Hypatia Symposium: Speaking of Animal Bodies by GRETA GAARD

In Hypatia 27.3, a special issue on “Animal Others”, leading feminist animal studies scholars, Lori Gruen (author of Ethics and Animals: An Introduction) and Kari Weil (author of Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now) present exciting new work on the intersections of sex, race, gender, and species. As co-editors of the special issue, Gruen and Weil invited six scholars to reflect on some of the lively debates occurring within this burgeoning new field of scholarship. Join the discussion.

Title:  Speaking of Animal Bodies


Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin-River Falls

Read the full special issue here

Download a PDF of this Symposium

Has the growth of animal studies been good for animals?

The capacity to ask this question—indeed, to make it central to one’s intellectual, scholarly, and pedagogical work—is the hallmark of feminism. Not merely an academic endeavor or a “way of seeing,” feminism emerged through women who recognized their own lived experiences of marginalization, oppression, and inequality (whether via race, gender, class, sexuality, age, ability—and usually some nexus thereof) not as personal deficits or biological necessities to be accepted and endured, but rather as socially produced political problems to be challenged. As political and material circumstances allowed (and often when they didn’t), feminist women stepped forward to work with other women and feminist men to challenge social hierarchies and create social change. From the start, feminism has been a movement for justice: at its heart is the centrality of praxis, the necessary linkage of intellectual, political, and activist work. Feminist methodology puts the lives of the oppressed at the center of the research question, and undertakes studies, gathers data, and interrogates material contexts with the primary aim of improving the lives and the material conditions of the oppressed.

When feminists attend to “the question of the animal,” they do so from a standpoint that centers other animals, makes connections among diverse forms of oppression, and seeks to put an end to animal suffering—in other words, to benefit the subject of the research. Nineteenth-century women’s advocacy for animals challenged vivisection, “plumage” (the practice of wearing birds’ feathers or even body parts in women’s hats), fur-wearing and meat-eating alike. Using standard feminist methodology, twentieth-century vegan feminists and animal ecofeminists sought to end animal suffering in its many manifestations (in scientific research, and specifically in the feminized beauty and cleaning products industries; in dairy, egg, and animal food production; in “pet” keeping and breeding, zoos, rodeos, hunting, fur, and clothing) by developing a feminist theoretical perspective on the intersections of species, gender, race, class, sexuality, and nature. Motivated by an intellectual and experiential understanding of the mutually reinforcing interconnections among diverse forms of oppression, as well as by many women’s interconnected sense of self-identity, a self-in-relationship to other animals (including humans) and environments (specific trees, rivers, plants, as well as places), twentieth- and twenty-first-century animal ecofeminists and vegan feminists see their own liberation and well-being as fundamentally connected to the well-being of other animal species; in short, we insist on moving forward together (Harper 2010; Kemmerer 2011). This commitment to an intersectional approach permeates the praxis of animal ecofeminists and vegan feminists because, in the words of Martin Luther King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

So, for example, when Feminists for Animal Rights (FAR) activists learned that many battered women refused to leave situations of domestic violence, aware that there was no place that would shelter both their children and their companion animals, and fearful that leaving the animals behind would almost ensure the animals’ torture, abuse, and death at the hands of the batterer, FAR activists began building coalitions between animal rescue groups and battered women’s shelters (Adams 1995). When animal ecofeminists criticized the harms produced by injecting rBGH into cows, they acknowledged the suffering this growth hormone caused to lactating cows already grieving the separation from their own offspring (calves who would drink the mother cow’s milk, preventing it from being sold to humans)—but ecofeminists also framed the issue as an opportunity to build coalitions among animal advocates, feminists, small farmers, consumer advocates, and environmentalists (Gaard 1994). There are other examples of such praxis that exemplify feminist animal studies.

Yet feminist empathy for animal suffering was soon feminized, and women’s activism for animal rights was mocked as a movement of “emotional little old ladies in tennis shoes”: in male-supremacist (patriarchal) cultures, the association of women and animals reinforces their subordinate status. Indeed, the animal rights movement itself was catapulted to respectability, insofar as it has been, only when white male philosophers distanced themselves from kindness, empathy, or care, and theorized about the motives for animal liberation as legitimated either by recourse to animal rights (Regan 1983) or attention to animal suffering (Singer 1975). Nearly thirty years later, Cary Wolfe echoes the Singer/Regan era in his claim that “taking animal studies seriously thus has nothing to do, strictly speaking, with whether or not you like animals” (Wolfe 2009, 567). Between these two eras of animal rights/posthumanist studies prominence, feminist animal scholarship flourished.

Building on three decades of praxis by second-wave feminist animal advocates, feminists theorizing about species, gender, nature, and race offered more nuanced and sophisticated corrections to the theories of Singer and Regan (for history, see Gaard 2002). Beginning in the 1990s, vegan feminists and animal ecofeminists began developing animal ethics of care (Adams and Donovan 1995; 1996), contextual moral vegetarianism (Curtin 1991), challenging the gendered dualisms at the foundation of Western culture, redefining human self-identity as political animals, and strategically situating humans within realms of both culture and nature—a location supporting feminist activism for ecology, democracy, and interspecies and environmental justice.1

Yet despite the theoretical scholarship and political activism of animal ecofeminists and vegan feminists, the visibility of animals within the academy did not take hold. Perhaps attending to anthro(andro)centrism, sexism, and speciesism was just too burdensome for animal ecofeminism’s potential allies. Mainstream feminists of the 1990s seemed adamantly anthropocentric (see discussions by Gruen 1993; Birke 2002; Gaard 2011), with even ecological feminists misrepresenting animal ecofeminists as issuing universalizing mandates for veganism, and thereby evading their own responsibility for attending to animals for at least another decade (Plumwood 2000; Seager 2003). A second group of potential allies, environmental studies scholars and activists, resisted analysis of both gender and species; race and class gained attention within environmental circles after the 1991 First National People of Color Environmental Conference, but familiar patterns persisted there as well, with women doing the bulk of the grassroots activism, and men doing the majority of speaking and theorizing, excluding the question of the animal from most definitions of “environment.” No one should have been surprised, then, when the confluence of Derrida’s discovery of himself as an animal (Derrida 2002), Wolfe’s coinage of the term “posthumanism” (Wolfe 2003), and Haraway’s exploration of dog training (Haraway 2003) together catapulted the field of animal studies into academic respectability.

Such surprise could be possible only if one forgot the foundational scholarship of feminist communication studies that exposed the gendered patterns of communication (Lakoff 1975; Spender 1980; Kramarae 1981). Women’s talk is subordinated through the use of tag questions (“it seems women are being excluded, doesn’t it?”), hedges (“sort of” or “kind of unscholarly to do that”), apologies (“I’m sorry, but it seems vegan feminist scholarship isn’t being read”), and frequent interruptions. Women’s gendered role in conversation requires linguistic support for and stylistic accommodation to dominant speakers, rather than conversational innovation. The norm dictates that women and men continue topics introduced by men, but when women introduce new topics, these topics are rarely taken up (conversational “uptake” in mixed-power groups is less likely for topics introduced by women and other nondominant groups). Consider the well-known phenomenon of the department or staff meeting, where a woman introduces a new idea that receives no response; later, a man introduces substantially the same idea, which is welcomed with acclaim! Perhaps something similar has occurred in this field of knowledge about animals, where feminists have been developing theory around species, identity, oppression, relationality, society, and ecology for at least three decades, but the topic itself only punctures the glass ceiling and surfaces as an academically respectable field when articulated by the dominant group of scholars—Singer and Regan in the 1970s and 1980s, and now Derrida, Wolfe, and Haraway by 2010.2

Feminist communication scholarship has looked not only at whose speech merits attention, but also at who listens; speaking is associated with power, knowledge, and dominance, whereas listening is associated with subordination. If animal ecofeminists and vegan feminists have been speaking and acting in ways that articulate a feminist animal studies approach, the absence of their scholarship from the foundation and development of animal studies indicates that the academic elite have not been listening. Not surprisingly, feminist methodology emphasizes listening as a hallmark of good scholarship—listening to one’s research subjects, to the oppressed, to one’s activist and scholarly community—and creating structures for collaboration whereby the research subjects can themselves set the agenda, express needs, and benefit from the scholarly endeavor. These “listening failures” in animal studies scholarship are not merely a bibliographical matter of failing to cite feminists, but signify a more profound conceptual failure to grapple with the issues being raised by feminist scholarship, a failure made more egregious when similar ideas are later celebrated if presented via nonfeminist sources. For example, consider how Carol Adams (Adams 2010) helpfully augments Cary Wolfe’s (Wolfe 2003) complication of the human/animal binary with categories not just of Wolfe’s humanized human, animalized human, humanized animal, and animalized animal, but also animalized woman and feminized animal, terms that foreground the gender/species/ecology connections that are so relevant to ecological feminism—and, one might hope, to animal studies as well.

Reproduction and consumption are explored within animal studies, but these topics are feminist issues as well: across animal species, female bodies do the majority of labor in reproduction, and in most human cultures female bodies both serve and are served as the food. Feminist concerns about reproductive freedom apply not only to elite white women but to poor women, indigenous women, women of the global south, and females in factory farming operations as well; from an animal ecofeminist standpoint, the reproductive and sexual enslavement of female animal bodies always raises ethical concerns (Gaard 2010). This practice benefits the few at the expense and suffering of the many: the female animals, their mates and offspring, the workers paid to slaughter them, the subsistence farmers driven out of work by industrial agribusiness, the land clear-cut or polluted with excrement, the water contaminated with antibiotics and growth hormones, the air polluted with excesses of flatulence and carbon dioxide, and the consumers who contract heart disease, obesity, and a variety of cancers and infectious diseases.

What are the benefits of making connections between the insights produced through animal studies and those of a larger ecocultural critique such as a postcolonial, ecological animal feminism? Clearly, such connections extend theory from the realm of the purely intellectual to that of the political. They expose the broader implications and deeper roots of animal studies insights, making the theory more relevant. In many cases, such connections expose our own role in oppressive structures—as consumers of suffering, as contributors to climate change, as sponsors of global food scarcity—and such exposure is not flattering. Moreover, these connections uncover the historical role human–animal relations have played in perpetuating colonization (Huggan and Tiffin 2010)—making it paradoxical for postcolonial scholars and animal studies scholars alike to continue patronizing institutions of species imprisonment, enslavement, and slaughter. In sum, making these broader connections requires restoring what Adams calls “the absent referent” (Adams 1990/2010), the fragmented bodies of animals, and in the face of such suffering, it requires action. In the words of Josephine Donovan, “We should not kill, eat, torture, and exploit animals because they do not want to be so treated, and we know that. If we listen, we can hear them” (Donovan 1990).

Let’s start listening.

    1. Posthumanism also reconceives human identity, adopting the strategy of interrogating the norm (used productively in queer theory to interrogate heteronormativity, for example, and in antiracist studies to interrogate whiteness)—but its theory seems to stop after reconceiving what it means to be human, requiring no particular action after linguistic deconstruction. As Kari Weil concludes, “In the wake of poststructuralist and postmodern decenterings that have displaced the human as a standard for knowledge, [posthumanist] theory finds itself in a similar predicament. It cannot avoid seeing the animal suffering around us, but has contradictory foundations on which to judge the good or the right thing to do about it” (Weil 2010, 20).
    2. Haraway’s inclusion in the elite of animal studies can perhaps be explained by her accommodation of a dominant discursive style that shapes not only diction and syntax but also topics. As Haraway has admitted, her interests in dog training do not lead her to refrain from eating other animals (Potts and Haraway 2010), and she is committed to killing other animals, but hopes we can kill responsibly.

One thought on “Hypatia Symposium: Speaking of Animal Bodies by GRETA GAARD”

  1. I would like to highlight Greta Gaard’s observation that within mainstream philosophy women philosophers are not read as widely as men, particularly when those women are feminist philosophers. Unfortunately, this seems true across the board; even many of our male colleagues who consider themselves feminist do not engage with women writers in their own research. Hopefully with younger generations and more women philosophers this is changing.

    WIthin animal studies, although sexism and racism have become tokens exchanged back and forth in animal rights debates over speciesism, the most prominent of this literature does not actually engage with feminism or critical race theory or actual concerns or theoretical issues raised by sexism and racism. Often it seems as if women’s liberation movements and feminist concerns about sexism are merely *used* for rhetorical force to make arguments about animals.

    Certainly Derrida’s writings on animals have opened up Continental philosophy to animal welfare issues in new ways. And although Derrida, unlike other prominent philosophers, *is* always mindful of issues of sexual difference, even he rarely cites women writers.

    Finally, although only indirectly related to animal ethics and feminism, I want to mention a recent experience I had entering the debates in bioethics over genetic enhancements. I was stunned to see that whole bookshelves full of philosophical “takes” on “reproductive choice” and “reproductive freedom” have blossomed in the last decade with rarely a mention of the discourse out of which the very language of “reproductive choice” and “reproductive freedom” arose, namely the women’s movement and feminism.

    Kelly Oliver
    W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy, Vanderbilt University

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