Sister Species: Negotiating the intersections of animal and human injustice

An intersection in Missoula, MT was formerly called Malfunction Junction, so named for the muddle of major thoroughfares that collide there and the lengthy red lights drivers endured while each street (in some cases, each direction of each street) took its turn.

Malfunction Junction is, perhaps, an unfortunate model for our approach to the intersections of oppressions that plague us: racism, sexism, homophobia, and yes–speciesism. It’s a long wait to see the light. Or maybe it’s not an apt model, since we tend to idle in our own lane and miss those intersections entirely.

As a second wave feminist (Ms. Magazine, the ERA, that whole Sisterhood is Powerful thang) and an animal rights activist, I’ve had plenty of time to consider how exploitation of both women and animals runs side-by-side and intersects. Sometimes it smacks you upside the head. The other day I was pumping gas when in pulled a gigantic pickup truck sporting a window decal featuring the silhouette of a mudflap girl’s body with a deer’s antlered head. (If that’s too subtle, try this.) Bleh. Or, consider “Racks, the calendar,” featuring the trophy-grade body parts of two species. (Wait–make that three species. You can get the mule deer or whitetail edition!) “Every hunter will love hanging this on their wall,” reads the text.

But often, those intersections aren’t obvious, and we–each of us fighting our own good fight–haven’t always recognized that social justice issues are all connected at the hips. Does a straight feminist need to worry about gay rights? Should a Caucasion gay rights activist care about racism? Must a person of color add animal exploitation to the struggle? Why should an animal rights activist give a hoot about any human injustice? Dr. King probably said it best and most succinctly: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Because oppressions are linked, it’s not enough to be “just” a feminist or “only” an animal rights activist, and that’s the take-away message in Lisa Kemmerer’s anthology, Sister Species: Women, animals, and social justice (released summer of 2011).

Did you know that more than 60% of animal activists are women? Fourteen of them share their stories in this anthology, a book that, according to the author:

  • Exposes critical connections between social justice movements, focusing on sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, and speciesism…;
  • Establishes speciesism as an important concern for all social justice activists…;
  • Elucidates why all social justice advocates ought to adopt a vegan lifestyle;
  • Encourages animal advocates to network with other social justice advocates to expose and dismantle all forms of oppression… (Kemmerer 6)

It’s not just any book in which you can hear from a woman who describes her former self as a “…vegetarian-but-not-vegan lesbian/feminist/antiracist/pro-peace/antipoverty activist who insisted that everything–racism, sexism, homophobia, capitalism, militarism, etc. etc.–was connected…but somehow managed to leave nonhuman animals out of the equation.” This particular essayist now rehabilitates roosters rescued from cock fighting rings.

Or how about this, from the head of investigation for Canadians for the Ethical Treatment of Food Animals: “As women, we must be aware of the suffering of sows (and “dairy” cows, and “laying” hens) and refuse to support such cruel exploitation of female reproductive potential.” Here’s more: A black vegan challenges white animal rights activists to “reflect on ‘whiteness as the norm’” even as they demand self-examination from speciesists who accept animal exploitation as the norm.

We meet a Korean woman who heads up an international nonprofit working to improve farmed animals’ lives; a Native American artist who, as a child, witnessed a parakeet dying in a department store cage and subsequently became an advocate for captive birds; an animal rights attorney who says, “I look forward to the day when a nonhuman is allowed to live because laws protect nonhuman individuals for their own sakes, not because ‘it’ is an object that belongs to a human,” and more. The margins of my copy are scribbled and starred and I’d love to share a quote or three from every writer, but you’d do better to discover them for yourself.

Perhaps my favorite–if it’s possible to find favor amongst these remarkable women–is a pioneer theologian in her late 80s (see update at end). “Dominion does not mean domination….In truth, religion has not been irrelevant regarding our treatment of nonhuman animals–religion has been a leading factor in perpetuating cruelty.” When she was eighty, Elizabeth Jane Farians took it upon herself “…to bring the subject of animal ethics to the academic world of theologians.” Her account of meeting with the chair of a college theology department is priceless on many levels–for her unwavering commitment to her vision, for her persistence (it took over a year to convince him), and for her humility–he kept her waiting in the hall numerous times “…like a naughty schoolchild outside the principal’s office.”

Whether they focus on poultry or primates, poetry or protest, theatre or theology, these women–justice-seekers all–inspire and teach about self-examination and honesty in the struggle to eradicate speciesism along with the other oppressions that deny individuals of all species the full potential of their lives.

An ad for Hooters chain restaurant frequently appears in my local newspaper. In it, a scantily-clad Hooters “girl” poses coyly while holding a plate of chicken wings. As a feminist, I see blatant objectification of women (“Grab some Hooters!”). As a vegan, I see the suffering that preceded the now-disembodied wings. But having read Sister Species, I see even more. I now consciously acknowledge that those wings came from hens specifically–female beings already exploited for their eggs (in the case of “layers”) and flesh (in the case of “broilers”–indeed, genetically manipulated to grow abnormally rapidly and produce large, succulent breasts). It’s harder now to miss the intersection of oppressions in a culture whose various appetites demand young, firm flesh and large breasts in more than one species.

Kemmerer’s excellent appendix, “Factory Farming and Females” ends thus: “Whether or not we eat cows and their nursing milk, chickens and their reproductive eggs, sows, or turkeys–and their young–intimately affects the lives of other females” (184). This seems to answer the question she asked in the introduction: “How will feminists meet the challenges posed by animal advocates?” (24).

We approach Malfunction Junction every day, again and again. As activists, we can idle in our own narrow, one-way lane, waiting our turn to proceed on our righteous but single-minded mission. Zooming through, we ignore or miss intersections that, if only we could or would turn onto them, might reveal advantageous side streets–linkages that combine our routes, strengthening and hastening the flow toward justice.

UPDATE: Elizabeth Farians passed away in 2013. Find her obituary here.

This post also appears at animal law blog Animal Blawg, where comments are accepted.

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