I decided to become vegetarian (ovo-lacto) about seven years ago. In 2005, as I looked at the Thanksgiving turkey on the table in front of me, I decided that I just couldn’t eat meat anymore.
People cite all kinds of reasons for their vegetarianism. Some people choose to be vegetarian for health reasons (less fat, etc.), some because of concerns about the ethical treatment of animals (agribusiness, intensive fish farming, etc.), some for environmental reasons (water use, methane, etc.), some for religious reasons (Hinduism), and I am sure there are many other reasons. All of these reasons are important, and they probably contributed to my decision too, but my main motivation was actually feminism.
The connection between feminism and vegetarianism is not frequently discussed, so let me explain.
First, if we understand feminism to be primarily about highlighting the innate ontological equality of all humans, then I think we must work to ensure that all people have access to enough food to survive. This of course requires an immense system of food production and delivery, but more fundamentally, it requires that the earth be able to produce enough calories to provide what is necessary for each person to consume….. and the more people, the more required calories. But, in the meat production process, a very large percentage (some say 50-90%) of the calories present in the plants that are feed to the livestock is lost before the animals reach anyone’s plate. Therefore, eating high on the food chain results in humans having access to far fewer calories than they would if everyone ate lower on the food chain. Put more bluntly, if we want to feed everyone, we must minimize calorie loss….. which means, we must eventually become vegetarian.
But that argument didn’t fully convince me because I don’t want to privilege human life over all other life forms. I don’t want to say that all of earth’s resources must be controlled to allow the most humans possible. I value human life, and I want every human to have the necessary number of calories each day…. but I don’t think that humans have a right to reproduce exponentially until all other life forms on earth are overtaken.
So, my second connection between vegetarianism and feminism is ecofeminism. Ecofeminism is a field of feminism that asserts that humanity currently relates to the earth in the same way that patriarchy has related to women– through a relationship of exploitation. In light of that, if I want to oppose all forms of oppression/exploitation, I must also oppose exploitation of animals (and nature in general). This is why I’m definitely opposed to agri-business and intensive farming of animals and fish. Yes, I am opposed to the specific ways that those animals are mistreated, but I am also opposed to the worldview that undergirds that mistreatment. I am opposed to a worldview that allows (and even necessitates) exploitation…. of women, of animals, of nature, of anything.
For those two main reason, I decided to become vegetarian, and I haven’t knowingly eaten meat in 7 years. Unlike some vegetarians, however, I’m not militant about this. I acknowledge that I have eaten soup with chicken broth in it; I have eaten french fries fried in duck fat; I’ve eaten pudding with gelatin, I’ve eaten pizza that I picked the pepperoni off of (someone else ordered it), and I’m sure I’ve eaten cheese made from/with renin. If I find out that a food item has one of those ingredients, I try to avoid it…. but I’ve eaten things and found out later or been careless about reading the ingredient list or been hungry without other choices….so yeah. In short, I try, but I’m not perfect. Furthermore, I acknowledge that other people need to get meat occasionally (for cultural, religious, health, or interpersonal reasons), and I don’t hate them for doing so. I also acknowledge that meat can be raised responsibly, ethically, and sustainably (when carefully incorporated into a family farm, etc.). If the animal lives a happy life and the sacrifice of its life is taken seriously, then I think that is perfectly acceptable (and in that case eating meat would also be very rare anyway). Personally, however, I don’t need to eat meat, and not doing so causes me very little (or no) harm or inconvenience; therefore, for me, it seems reasonable and responsible to avoid meat.
In addition to avoiding meat, drinking cow’s milk freaks me out a bit. Forcing female cows to lactate for much longer than they naturally would seems to be another clear form of exploitation…. and is again demonstrative of a worldview where women’s bodies (whether human or cow) are seen as a factory, little more than a machine that makes a product that can yield profit. Furthermore, humans are the only animal that drinks milk passed infancy and the only animal that drinks the milk of another animal…. so that is just gives me the heebeegeebees. I do, however, eat things that have milk in them… because that is nearly impossible to avoid…. and because I love cheese (philosophically weak reason I know, but there it is).
I also do eat eggs, but only free range ones. I acknowledge that “free range” does not ensure that those chickens had a happy life nor that they were not exploited, but again, I try. Ideally, we could have our own chickens (or maybe our neighbors could because I’m scared of birds) and then we could ensure that the chickens lived happily… and eating their unfertilized eggs doesn’t hurt them so that seems fine.
And I do buy leather products. This is more difficult to justify, and if I were really committed, I would like to stop doing this. Large leather items (especially coats) also give me the heebeegeebees, but for some items (shoes, belts, etc.), leather actually lasts longer than synthetic products and therefore exploits the earth less than repeatedly replacing something made from oil. And sometimes leather is just more practical (re: dog hair doesn’t stick to it), which again is a philosophically weak reason, but it is what it is.
So, these are my perspectives…. some of these choices may seem inconsistent or strange, and I fully admit that these commitments are open for critique and for change.
Please join the conversation: Were you previously familiar with these perspectives on vegetarianism? What are your feelings about eating meat? About eggs and milk? About leather? Have you ever considered not eating meat? Do you think there are responsible and irresponsible ways to eat meat? Please let me know what you think!