Vegan Feminism: What the hell is it anyway?

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WORDS || Angela Heathcote

Feminism isn’t always seen as an inclusive social movement. For some, the movement seems to exclude men and all that is masculine. I’m sorry to disappoint the cynics, but in reality, we don’t dance around bonfires, burning bras, dedicating zines to ex-boyfriends, all the while turning red over penis envy. Sometimes this view is used as an artifice to degrade the merits of genuine discussion around social equity. I assure you that not every feminist is white, middle class, cisgender, hetereosexual, or able bodied. Today’s feminists have managed to diversify beyond issues of women to focus on broader aspects of social justice.

Feminism has a long history of concerning itself with global issues and planetary health. The correct term for the inclusion of other oppressed groups in the fight for gender equality is known as ‘Intersectionality’ or ‘Intersectional Feminism.’ So how far can this inclusion reach? Can we extend it to concern non-human animals and the environment?

Throughout the 1980s and 90s, a number of feminists argued that women had an inviolable link to the environment as earth mothers, which was known as ‘Ecofeminism.’ So this isn’t the first time feminism has gone green.

I was able to gain insight into the connection between veganism and feminism by discussing these issues with Isabelle Hampson, a passionate vegan feminist of the Macquarie University Women’s Collective. I asked Isabelle whether a ‘good feminist’ must also be vegan.

“If you stand up against oppressors,” said Isabelle, “whether it’s racial inequality, gender inequality, or religious rights — none of this has value if you are actively oppressing others.”

And this view can be mirrored in Mahatma Gandhi’s old adage, ‘the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,’ which seems to have resonance in our society now more than ever. In the last decade, veganism has gained momentum and more awareness, with the rising interest in documentarians and sociologists exploring the ramifications of our rampant, corporatised commodification of the food industry. A Newspoll survey conducted in 2010 indicated that five per cent of Australians were vegetarian while one per cent identified as vegan. This survey also anticipated a slow growth in people identifying as vegan over the following years. And this prediction has manifested itself in trends such as the ‘Rise of the Part Time Vegan’.

Basically, the part-time vegan is anyone who picks up a vegan diet for a period of time, often displayed as a ‘challenge’ or ‘pledge’. While this style of veganism is usually temporary, it indicates that people are thinking more deeply about their eating habits. Recently, however, TIME Magazine reported that people who go vegan for ethical reasons, instead of dietary, are more likely to stick it out.

In my attempts to understand Intersectionality and what it means in relation to feminism, I encountered the vegan feminist movement. Aspects of the movement had me confused. As a student of gender and women studies, I’m familiar with the issues of gendered harm. But I’d never meditated on how these values apply to nonhuman animals. When asked about how Intersectionality applied to the Nonhuman Animals Rights Movement, the Vegan Feminist network site states:
‘The Nonhuman Animal rights movement is rife with sexual objectification and sexual abuse. Without an intersectional approach, the actual cause of oppression is obscured, and social movements are weakened by their piecemeal, non-collaborative approach.’

“Being uneducated about this widespread abuse is not an option anymore,” Isabelle said. “To provide value and critique and to stand up to criticism, you need to exercise compassion and thoughtfulness in every area of your life.”

Within the agricultural industry, female animals are subjected to harmful practices, including forceful artificial insemination, physical abuse of her mammary glands, overuse of the udders, and forceful separation from their young, which causes trauma for the mother and child. The animal industry has bushed the boundaries between farming and methodical torture.

While veganism is clearly an ethical way of life, it can be exclusionary to different types of people, such as those who come from a culture that involves eating meat or people of lower socio-economic backgrounds. We are bombarded with images of power couples like Beyoncé and Jay-Z, or Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, taking the Vegan Pledge. But how realistic is the vegan lifestyle for everyone else?

Flic Wilson, another member of the Macquarie University Women’s Collective, comes from a Hindu/Jain background, where veganism and vegetarianism is the norm. “To be a vegan in a Western country or a cold country is often more expensive and therefore not always easy for everyone,” Flic said. But, she acknowledged that her Indian relatives who live in a Western country are all vegan or vegetarian, despite their relatively ‘low’ incomes.

In light of this fact, it seems that being vegan for ethical reasons has more longevity. And besides, why shouldn’t we feel more compassion for animals? Breaking a long-term habit of eating meat with every meal is a small but meaningful step. Even swapping that full-cream milk for soy or almond makes a small, yet salient, difference. A vegan lifestyle is something we can all work towards, unless your doctor says otherwise.