peoples of the world who oppress animals (usually living in extreme environments and themselves deeply oppressed by European colonialism) are made examples of authentic humanity. The same weak (and colonialist) logics that stand in opposition to veganism today, in sum, are touted in Woodhull’s Humanitarian periodical.3

Her use of the term “humanitarian” is telling here. By the late 1870s, Woodhull was living in the southwestern United Kingdom, where the periodical was published and circulated. She was a contemporary of Henry Salt (who also lived in southern England) and would surely have been familiar with his own humanitarian writings and activism. Salt’s (1892) Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress was one of the first major publications on the topic of anti-speciesism. His own Humanitarian League (now the League Against Cruel Sports) centered the Nonhuman Animal cause in its agenda. Woodhull (1892a), by contrast, makes no mention of them at all in introducing her otherwise intersectional humanitarian platform as presidential candidate.4

It seems very likely that Woodhull, a socialist-feminist humanitarian active in the same region as Salt and a multitude of other socialist-feminist anti-speciesists, would have been familiar with their political claimsmaking.

“Humanitarian” Vivisection

Further evidence of Woodhull’s well-rounded speciesism can be found in another socialist article printed in The Humanitarian which explores the science of physical labor and its impact on the body. The evidence presented undoubtedly derives from vivisection. Woodhull anticipates criticism from her readers, including a quote from prominent vivisection-defending physician William Gull5 at the end of the article:

Sir William Gull was asked by a lady if he did not consider experiments on animals as cruel. “madam,” he said, “there is no cruelty comparable to ignorance.”

(Woodhull 1892: 39)

Of course, experiments that transpired in Victorian vivisection theaters and laboratories are the epitome of cruelty, enacted for the most wonton of curiosities without anaesthesia or any other alleviation from fear or pain. These are just the sort of cruelties that surely lurk behind the labor study that Woodhull spotlights in The Humanitarian, seeing as how it aims to understand the detrimental impacts of extreme distress on muscular and cardiovascular systems. Nonhuman Animals are inevitably slated for dangerous and gratuitous experiments such as these.6

Another case of vivisection is spotlighted in support of prison reform. One contributor recounts his travels abroad in Corsica, where he and his travel party killed several pigs to dissect for the purpose of learning more about their eating habits. Apparently, pigs, being opportunists, will eat all manner of things and persons, including deers, birds, other pigs, and even humans. This research is supposed to serve as a rudimentary criminology, explaining why criminals might engage in violent, seemingly unnatural crimes as do pigs (Rothery 1892). Whatever might be gleaned from the stomach contents of murdered pigs and bizarre trans-species comparisons of moral intent, it certainly does not support the notion that Woodhull was accommodating to vegetarian politics.


I want to be clear that my analysis of Woodhull’s writings is anything but comprehensive. It is based on a cursory and purposive sample of convenience. It may be the case that pro-vegetarian or anti-speciesist essays exist beyond the handful of digitized copies available to me, but it is quite clear that Woodhull’s first political interest is the sexual liberation of women, and her second is improving the moral and physical character of society through eugenics. Nonhuman Animals only surface as points of comparison, “nourishing” ingredients in food, and objects for scientific experiments. Nonhuman Animals, in other words, are merely fodder for her vision of a progressive society. The view that other animals are sentient beings capable of suffering and worthy of political action–a view that was widely adopted by other progressive era activists, especially suffragettes–was not adopted by Woodhull.

Ultimately, Woodhull’s campaign to include women in the 14th amendment to the US Constitution, the amendment that granted suffrage to recently enslaved African American men, sat uneasy with many fellow activists.7 Her insistence on free love—which prioritized women’s autonomy over men’s institutional and personal entitlement to them—sat even uneasier. Her politics were indeed so radical that she was eventually dropped by the American feminist movement, unsupported in her time but also unrecorded in their feminist anthologies and thus forgotten in modern women’s history. Even Marx found Woodhull’s socialist campaigning noxious and disingenuous. Unfortunately, if there were to be any redeeming qualities to be found in her support of vegetarianism, I have yet to find them.

Perhaps some elements of Woodhull’s tireless work to advance society is worth celebrating, particularly her effort to uplift women’s independence and her challenge the bondage of marriage. But her class position created a very awkward sort of sympathy with disadvantaged people that demeaned them as much as it hoped to uplift them. I suspect it is the same classist hierarchical thinking that leaves Woodhull unable to offer Nonhuman Animals any sympathy at all.


  1. Woodhull is considered by many to be the first woman to run for president, however she would have been too young to legitimately take office in the event of her election. Furthermore, her appointed running mate Frederick Douglass was likely unaware that he had been added to her ballot, suggesting the campaign was only symbolic.
  2. The Woodhull & Claflin Weekly is available through the Hamilton College Library. I browsed a few issues manually for mention of anti-speciesism or vegetarianism, but I also used a key word search for “vegetarian” which did not turn up any matches. Some issues of The Humanitarian are hosted online by The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals.
  3. See Benny Malone’s How to Argue with Vegans (2021) and Ed Winters’ How to Argue with a Meat-Eater (2023).
  4. Woodhull’s platform, does, however, heavily emphasize the importance of providing substantive, healthy, and unadulterated food.
  5. Gull’s grim and uncompromising defense of vivisection has been cited as evidence by several web sources as to why this physician is thought a suspect in the “Jack the Ripper” case by some.
  6. Vulnerable humans were often exploited for vivisection as well, including people with disabilities, women, enslaved people, Irish immigrants, and people in poverty. It does not seem clear that Woodhull was aware of this important intersection in her support of vivisection.
  7. Some activists were concerned that introducing women to the proposal would be considered too radical by legislators and thereby undermine its potential to pass. Given that many advocating the inclusion of women were wealthy white women whose experiences were miles away from that of recently enslaved Black men, their insistence on inclusion, while merited, inflamed racial tensions in both feminist and abolitionist movements.

Works Cited

Donovan, J. 1990. “Animal Rights and Feminist Theory.” Signs 15 (2): 350-375.

Johnston, J. 1967. Mrs. Satan: The Incredible Saga of Victoria Woodhull. London: Macmillan.

Robinson, S. 2010. “Victoria Woodhull-Martin and The Humanitarian (1892-1901): Feminism and Eugencs at the Fin de Siecle.” Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 6 (2).

Salt, H. 1892. Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress. London: Macmillan & Co.

Rothery, G. 1892. “The Unlikely Human.” The Humanitarian 1 (4): 65-68.

Welles, C. 1893a. “Practical Dietetics.” The Humanitarian 2 (5): 69-70.

Welles, C. 1893b. “The Habits of Health: Food.” The Humanitarian 2 (3): 45-46.

Woodhull, V. 1892a. “The Humanitarian Platform.” 1 (4): The Humanitarian 54-58.

Woodhull, V. 1892b. “Pedigree Farming.” The Humanitarian 1 (2): 25.

Woodhull, V. 1892c. “The Standard Value of Labor.” 1 (3): The Humanitarian 38-39.

Woodhull, V. 1893. “Address by Victoria C. Woodhull (Mrs. John Biddulph Martin), at St. James’s Hall, Piccadilly, 24th March, 1893.” The Humanitarian 2 (4): 49-55.

Corey Lee Wrenn

Dr. Wrenn is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Kent. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology with Colorado State University in 2016. 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 is the co-founder of the International Association of Vegan Sociologists. She serves as Book Review Editor to Society & Animals and is a member of the Research Advisory Council of The Vegan Society. She has contributed to the Human-Animal Studies Images and Cinema blogs for the Animals and Society Institute and has been published in several peer-reviewed academic journals including the Journal of Gender Studies, Environmental Values, 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.

Of Breeders, MOOs and Overpopulation: Eugenics in the Animal Rights Movement

Trigger Warning: Post contains potentially upsetting discussion of eugenics, forced sterilization and racially insensitive commentary from the white-centric Nonhuman Animal rights community. Also references sexist, classist, and ableist positions that are responsible for considerable structural harm to vulnerable demographics.
Large crowd of people

By: Dr. C. Michele Martindill

Stories about overpopulation appear so often in the news and op-ed essays they are barely gets a second glance. Overpopulation is blamed for all the ills of the social world, everything from obvious social problems such as poverty and hunger to less known concerns such as climate change and deforestation of the planet. Rarely is the concept of overpopulation questioned or defined beyond citing the overall population of planet earth or particular nation states. It is easy enough to find the figures—earth now has an estimated population of 7,318,275,998 as of this writing (Current World Population, 2015) and the United States has an estimated population of 324,907,247. Whenever news stories question how to dispose of the vast amounts of garbage generated by such numbers or to address an environmental hazard such as carbon emissions the first thought is to reduce the population that is destroying the planet. Sociologist David L. Altheide, author of Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis (2002), argues that such stories are morality plays that unfold in “news reports, reality TV shows,…and documentaries,…it is the world of predators and prey, criminals and citizens,…Stories tend to be told from the perspective (voice) of the victim or criminal justice agents; seldom do we see or hear the accused outside of a prescribed role, for example, in handcuffs (193).” In many respects overpopulation is a morality play, pitting the dominant elite white culture against Persons of Color, women and anyone living in poverty, those who are handcuffed.

Vegans are divided in their response to overpopulation stories, but they seem to agree something must be done to save the planet and the lives of animals. Some vegans are vocal in their belief that if the human population was reduced or even eliminated then animals would no longer be slaughtered for consumer products, and the environment would heal. In an effort to counter overpopulation scare tactics, there are other vegans who quickly assert how livestock production contributes to water pollution, desertification of the land, displacement of Native populations and carbon emissions, but they become mired in point-counterpoint debates over environmental science, giving scant attention to the human groups most affected by the overpopulation morality play. They suggest the solution is more education and accessible birth control so that women can make better choices and stop having such large families. The problem in each instance is the absence of critical thought regarding the use of the term overpopulation. Specifically, as long as the vegan animal rights movement frames the discussion about human procreation as a choice argument grounded in pseudo-concern for the fate of the planet and economics, the movement ignores a far more serious threat and deep contradiction to veganism: the advancement of eugenics, the belief that the human gene pool can and should be improved through selective procreation and forced sterilization.

Any overpopulation claim that fails to address eugenics and simply demands that humans have to stop procreating because the planet and its resources are threatened is nothing more than a pseudo concern for the planet, a concern meant to disguise racism, classism and sexism. Overpopulation is a socially constructed concept with a long history of being promoted by the white man cis gendered elite scientists and corporations of the world. Stripped of polysyllabic terminology and statistical arguments about environmental damage, overpopulation is nothing more than a nameless, faceless scare tactic. Its aim is to objectify the so-called unruly masses, to deny them their rights, and to glorify the wealthy elite by encouraging them to procreate and populate the world with their precious gene pool. Those who assert that no one should procreate regardless of social status still fail to acknowledge the sexism and racism of such a demand.

Cartoon with oil well exploding with people, reads, "The well is dry, but we've got a gusher of new customers"

Certainly there is an element of truth to the overpopulationist propaganda, e.g. climate change is real, but it has little to do with the number of humans on the planet and everything to do with the overpopulation of cattle (McKnight, 2014). Oil spills, deforestation and global poverty are not the result of overpopulation; rather, they can be directly linked to corporate greed, capitalism that regards the earth as nothing more than an endless supply of materials for consumer goods and the military-industrial complex that values war over investing in real peace keeping efforts such as feeding the hungry. Arguments against these and other overpopulationist claims can be refuted statistic by statistic, but such debate will do nothing to reframe the issues in a way that accentuates the hidden agenda of overpopulationists—their racism, sexism, ableism and classism. Any future dialogues need to focus on individualism, social darwinism and eugenics, the ideologies that underpin the entire overpopulation perspective.

The rift between overpopulationists and social justice advocates both within and outside of the vegan movement is growing, thanks in large part to the hatred of humans so frequently espoused by animal rights leaders such as Gary Yourofsky and his loyal followers. Off-hand comments about humans not deserving to live because they are responsible for all of the suffering brought on other animals are expressions of the overpopulationist dogma and based in individualism. In order to understand how social darwinism and eugenics work it is necessary to first look at the concept of individualism (see Note 1).

Individualism is the belief that each person is only responsible for their own self and will receive rewards—wealth, salaries, social position, education, access to medical care—based on individual merit. This belief system is used to support capitalism and to keep the working class motivated while performing mundane tasks in dead end jobs. As long as workers believe if they work hard enough they can rise in social class and accumulate wealth, they will continue to show up for work, not complain about working conditions and tell anyone who will listen that the company owners are heroes. Those who do not succeed are easily dismissed as individuals who did not work hard enough or long enough; it is their own fault for being failures. After all, the evolution of society can be summed up as survival of the fittest, just like in nature, right? Well, no.

Ever since the work on evolutionary theory by Charles Darwin became known there have been attempts to identify patterns of evolution in society similar to those found in plants and other animals. Policy makers have long thought it obvious that those living in poverty or with mental health problems were not as evolved as the wealthy elite class. Such a belief depends on a misinterpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution. While Darwin was interested in how plants, for instance, adapted to a changing environment and described the process as natural selection (not to be confused with artificial selective breeding), he also observed how such processes occurred slowly and could not be seen in any one generation. He did not initially see the processes as some sort competition in which only the fittest survived or were rewarded in some way by nature. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) is credited with coining the term survival of the fittest in relation to society, and then Darwin later used the term to refer to local, immediate adaptations to a given environment. As time passed, Darwin’s theory became equated solely with survival of the fittest rather than natural selection, and sociologists tagged the phrase survival of the fittest as social darwinism, usually used as a pejorative term. Sociologists were pitted against politically conservative policy makers who were trying to justify discriminatory legislation by claiming only the fittest humans should survive. Social darwinism—a pseudo-scientific claim—thus became the rationalization for individualism and the social policies that were based on individualism.


Individualism also decries charity as unnecessary for the lower classes since they are responsible for the consequences of their own laziness, for financial troubles and for having big families or too many children. While capitalism depends on having a ready supply of workers willing to accept low pay and to sing the praises of the economic system that entraps them, capitalism bears no responsibility for the hardships related to poverty. What a perfect economic system!! The wealthy elite exploit the workers, cast aside the humans deemed unfit and manage to get the exploited masses to defend the entire system by keeping the hope alive that anyone can achieve THE AMERICAN DREAM!!

This whole notion of individualism or the American Dream, which is now a global belief system, can be seen throughout the industrialization and modernization of the States. Eugenics, the belief and related practices that any animal population, including the human population, can be genetically improved through controlled reproduction, dates back centuries, but became closely linked to individualism in the 19th century. Scientists who promoted eugenics or the eugenics movement of the 20th century were at first interested in controlled reproduction as a way to eliminate mental illness and other hereditary diseases. After all, if scientist Gregor Mendel could trace patterns of inheritance in pea plants in 1865, later scientists reasoned similar patterns might be traced in humans. Eugenics was the cornerstone of the Immigration Restriction League which was founded in 1894 to prevent those of certain races who might contaminate the superior American gene pool from entering the country. Literacy tests were proposed as early as 1897 to help identify inferior immigrants. In 1910 Charles Davenport founded the Eugenics Record Office and within the next twenty years the goal of the organization became preventing unfit humans from having any children.

By the late 1920s forced sterilization of those deemed unfit was widely accepted and laws based on a 1914 model statute were passed:

Advocacy in favor of sterilization was one of Harry Laughlin’s first major projects at the Eugenics Record Office. In 1914, he published a Model Eugenical Sterilization Law that proposed to authorize sterilization of the “socially inadequate” – people supported in institutions or “maintained wholly or in part by public expense. The law encompassed the “feebleminded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf; deformed; and dependent” – including “orphans, ne’er-do-wells, tramps, the homeless and paupers.” By the time the Model Law was published in 1914, twelve states had enacted sterilization laws (Lombardo, n.d.).

It is estimated that between the early 1900s and the mid-1970s over 60,000 people were involuntarily sterilized. Women were the main victims of forced sterilization, and at first many who were sterilized were already committed to mental institutions and labelled imbeciles. As sterilization became the norm, some victims were taken from their homes and reasons for sterilization included pregnancy while unmarried, general promiscuity, having a sexually transmitted disease or being a pauper. The reasoning by the thirty-three states with forced sterilization laws was that it was a way to prevent people from becoming a burden on society, especially if they had to be housed in a state run mental institution, receive some kind of public aid or be held in prisons. Also, at this time in history more and more immigrants were arriving in U.S. cities and they were being blamed for the rise in crime and poverty. Eugenics was heralded as a solution by medical professionals and city officials alike (Norrgard, 2008).

The majority of the country is shaded to indicate presence of laws

It is an understatement to say racism and eugenics are historically and inextricably linked. Throughout the eugenics movement Black women were regarded as responsible for passing traits to their daughters that would lead to a future of doom, lives of “poverty, delinquency, and despair (Sebring, 2007).”

During the 1950s in the US South white women faced economic, legal, and medical obstacles to their access to reproductive services such as contraceptives and sterilization procedures. During this same time family planning initiatives targeted women of color (particularly black women) encouraging the use of contraceptives and sterilizations in the interest of reducing the growth of the black population. Family planning initiatives were politically espoused by conservatives such as Strom Thurmond, as a racialized form population control in the interest of limiting black voter strength in the US South. State funding for family planning clinics frequently received popular support when associated with women of color, though the same was not true when associated with white women. Or, in the words of Louisiana judge Leander Perez, “The best way to hate a nigger is to hate him before he is born.” (Sebring, 2007)

Who were the women who were involuntarily sterilized? The overpopulationists have managed to objectify them as populations, robbing them of their names, faces and voices in the process. Efforts to compensate victims were and continue to be met with disdain as well as arguments that the state funds are better spent elsewhere. Such was the case in North Carolina until 2013 when the victims were awarded $10 million dollars after a prolonged battle with legislators. Elaine Riddick is one of the victims.

Elaine Riddick and Son

Riddick and Son

Elaine Riddick was raped and impregnated at 13 years old and, after giving birth to her baby boy Tony, she was sterilized against her will. Afterward, she lived for years in shame, but had something to prove.

“People need to know that injustice was done towards them and they need to be compensated for that,” said Riddick,…

Riddick has been a formidable advocate for her fellow victims, pressing North Carolina to make amends. But multiple attempts at compensation have not come to fruition.

On Thursday Riddick said she was amazed to learn of North Carolina’s plans to compensate victims.

“I tip my hat to North Carolina, finally they came to their senses and decided to do what’s right,” she said.

Still, Riddick added, the money isn’t enough.

“You can’t put a price on someone taking your womb or castrating you, it’s humiliating,” Riddick said (Naggiar, 2013).

It was not until after WWII that forced sterilization began to fall out of favor with proponents in the United States. People learned that Laughlin’s Model Sterilization Law was the inspiration for the law adopted by Nazi Germany in 1933, a law that legally sanctioned the sterilization of over 350,000 people. Laughlin was even awarded an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg in 1936 for his work in “the science of racial cleansing” (Lombardo P. A., 2008). So, it was not the racism of sterilizing Black women that launched the move to halt the sterilizations, nor was it forced sterilizations of girls as young as ten. Furthermore, the laws were not changed based on the lack of informed consent. No. The laws were not challenged until it became embarrassing to be associated with the genocide carried out by the Nazis, a genocide that ran concurrently with a genocide of POC in the states.

Eugenics and forced sterilization remain in the news today. In 2013 it was revealed that 148 women prisoners in California were denied their right to informed consent and sterilized between 2006 and 2010. On September 25, 2014 California passed Senate Bill 1135 to “prohibit sterilization for the purpose of birth control of an individual under the control of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or a county correctional facility… (Senate Bill No. 1135, 2014).”

In September of 2014 the vice chairperson of the Arizona Republican Party and former state senator resigned his position after making comments about the sterilization of Medicaid recipients:

“You put me in charge of Medicaid, the first thing I’d do is get Norplant, birth-control implants, or tubal ligations,” Russell Pearce said on his radio show, according to a transcript from the Arizona Republic. “Then we’ll test recipients for drugs and alcohol, and if you want to [reproduce] or use drugs or alcohol, then get a job (McDonough, 2014).”

Similar stories continue to be reported from around the world, including comments by self-described vegans. A recent Facebook discussion among vegans on the topic of over-population shows how someone in a position of privilege can become defensive at the mere suggestion of racism in the language they use to discuss procreation:

Commenter #1: I am always skeptical around blanket statements about procreation. For too long it’s been a form of racism to talk about POC women as “breeders” or “welfare queens.” Demands to end procreation also come from a classist perspective in that rural white women and POC women have been targets, including decades of pressure to be sterilized or in some cases being sterilized without consent. Which leads to the observation that arguments against procreation contribute to sexism when they silence the voices of women. Yes, women should have access to information about birth control and adoption, but not at the expense of a patriarchal society doing so simply to perpetuate patriarchal values. What we’re really talking about here is the need to realize how corporatism and capitalism combine to create all of these products that are destroying the environment and marketing them to the point people think they can’t live without them. It’s not procreation that is the issue, but rather how consumption is promoted as a way of life

Commenter #2: Everyone should stop breeding imo. Every color, rich or poor. Birth control should be free & always available worldwide imo.

Commenter #1: …did I really just read these words? ” Everyone should stop breeding imo. Every color, rich or poor. Birth control should be free & always available worldwide imo.” I’ll play nice and ask: Why in your opinion should everyone stop “breeding”? Also, the word “breeding/ers” is problematic in terms of socially reproducing racism.

Commenter #2: The world is severely overpopulated period. We need to give it a rest. Too many ppl too many unnecessary selfish problems. Breed means procreate nothing racist. [emphasis added]

It is common to find the words breeders and moos used among certain vegan overpopulationist factions in reference to women who give birth to children, and there can be little doubt those terms are both racially charged and sexist.

Banana Girl Freelee, a self-described vegan, uses similar racist, sexist and classist language in a recent YouTube video:

We need drastic action or else we’re goin’ down the shitter and we’re takin’ the rest of the species with us. We’re destroying all the other species, including ourselves. So obviously the load needs to be lightened on Mother Nature. We need to stop draining the f*cking resources until they’re all gone and so here’s what I propose: is that people have a test. They need a license, a permit before they procreate, before they have children. They need to pass a test…So, what does that test consist of?…They definitely need to have a stable income so they can actually look after children…have money in the bank that’s for sure (vegan, 2015).

Freelee Banana GirlAt a time when voting rights for Persons of Color are being challenged with voter identification laws and literacy tests, it is not surprising to find the script for the overpopulation morality play includes a test for the right to procreate.

Ironically, members of the upper class are encouraged to have as many children as they want, as shown in a recent story about how large families are now “the ultimate status symbol” among wealthy women from New York City’s Upper East Side. Wendy Martin, Ph.D., author of Primates of Park Avenue, is quoted as saying:

When you think about it, it’s logical that a big family equals a big status symbol: It’s expensive to raise kids anywhere, and especially in New York City, where full-time nannies, private school, and summer camp are standard expenses. In the US, the average cost of raising a child is $245,340, according to a recent government report. But that figure more than doubles — to $540,514 — when that child is being raised in Manhattan (Zeveloff, 2015).

Thin white women in a park tending to childrenClearly, as long as the interests of the upper class are at stake, they must be defended and presented in a way consistent with individualism, with the notion that they earned the right to have as many children as they want and can afford. There are no suggestions that the wealthy need more education about birth control, nor is there any implication that they somehow are not smart enough to understand how large family size must surely lead to poverty. And what about all of those scarce resources that these children will consume over the course of their lifetimes? All is well as long as they can afford the steaks, fur coats, servants and fancy cars that burn an exorbitant amount of fossil fuel? Population expert Fred Pearce argues that rising consumption is the real problem, not overpopulation:

“Rising consumption today far outstrips the rising head count as a threat to the planet,” Mr. Pearce wrote in Prospect, a British magazine, in 2010. “And most of the extra consumption has been in rich countries that have long since given up adding substantial numbers to their population, while most of the remaining population growth is in countries with a very small impact on the planet.”

“Let’s look at carbon dioxide emissions, the biggest current concern because of climate change,” he continued. “The world’s richest half billion people — that’s about 7 percent of the global population — are responsible for half of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile, the poorest 50 percent of the population are responsible for just 7 percent of emissions (Haberman, 2015).

Maybe the time has come for vegans who double as overpopulationists to think critically about whether they want to continue supporting a racist, sexist and classist ideology or consider how consumerism and consumption impact planetary resources.

Even if all the eugenics laws in the world are struck from the books, the ideology of individualism and the American Dream will continue to drive our social world and a large segment of the vegan movement. It is far easier to hate all humans for what they are doing to other animals than it is to examine how we all participate in systems of oppression. Go ahead and blame oppressed and exploited humans for speciesism, for rampant consumerism and for being selfish. Individualism tells us we have no responsibility for other humans, so why not hate them and objectify them? Know this one thing and know it well: We all serve the interests of the white man dominated elite class as long as we do not take the responsibility to challenge the racism, sexism and classism of the overpopulation myth. As long as we are preoccupied with directing hate toward other humans, we will not be demanding accountability from the capitalist leaders and major corporations that are responsible for environmental degradation, the murder and torture of animals for profit, the formation of the school to prison pipeline and the growth of the military-industrial complex.

Being against eugenics is NOT taking anything away from working for the animals or ending the oppression of other animals. BUT ending speciesism will not end the hatred of humans for other humans, the bigotry directed toward Persons of Color or the ideology of individualism that tells everyone to turn their backs on those deemed unworthy. The ultimate manifestation of speciesism occurs whenever humans objectify and dehumanize other humans by denying them their rights while at the same time claiming they are anti-speciesist because they think the rights of all animals must be respected. What a contradiction in terms!! Humans will work to universally grant rights to other animals and simultaneously direct hatred and blame toward other humans, toward breeders and MOOs, unless every effort is made to expose the overpopulation morality play for what it is: unadulterated bigotry.

The words of writer and animal rights activist Christopher Sebastian (personal communication, 2015) offer an eloquent summary of how individualism works and how deeply racism strikes in the animal rights movement:

Animal Rights Friends:

How come when I am talking about human privilege, most of my vegan friends understand I’m talking about living in a society structured to advantage humans…where humans are granted greater levels of access based on arbitrary biological distinctions outside of their control? Indeed, they’re even quick to abdicate such privilege and discuss ways in which we need to alter our society for greater levels of inclusion and sensitivity to our nonhuman animal brothers and sisters.

But when I start talking about how white privilege disenfranchises people of color in the same way, it’s a goddamn showcase showdown. Suddenly, my white vegan friends are quick to point out how they worked hard and sometimes they experienced adversity. None of this matters!!! You still hold power in a structure dominated by and cultivated to center whiteness. Some days, I’m just so damn tired of having to talk about this. But seriously, can we not make a space to understand how life operates differently for POC animal rights activists and allies? Damn.


Note 1: Individualism is not to be confused with individuality. The former is an ideology that supports capitalism; the latter refers to someone’s personal preferences and tastes.


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Michele Spino MartindillDr. Martindill earned her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Missouri and taught there in the Sociology Department, the Peace Studies Program and the Women’s and Gender Studies Department. Her areas of emphasis include political sociology, organizations and work, and social inequalities. Dr. Martindill’s dissertation focuses on the no-kill shelter social movement and is based on ethnographic research conducted during several years of working in an animal shelter. She is vegan, a feminist and is currently interested in the stories women tell through their needlework, including crochet, counted cross stitch and quilting. It is important to note that Dr. Martindill consistently uses her academic title in order to inspire women and members of other marginalized groups to pursue their dreams no matter what challenges those dreams may entail, and certainly one of her goals is to see more women in academia.