Carol J. Adams


"Very Vegetarian,"

November/December 2002, 36-37, 50-51
Nervy Girl: The Thinking Woman's Magazine

Interview by Leah Bobal

Carol Adams' groundbreaking first book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, published in 1990, set the foundation for feminist-vegetarian theory by recognizing the relationship between the treatment of animals and the treatment of women. Since then, she has authored and edited books and articles on eco-feminism, domestic violence, vegetarianism and animal advocacy.

In the 1970s, Adams started working as an anti-violence activist, in addition to fighting racism, poverty, and sexism. She started a hotline for battered women in rural New York after finishing her Masters of Divinity from Yale Divinity School in 1976. Adams has also served as the Chairperson of the Housing Committee of the New York Governor's Commission on Domestic Violence (1984-87). She currently lives in Texas, where she enjoys yoga, meditation, and creating vegan meals.

As well as speaking on vegetarian and feminist issues, Adams has presented her Sexual Politics of Meat Slide Show at universities across the country. Adam's work is also featured in A Cow at My Table, an award-winning documentary on our relationship with non-humans by Vancouver filmmaker Jennifer Abbott. Adams is currently at work on her new book, The Pornography of Meat. A kind, powerfully cerebral woman, Adams talks here with Nervy Girl! about the past, present, and future of vegetarianism.

Why did you become a vegetarian?

Feminist philosopher Sandra Barky observed that "feminists don't see different things than other people, they see the same things differently." I became a vegetarian because I started to see the same things differently. Specifically, the death of my pony prompted me to see differently. At the end of my first year of Yale Divinity School, I returned home to Forestville, New York, the small upstate town where I had grown up. As I was unpacking I heard a furious knocking at the door. Our neighbor greeted me as I opened the door. He exclaimed, "Someone has just shot your pony!" I ran, with my neighbor, up to the back pasture behind our barn, and found the dead body of the pony I had loved. Those barefoot steps through the thorns and manure of an old apple orchard took me face-to-face with a non-human's death. That evening as I bit into the hamburger, distraught about my pony's death, I stopped mid-bite. I was thinking about one dead animal yet eating another dead animal. What was the difference between this dead cow and the dead pony whom I would be burying the next day? I could summon no ethical defense for a favoritism that would exclude the cow from my concern because I had not known her. Now I saw the same thing differently.

What are your feelings on the general use of the term "vegetarian"? Is it important to stick to definitions or is there room for flexibility? What's your definition of vegetarian?

I like the term vegetarian. It is a case of "self-naming." Vegetarians themselves chose the word, not from "vegetable," but from the Latin vegetus, that is, lively. But the word vegetarian is in trouble because omnivores who do not eat four-legged animals think they are vegetarians. This happens, I think, because "meat" is often equated with "red" meat. So people think there are such beings as "pollo-vegetarians" or "pesco-vegetarians." Also, because many people think it is healthier not to eat meat from four-legged animals, but think it's healthy to eat meat from dead chickens or dead fishes.

Most vegetarians have had the experience of discovering that this "pseudo-vegetarian" has preceded them to a restaurant and calling themselves "vegetarians" ordered chicken or fish. This teaches everyone they interact with that a vegetarian eats dead animals. When an actual vegetarian enters that same restaurant, or eats with the same friends who have been exposed to the faux vegetarian, we are the ones who might be offered food from someone with a face.

For me, vegetarianism is less a health issue than an ethical issue. The great writer Isaac Bashevis Singer said, "I don't do it for the health of myself; I do it for the health of the chickens."

How are the treatment of animals and the treatment of women linked in our culture?

We live in a racist, patriarchal world in which men still have considerable power over women, both in the public sphere (employment, politics) and in the private sphere (at home, where woman-battering results in the death of four women a day in this country). Gender is not about difference, it is about dominance. The way gender is structured into our world--the way that men have power over women--is related to how we view animals, especially animals who are consumed.

For a long time what was human was really white male. Manhood meant "not woman nor animal"; and woman was not included in manhood because she was both woman and animal. We get movements that try to expand the definition of human because the recognition is that when something is defined as not human it does not have to be taken seriously -- it can be abused, it can be misused.

Oppression requires violence and implements of violence. This violence usually involves three things: objectification of a being so that she is seen as an object rather than as a living, breathing, suffering being; fragmentation, or butchering, so that the being's existence as a complete being is destroyed; and then consumption -- either literal consumption of the non-human animal or consumption of the fragmented woman through pornography, through prostitution, through rape, through battering.

Briefly delineate the heart of feminist-vegetarian theory you originally outlined in The Sexual Politics of Meat.

The Sexual Politics of Meat means that what, or more precisely who, we eat is determined by the patriarchal politics of our culture, and that the meanings attached to meat eating include meanings around virility. The Sexual Politics of Meat argues that the way gender politics is structured into our world is related to how we view animals, especially animals who are consumed. Patriarchy is a gender system that is implicit in human/animal relationships. Moreover, gender construction includes instruction about appropriate foods. Being a man in our culture is tied to identities that they either claim or disown -- what "real" men do and don't do. It's not only an issue of privilege, it's an issue of symbolism. Manhood is constructed in our culture, in part, by access to meat eating and control of other bodies.

Everyone is affected by the sexual politics of meat. We may dine at a restaurant in Chicago and encounter this menu item: "Double D Cup Breast of Turkey. This sandwich is so BIG." Through the sexual politics of meat, consuming images such as this provide a way for our culture to talk openly about, and joke about, the objectification of women without having to acknowledge it. The sexual politics of meat also works at another level: the ongoing superstition that meat gives strength and that men need meat. There has been a resurgence of "beef madness" in which meat is associated with masculinity.

This is tied to a mythology about strength--men need strength, they get it from meat--of course, numerous vegetarian sports figures refute this myth, but myths are hard to quarrel with. It is also tied to the historic class association of meat as an upper class food, especially in Europe in the past few centuries (they were the only ones with access to huge amounts of meat every day). A sexist culture will recreate the class system in relationships between men and women--men have access to that which women cannot. So, it was assumed that men deserve, or have the right to meat in a family. It was the male prerogative.

Finally, there is a sense that meat will make men happy with you--his partner. Throughout the years, there have been articles telling women how to fix meat so that their man will be happy. An example from the 1990s is a ridiculous article in one woman's magazine (written by a former New York Times columnist!) that began "What do men want? In my experience the answer is great sex and a great steak and not necessarily in that order."

Now, I have to say, that is a pretty limited view of men too. Why buy into assumptions about limiting roles such as these?

In The Sexual Politics of Meat I argued that women become vegetarians for several reason. As we become in touch with our bodies, we learn to listen to them, and we notice that we feel better after going without meat. In addition, many women, because of the way we are raised, have an ethic that isn't about rights (who has rights and why) but about care (who needs our help and why). This happens simply by looking down at one's plate and realizing, "I am eating a dead animal. How did that animal die? How did that animal live? Why am I participating in this?"

You have a new book coming out, how does it build on the foundation set by Sexual Politics?

The Pornography of Meat examines the way popular culture, advertisements, and pornography together create a hostile, demeaning environment for women and animals that parades as "fun." It shows how animals are sexualized/feminized and women are animalized. It introduces the idea of "anthropornography"--depicting animals as whores, and gives examples from advertisements that do this. Examining the "female of the species," I show how women become bearers of "species-identity" and farmed animals have lost status in our culture because of the necessity to control the female of the species to ensure the reproduction of animals so that they can become meat. So species becomes a category that is associated with "female."

After over 20 years as a feminist vegetarian, do you see any changes in how we treat animals/and or women?

I wish I could say I do...but the government bolsters the dairy and the meat industries. Slaughterhouses have quickened the kill line, so that the workers must handle (kill and dismember) animals at a frighteningly quick pace. When I wrote Sexual Politics of Meat, in 1990, an estimated 6 billion land animals died a year for meat eaters in the U.S. meat-eaters. By the time the tenth anniversary edition of The Sexual Politics of Meat came out, that number was at 9 billion and growing.

In addition, pornography has grown incredibly through the Internet. Pornography makes women's inequality sexy. The good news is that more and more activists are making the connections between a patriarchal world view and how we treat the other animals and the Earth. The fact is that vegetarianism has made serious inroads into the popular consciousness these days--big companies in the States are buying up health food companies and soy producers left and right.

Many meat eaters claim that it is "natural" for humans to eat meat. What is your take on this argument?

There are two things we need to respond to when meat eating is "naturalized." One is that, supposedly, we humans get to eat animals because we_re different from animals -- and then suddenly the justification for eating these non-humans is that other non-humans do it. We become inconsistent. Secondly -- and I think this is part of patriarchal culture -- we not only symbolically uphold carnivores in our culture, we uphold what are called the top carnivores, carnivores that actually eat other carnivores. Most meat-eaters eat herbivores. Humans are a good example -- we eat cows, lambs, etc. Yet we uphold lions and eagles in a cultural mythology — carnivorous beings who are actually more carnivorous than we are. (The fact is, less than six percent of animals actually are carnivorous.)

I think what is actually going on with that argument is that people are building defenses around their meat eating because they are already uncomfortable with the fact that they are eating dead animals. They simply engage us with these arguments that aren't really very logical to keep themselves from engaging with their own relationship to vegetarianism.

In Neither Man Nor Beast, you discuss privilege. It seems now that grains/vegetables etc.--foods that were once considered only for second class citizens (rich people ate meat)--are now luxury goods in the US. Specifically, I'm referring to organic produce and meat alternatives sold at health food stores. How can we make these healthy alternatives more affordable?

First, the government provides price support to the dairy and meat industry. If we didn't have a socialized governmental relationship to those industries hamburgers would be $35. Pretty quickly veganism would be seen for what it is: an inexpensive way of eating. Second, it has been suggested that we should include our health and food expenses together--then the cost of a vegan diet would be seen to be incredibly cheaper. In the United States, six out of the 10 leading deadly diseases have been related to the high fat, high cholesterol meat and dairy diet. Third, the reason the majority of the world existed primarily on a vegetarian diet was because grains, legumes, beans are inexpensive.

How is vegetarianism a spiritual practice for you? How has being a vegetarian changed your life?

By deciding to change to become a vegetarianism and then by changing, I began to experience the world in a more positive way. I learned how to make a commitment through vegetarianism, and then I learned how to keep a commitment. Anyone who wants to change the world or themselves can learn this too. Vegetarianism offers this to everyone.

I believe that we human beings often fail to recognize that we are animals, that we are really a part of nature, that we are all interconnected and interrelated. Living a spiritual life, for me, means honoring these interrelationships.

For me, doing the least harm possible is a very spiritual path and a path with integrity. People think they're going to harm themselves by giving up meat — there's some protective nature there that keeps them from connecting the dots about the environment and human well-being and health. Vegetarianism arises from a desire for wholeness; it is a spiritual practice that links us to the rest of nature and the rest of our own nature; it acknowledges the interconnectedness of all beings and enacts compassion toward them; it is a living ahimsa, the absence of violence.

To be a vegetarian is to be a witness: I will do the least harm possible. To be a vegetarian is to celebrate good food from the earth. To be a vegetarian is to experience grace, and on this grace I feed. A spiritual life is a life of abundance, but when it comes to meat-eating, people think they're going to experience scarcity. The most important thing vegans can do is simply live a life of abundance.

In the preface to Neither Man Nor Beast you relate that your primary commitment has been the Feminist movement. Why was that? Has your perspective changed over the years, to say, commit yourself to the animal rights movement instead?

When I say my primary commitment is to the feminist movement, I am not saying that I am not committed to the animal rights movement. I don't see the first commitment as eliminating other commitments. I mean that my advocacy for animals is done from a feminist perspective and maintains connections between animal and women's oppressions. For instance, the issue of violence against women includes the issue of harm to animals by batterers. Until we hold a batterer accountable, his partner and any animals that live with them are in danger. Or the issue of abortion rights. Some animal rights activists argue that animal rights should be against abortion. But from a feminist perspective, I see that the issue is forced pregnancies: I am against the forced pregnancies of women and of females of other species. So feminism provides the context for advocating for animals. This is key since some animal rights ad campaigns can end up being misogynist when they are cut off from a larger societal analysis.

What are some actions feminist vegetarians can take to encourage vegetarianism?

Cook delicious vegans meals and share them. Order pamphlets like "Why Vegan?" and "Vegetarian Living" or "101 Reasons I'm a Vegetarian," by Pamela Rice, and hand them out. Work with battered women's shelters to insure that resources are available for the companion animals of battered women and offer to cook a vegan meal there. If you are students or scholars, pursue feminist-vegetarian ideas through writing papers. When feminist conferences offer dead animals for food, write thoughtful letters that raise the issue of  feminist-vegetarianism. Write letters to the local paper and respond to sexist/speciesist ideas, especially when you see them combined. Enjoy life. Feel that your veganism is making a difference and see it as an opportunity to do the least harm possible. Don't feel you have to answer every argument you hear from a meat eater. Feel relaxed about it. Buy books that you believe in and give them as gifts. Spread the word.

What is your hope for the future of vegetarianism?

Way back in 1976 I wrote that if feminists' vision is for a world without oppression, where does meat-eating fit into that vision? My hope is that we work toward a world without oppression and we do it with awareness that we are not the only species on the earth. Think of it this way: By becoming vegetarians, women reduce their risk to six out of the 10 leading diseases; so, by choosing to be vegetarian, feminists can add a few years of activism to their lives.

A feminist-vegetarian ethic: an interview with Carol Adams

95, no. 9 (September 2002), 10-13
Witness Magazine

by Marianne Arbogast

Carol Adams is an ecofeminist theologian, writer and activist who has worked extensively in the fields of domestic violence and animal advocacy.

The Witness: How do you see the connection between oppression of animals and the oppression of women and other human beings?

Carol Adams: For one thing, we often exhibit an anxiety about what we define as human, and historically western culture has controlled that definition very tightly. For a long time what was human was really white male. There's a feminist historian who said the period of time after the American Revolution was a very traumatic time period for women, because you had all this talk about human rights and yet women's rights were receding during that time. Human was defined as man, and implicitly it was defined as white.

We get movements that try to expand the definition of human because the recognition is that when something is defined as not human it does not have to be taken seriously -- it can be abused, it can be misused. When I see the pin, 'Feminism is the radical notion that women are human,' I can't agree with that. I don't want to simply redefine human to include women. I want to problematize the definition of human, and especially the theological point of view that there's God, us humans and everyone else in this hierarchy. Secondly, we can't accept the notion that the ends justify the means. And it seems to me that both meat-eating and the oppression of other people are justified because the end result is something that people want. In The Sexual Politics of Meat, I talk about the structure of the absent referent, that animals are made absent to meat-eating because they're killed. And they're made absent conceptually -- people really don't want to be reminded that they're eating a dead cow, a butchered lamb, a slaughtered pig. And the absent referent then becomes a free-floating thing. For instance, meat becomes a metaphor for what happens to women. Other beings who are not held in high regard may be equally victimized by the means/ends dichotomy. Thirdly, I'm against violence. Do the least harm possible. Oppression requires violence and implements of violence, and this violence usually involves three things: objectification of a being so that the being is seen as an object rather than as a living, breathing, suffering being; fragmentation, or butchering, so that the being's existence as a complete being is destroyed one way or another; and then consumption -- either literal consumption of the non-human animal or consumption of the fragmented woman through pornography, through prostitution, through rape, through battering. So I see a structure that creates entitlement to abuse because within the structure of the absent referent the states of objectification and fragmentation disappear and the consumed object is experienced without a past, without a history, without a biography, without individuality.

The Witness: Many people today, especially with the growth of the environmental movement, would say that we shouldn't mistreat the earth or non-human creatures -- but they would see the food chain as a natural or divinely ordained thing, and would not see animals eating animals and humans eating non-human animals as mistreatment.

Carol Adams: I think we end up with two problems within religious circles. Meat-eating is both naturalized and spiritualized. This happened at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) where we did the first-ever panel on animals several years ago. What was so profound about the experience was that the arguments I heard from people there -- the scholars -- were the same arguments I hear when I'm on call-in radio stations here in Texas. When it comes to animals, the level of engagement and thought is pretty undeveloped.

So meat-eating is naturalized. There are two things we need to respond to here. One is that, supposedly, we humans get to eat animals because we're different from animals -- and then suddenly the justification for eating these non-humans is that other non-humans do it. We become inconsistent.

Secondly -- and I think this is part of patriarchal culture -- we not only symbolically uphold carnivores in our culture, we uphold what are called the top carnivores, carnivores that actually eat other carnivores. Most meat-eaters eat herbivores. Humans are a good example -- we eat cows, lambs, etc. Yet we uphold lions and eagles in a cultural mythology -- carnivorous beings who are actually more carnivorous than we are. The fact is, less than 6 percent of animals actually are carnivorous. We just have such an overabundance of carnivorous examples around -- nature shows celebrate the carnivore -- that we have a skewed view of why other animals actually die. Most other animals do not die because they are eaten by carnivores.

Now there are some people -- ecologists, environmentalists -- who say, I want to use everything and I thank the animal for the sacrifice, etc. I feel that this has a tendency to use the sacrificial language that Christianity has sort of sanctified without ever saying, well, maybe it's our turn to sacrifice. Why all these years is it only the nonhumans who are to sacrifice themselves to the humans? Maybe it's time for the humans to sacrifice ourselves to the nonhumans by not eating them. And secondly, how do we know that those animals wanted to be sacrificed -- especially if that argument is coming from someone who is not a hunter? They use -- in a sense they abuse -- a native relationship with animals. Out of all the native ways of relating to nonhumans, the only ones that are brought into the dominant culture are the ones that can be used to justify what we're already doing. There are lots of native cultures that didn't eat animals.

When we were at the AAR somebody stood up and said, it's a dog-eat-dog world. Well, my response is, no it isn't, dogs aren't eating dogs. Andrew Linzey, who really pioneered in this field, asked, didn't Jesus come to change that world? If we're Christians, why do we accept that it's a dog-eat-dog world in any of our relationships?

And if the naturalizing argument doesn't work, then the spiritualizing argument comes in: Well, we were given dominion, we are not like the other animals. But what is that dominion? The dominion in Gen. 1:26 is granted within a vegan world.

People spiritualize and they naturalize because they don't want to change -- you could easily spiritualize and naturalize a whole different argument.

The Witness: You have advocated an ethic of care, rather than animal rights. How is this different?

Carol Adams: Well, my concern about animal rights language is that it arises within the same philosophical framework that gave us a differentiation between what was man/human and everyone else. The universal rights language is part of the notion of the Enlightenment man, who was an autonomous being separate from everyone else. In fact, no one is autonomous. We first learn in relationship. We learn to walk, we learn to talk in relationships. So the ethics of care critiques the notion of the autonomous man upon which the fundamental right is based.

But secondly, the language of animal rights came out of a need to prove that not only was it non-emotional, but it was manly. We're not getting upset about non-humans, it's not that it's upsetting -- it's the right thing to do. And some of us have come along and said, it is upsetting. Being upset is a legitimate form of knowledge. Why can't we trust anger and other emotions that we feel when we hear about chickens being de-beaked and veal calves being removed from their mothers in less than 24 hours? Why can't outrage and caring truly inform who we are as people?

People come back and say, you're saying women care more than men. No, we're saying that a male-identified form of thinking has triumphed over a female-identified form of responding and thinking.

The Witness: Part of your argument is that we're dissociated from the animal we're actually eating, we don't see the animal because we've made it into 'meat.' But there's another kind of argument that says that the real problem is that we have become separated from farming, for instance, and living close to the land; that we're separated from all of those natural realities, and if we feel bad when we think about it it's just some kind of sentimentalism because farmers or hunters don't feel bad. Some people in the men's movement have felt they ought to go out and kill a deer almost as a ritual.

Carol Adams: So what's wrong with being sentimental? It goes back to the ethics of care. Perhaps sentiment is what we need. If there's something that makes you uneasy, perhaps the thing is not to conform your emotions to what culture is telling you, but to conform culture to what your emotions are telling you, which is that there might be something wrong here. I grew up in a farming community. I watched butchering as a child. My sister was allowed to dip the dead pig into the boiling water and there was a sort of gothic fascination there. And I'd go home and eat meat -- there was a complete disconnect. We were fascinated, but those animals were others, those animals were objectified beings. It is a violent process -- and most animals are not butchered down on the farm, they are butchered in a horrendous way.

And I think that this 'be-a-man' notion is exactly what, as Christians, we challenge. What's the shortest verse in the Bible? 'Jesus wept.' What did Jesus do in the Temple? What was happening in the Temple? Animals were being sold, for heaven's sakes. Jesus was angry about a lot of things, but perhaps one of them was that other beings were being sold there.

The Witness: How do you see vegetarianism as a spiritual path?

Carol Adams: For me, doing the least harm possible is a very spiritual path and a path with integrity. People think they're going to harm themselves by giving up meat -- there's some protective nature there that keeps them from connecting the dots about the environment and human well-being and health. It would be helpful for people to feel like being on a spiritual path includes interacting with change, even at the most basic level of what we're going to eat. Spiritual life is a life of abundance, but when it comes to meat-eating people think they're going to experience scarcity. The most important thing vegans can do is simply live a life of abundance.

Living Among Meat Eaters: An Interview with Carol Adams

vol. 2, no. 6 (December 1995), pp. 6-7, 12
Satya: A Magazine of Vegetarianism, Environmentalism, and Animal Advocacy

Carol Adams sees feminism as a visionary philosophy that includes stewardship of the earth.

Carol Adams has been working within the fields of violence against women and children and vegetarianism and animal advocacy for over twenty years. She is the author of a number of books, most notably The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory and Neither Man nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense of Animals. With Josephine Donovan, she has edited two volumes on feminism and animal issues. She lives outside of Dallas, Texas.

Q: To start with the obvious question. How do you live among meateaters?

A: I think one way I handle living among meateaters that I now ask them about it. On the plane last night I was sitting next to a child psychologist and we talked about the fact that I had had a vegetarian meal and he had eaten dead chicken. It was very fascinating because, when you say you're writing about it, then you can say to them: "So tell me. You've said that you know it's ethically wrong; so what happens when you sit down to eat meat?" Instead of me being seen as someone saying, "Look, you're doing something wrong; why do you keep doing this?" I get to ask a question which prompts them to reflect on what is the process that's cutting them off from their own ethical awareness. He talked about having a hole in his conscience and I said, "Yes, but I don't think so. Because our whole culture says it's okay." "Well," he said, "We've got a collective hole in our conscience."

Q: Do you feel angry?

A: When the New York Times has a whole article about the growth of factory farms with pigs and the effect of that on the environment and people, and it completely ignores animals, I feel very angry. But I take that anger and use it interpretively: what does this represent? What's going on here? So, theoretically, I can engage it even more; because I want to try and understand it and how we change it. Personally, I think I realized I needed to begin negotiating with people about what they were going to order at a restaurant, and giving myself permission to say what I want to say. Sometimes what meateaters do is so blatantly open to analysis that it leaves me dumbstruck. So I guess what I've done is I've taken that ongoing maddening frustration and anger and I've finally moved that so that it doesn't paralyze or immobilize me and I continue to see this whole thing as a process. After all, I used to be a meateater; I'm living among people who haven't completed the process that vegetarians go through.

Q: Do you find it always useful to go back into that mindset, and think, "Well, how did I go about denying this?" And how do we negotiate our families?

A: I think one we have personally handled this is we exiled ourselves. My whole family's in the north, I'm in Dallas. I don't go home for most of the important rituals I would usually have to sit through. So that I can exercise that kind of control. I did successfully negotiate a vegetarian barbecue, where the only thing barbecued were Notdogs and Boca Burgers. And it was a big success, but I had to negotiate that in advance. Some of the family members are very interested in vegetarianism; and some of my family members are very gourmet, controlling... So we don't talk about it. After all, meateaters live among meateaters. Everything they do is mirrored back to them as okay. Another way I handle that is through a feminist understanding of social process. For me it's becoming more and more profound that the way pornography mirrors back a message about who women are is the way a meateating culture mirrors back a message about what–not who--animals are. So, trying to reconfigure our conceptualization is very important.

Q: Do you think we should talk back, as it were?

A: I think it is important sometimes to talk back. First of all, I do think that vegetarians think more literally than others, because you are restoring the "absent referent." We are not seeing food; we're seeing a corpse, we're seeing dead animals. Because we think literally as well metaphorically, our attempt to move the literal issue will arouse a certain degree of hostility and distress because our culture in general wants to move away from the literal. It wants to disengage. For instance, we don't want to know where our clothes come from. We don't want to know that the clothing is being made by children or women in terrible situations. We don't to restore that absent referent; we don't want the literal truth of what our culture produces for us to consume to be known. Secondly, I always say that vegetarians should not engage the issue of vegetarianism if there is a dead animal present and being eaten. Because there's just too much tension. The meateater is going to further need to justify what they're doing; even if they're not conscious of it. Because they're consuming at the moment.

Q: Do you agree with Karen Davis that we need to stop apologizing?

A: I love that. We do need to stop apologizing. Now I think Karen would operate differently about all this. She is adamant about the ethical stance, that we don't look away, that we don't refuse to engage. And I agree; and I'm not talking about apology. I'm not saying that we need a rhetoric of apology: "Oh, I'm so sorry I got you upset." But what I'm trying to do is push and say, "What makes you feel upset?" I think the process is not for us to say why we're vegetarians so much, because we're on the other side of that process. The process is to figure out what is catalytic for that person. Instead of me defending vegetarianism while people eat meat; I say, "How is it that you can keep eating meat when you know that it's cruel? I don't think we have to defend our diet. I think we need neither apology nor defensiveness. I remember the movie Babe. In a sense, to avoid consumption, Babe has to establish his individuality and thus his irreplaceability. He succeeds in being seen as a body with a biography, an individuality, and thus he succeeds in staying alive. But there's also a duck trying to establish his irreplaceability because ducks are seen as collective. They're collectived, seen as mass terms even when alive. But a duck is killed and the corpse is eaten at Christmas Time. At the end of the movie, when the credits were rolling it said that there was no cruelty against animals in this film. So my six-year-old said, "Does that mean they ate fake meat?" Which I felt was so profound, because we do not in our culture think it is cruel to eat animals. I mean a six year old vegetarian can just wipe away the whole culture of apology. What we need to do is create a wedge, and this guy last night said that something innovative takes quite a while to be accepted. He predicted that 200 years from now people wouldn't eat animals. And I said, "I don't want to wait 200 years. That's a lot of animals."

Q: I don't know we have 200 years to wait.

A: Well, yes. We don't. I can't say I have a blueprint for how to solve these family things. Because I do think that whatever issue a family or couple has, meateating and vegetarianism become vehicles for displacing those relationship issues that haven't been dealt with. So that it gets even further confusing. For a couple, for instance, the meateating/vegetarian issue will end up being about control: what can be brought into a kitchen; what pots can be used. All of those things become media of controlling behavior and for manipulating issues about love and affection.

Q: Is that because meat is a locus of power? Is that part of the whole process of thinking about meat?

A: Well, let's talk specifically about what is usually the make-up of this couple: which is usually that it's the woman who is the vegetarian and the man who is the meateater. I was just reading Carol Pateman's The Sexual Contract. She's talking about the wife and the status of wives. Before we ever had rights talk, before this notion of "fraternity, equality, liberty," before there was the Social Contract that is kind of foundational to Western philosophy, there was a Sexual Contract guaranteeing sexual access to women. One of the things about sexual access to women is that every man should have a wife; one of the duties of the wife is to serve the man. I was thinking about this in terms of meat, because so many women say to me: "I could be a vegetarian, but my husband can't." So clearly they're also deciding his moods are so important that they can't meet their own needs. It's so classic. Meateating becomes another vehicle for self-denial for placing the husband and the partner's needs first. And this goes back to the whole way in which women become caretakers, and end up denying their own bodies and their own needs. I think there is the fear of men's anger about not having meat at a meal. I don't mean battering: because when men batter and use meat as an excuse, that's not what's really going on. They're battering to establish control, and the absence of meat is just their most recent exuse. It can be vacuuming, it can be anything. Yet, there must be a lot of women who are fearful of what the absence of meat means to their husbands, and the kind of anger that that would generate. We are talking about people without any feminist analysis. They just know that not to offer meat would create anger, and perhaps require them to examine the relationship; a relationship in which clearly they do not have as much power. So, "meat as a locus of power" in terms of what I argue in The Sexual Politics of Meat, must include this understanding of the whole Sexual Contract and the expectation of duties for wives.

Q: How does an ecofeminist ethic of care think about animals?

A: People who eat animals are benefiting from a dominant/subordinate relationship, but our culture encourages invisibility of the structures enabling this, and invisibility of the animals hurt by this. Indeed, the animals are seen as unified masses. There is a complete denial of their individuality, so that it is not seen as subordination. We see meat as the ontological reason for animals' existence, that they are there to be eaten. But when you talk about intervening with an ecofeminist care-ethic, one of the things we need to say is, "What are you going through." It's not that we must say this empathetically only to other beings who can speak our language--as a way of connecting--but that we ask that of the "dairy" cow, the cow being milked, the chicken in a laying factory, and any animal slated to be killed. "What are you going through?" First of all, to see the legitimacy of that question, that animals are going through something, and secondly, to get educated about what that experience is. And we need to trust that if we placed ourselves in situations to learn the answer to this question, the animals will tell us, in ways other than words.

Q: What about meateaters who say, "I just love the taste of meat"?

A: Meat eaters are very happy eating vegetarian food, as long as they don't know it. One time, I made walnut balls, and everybody was convinced it was meat. They thought I had given in--"Oh, Carol has given in. And aren't these the most delicious." And they just enjoyed it so much, thinking that I had served them dead animals. It was so profound to me: because it was the symbol they were holding on to. Their stomach didn't know the difference; but as long as their minds were so lost, it didn't matter what was going into their stomachs. So I realized it's the symbolism that holds sway. The child psychologist on the plane said that he knew it was ethically wrong and he's been going longer and longer without meat. But then, he said, he starts craving meat. And I said, "Tell me what you crave. What is it about meat that you're craving?" "I don't know," he said. "It's a burger." I said, "You might be craving iron." Often I think our bodies are trained to convert a craving for a specific thing to how we've trained it: so that one vegetarian I know, when she was craving steak knew to translate that she was craving iron.

Q: So, how do we talk to meateaters?

A: The person with the least amount of information sets the discourse: consequently the meateater–who usually has less information about meateating than the vegetarian--sets the level of the discourse. We are brought down to that level to begin with. The question is how one brings all that knowledge in, because of the ignorance that is determining our level of engagement. I think that this is one of the things that's so frustrating for vegetarians: we talk about creating a non-violent world, but there's so much that's paralyzing us from maintaining that analysis because of the level of ignorance at which the issue is engaged. What needs to be addresses is precisely what is excluded by the level of discussion.

Q: What do you say when people say vegetarians have a hang-up about meat? Because we live in a therapeutic culture right now, everything's going to be seen as an individual hang-up rather than as a political recognition and engagement. My answer is that vegetarians don't have a hang-up about meat. We have a problem with what people are saying is food. We're stepping back a level. Then people end up saying we're puritans, we're denying, we're ascetics: that we have some hang-up about pleasure--the same charge leveled at anti-pornography feminists. But there is no pleasure without privilege, the privilege to be a member of the dominant culture that's dominating women, people of color, and animals. We need to get the privilege acknowledged and the social structures that create privilege, and the way the privilege is rewarded through pleasure, a pleasure which actually arises from someone else's harm. It all goes back in a sense to the privilege of controlling. To raise vegetarianism as an ethical issue says to our culture's self-defined principles: "What we claim is not what we're doing."  

Do Feminists Need to Liberate Animals, Too?

Spring 1995 issue


Carol Adams sees feminism as a visionary philosophy that includes stewardship of the earth.

Over the years, On the Issues has been committed to expanding the vision and definition of progressive politics. Acting on her concern for the exploitation and suffering of animals and her interest in exploring the role of compassion in progressive politics, publisher Merle Hoffman interviewed Carol J. Adams about the relationship between animal rights and feminism. In this interview, they discuss the reasons why people -- feminists, in particular -- should care about how we treat animals. Hoffman and Adams are both on the advisory board of Feminists for Animal Rights. Carol Adams is the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (which won the first Continuum Women's Studies Award in 1989) and Neither Man nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense of Animals. She has also co-edited, with Josephine Donovan, two books on feminism and animal rights that will be released later this year. In the 1970s, Adams started a hotline for battered women. She has since served on national commissions on domestic violence and has been involved in combating racism in housing practices.

MERLE HOFFMAN: Carol, do you think animal rights activism has a natural home in progressive politics?

CAROL ADAMS: Not a natural home, but a logical one. When you look back at the nineteenth century, there were instances of unification among suffragists, workers, and antivivisectionists in protests against vivisection. But liberal politics is not generous about animal rights because liberal philosophy is premised on a separation of humans from animals. Progressive politics is about changing consciousness, changing the structures of oppression. Because there's a basic sense that animals don't have consciousness, structures of oppression are not seen as something animals can experience. I'm not sure animal rights per se -- the strictly philosophical concept of animal rights -- has a home in progressive politics. But animal advocacy does. Until we recognize how people who have no power -- whether it's women or people of color or the working class -- are positioned as being closer to animals, the human/animal barrier will retain its power and influence. Historically, women have been in the leadership of the animal rights movement, but feminists haven't. Why do you think feminists have not embraced the animal rights issue with the same political and philosophical fervor as they have antiracism and anticlassism? Several reasons. Over the years, many feminists have perceived that the equation of women with animals was a way to dehumanize women. Their response was to say, "We are a part of the human species too. We are rational, thinking beings just like men." Also, in terms of the kind of antiracist progressive feminism we all aspire to, there is a worry that we lessen human victims if we argue for animals. While we have the notion that the personal is political, what we eat or wear is seen as private. The response is, "I want my eating of animals to be a private decision."

MH: But eating is an extremely public action.

CA: Right, but there's a drive to keep it privatized. Though it's completely anomalous within feminist theory, many say, "this is a part of my life I don't want to scrutinize."

MH: Perhaps they don't want to be enlightened because that would necessitate a change in behavior. Feminists always rail against being treated like pieces of meat and yet they say this as they eat a hamburger or steak.

CA: We all have to come to an awareness on our own. But because of the cultural pressure of meat-eating, as well as the denial that meat actually comes from animals, there's a linguistic dance done around butchered flesh. We don't say a lamb's leg, we say leg of lamb. We take away the possessive relationship between a lamb and his or her leg. Animals are not mass terms. Water is a mass term. You can add or take away water, but you can't change what water is. We falsely perpetuate the idea that meat is a mass term, that it never adds up to a living animal.

MH: You've written that you became a vegetarian in 1974. I became one in 1986 after reading Hans Rausch's Slaughter of the Innocents. That was a very powerful epiphany for me. After that, I couldn't continue to eat meat because I knew what I was eating. Do you think all feminists should strive to become vegetarians?

CA: Yes, but consciousness-raising is a very painful thing. When anyone raises these issues, we hear a lot of defenses that are very similar to defenses of sexism from the early 1970s. If you were a "bra-burner" then, now people think, "You're one of those animal rights people making me worry about how I treat animals." But the basic insight of the feminist animal advocate is that animals are not ours to exploit, animals are beings that exist in community with us. Our goals are to not have them on our backs or on our plates.

MH: But you're dealing with a paradigm structure that's religious, philosophical, and political. Let's look at classical philosophy. In a sense, it's been the enemy of both animal rights consciousness and feminism. Particularly the philosophy of Descartes, the idea of a mind/body dualism. So how do you create a new philosophical framework?

CA: Feminist philosophy would say we've got a big problem with Western culture because it emphasizes rationality and has disowned the body philosophically. Since the body has not been valued, and since women and people of color and animals have been equated with the body, they have been seen as "less than." So the question is, how do we reverse that? Do we say that rationality is important and we are rational beings and then join the other side and disown the body too? Or do we say our bodies are a source of knowledge? Can we then say animals are only bodies, they are never rational, so we're only going to extend the insights of feminist philosophy about the body so far?

MH: How do you get people who "love" animals, who sometimes treat their pets a lot better than other human beings, to expand this monocular love to a more expansive vision?

CA: Generally, people are loving to specific animals with whom they have specific relationships. It's a very privatized notion of love, so we have to start by having them acknowledge that the relationship they cherish need not be limited just to the cat or dog they are fond of. We have to understand how it can be a model for other kinds of relationships, how love must work in partnership with justice.

MH: So love is a political act in this sense.

CA: That's right. Love involves an ethical stance, as my friend Marie Fortune says in her forthcoming book. Does love cause harm? Does love benefit from harm to others?

MH: But the reality we live in has been reinforced through the ages by traditional religion, where humans are seen as the "stewards" of the earth. So you don't only have a collective, assumptive reality -- you have one that has the bona fide Divine Word.

CA: Well, we always know that the minute God is brought into something it's because somebody is trying to express some power over something else. One of the problems with Christianity is that it has a kind of male/female, human/animal hierarchy. God and the heavens are above us, humans are above animals, man is above woman, and God is seen as a human male.

MH: So should animal rights activists be atheists?

CA: Maybe pantheists. There's a tendency in feminist theology to be more immanent. To see God as revealed through us rather than transcending us.

MH: In your book Neither Man nor Beast, you wrote that the antiracist defense of animals is not sentimental but is filled with sentiment. Could you explain that?

CA: For white people, there's a lot of guilt around the issue of racism. Identification with disempowered people is often described or experienced as sentimental. We see this notion at work when the "voiceless" are spoken for in the anti-abortion movement. I'm saying that an antiracist defense of animals begins with the recognition that we must act in solidarity with the oppressed. We cannot just speak "for" them. We're not saving or protecting or bestowing something on animals, but recognizing who has privilege and power over them and challenging that.

MH: Peter Singer and Tom Regan are the movement's main theorists. They have postulated a theory of animal "rights" and animal "liberation." Are there philosophical problems with these theories?

CA: I don't think we can speak about animal "liberation." Liberation movements are all movements that arise from within repressed groups. I also don't like to use the word "rights" when we're talking about animal advocacy. Rights language is a legacy of the Enlightenment -- the very Enlightenment that created a problematic philosophy of rational being.

MH: But it is also the language of abortion rights, women's rights, civil rights. And when you speak about rights, you have the counter-issue of responsibility, so then people say how can you talk of animal rights because that implies responsibility.

CA: Feminism completely changes the dialogue. I am not looking to take basic animal rights philosophy and fit women in. I am trying to take feminism, which I think inherently extends to animals, and start in a different place. I look and say many of the basic insights of feminism -- about how patriarchy works -- shed light on how we see animals. Patriarchy is a gender system that is implicit in human/animal relationships.

MH: Women have traditionally been intimidated by men's potential for anger, or actual anger. This anger has functioned as a limiting factor in women's political activism. What is your response to critics who say that, for women, becoming a vegetarian is a relatively low-risk way to protest?

CA: I don't think anything is a low-risk way to protest for women. I think that there are very few places in the world where women are safe. And any act of self-actualization can be very threatening to others in her life. Vegetarianism is not a simple decision. I have had many women over the past twenty years tell me, "I would be a vegetarian if it wasn't for my husband." By believing they must feed their husbands meat, they perpetuate the whole sexual politics of meat that says men need meat to be strong. They also fear that men's reaction to the absence of meat is greater than their ability to actualize their desire to be vegetarians.

MH: What is it about the construction of manhood that seems to require the oppression of animals?

CA: Being a man is tied in to identities -- what "real men" do and don't do. "Real men" don't eat quiche, "real men" hunt. It's interesting how many homophobic insults are thrown by hunters towards antihunting activist males. It's not only an issue of privilege but an issue of symbolism. Manhood is constructed in our culture in part by access to meat-eating and control of other bodies, whether it's women or animals. "Man," which usually in our Euro-American culture is read as "white man," can exist as a concept and as a sexual identity only through negation. Not women -- not beast -- not colored -- that is, not "other." Also, male biologists have often defended male supremacy by appealing to the laws of nature. This such-and-such animal dominates his female because that's what nature intended. Men reinforce this by saying you bring out the animal in me, but they themselves resent being labeled animals.

MH: How would you say that the defense of animals intersects with theories of ecofeminism?

CA: Ecofeminism basically states that an environmental perspective without feminism is inadequate, and that a feminist theory that fails to analyze the way the environment has suffered because of patriarchal attitudes is also inadequate. Clearly, animals are on the nature side of the nature/culture dualism, but they often disappear in the environmental discourse. They're what I call the "absent referent." Many ecofeminists are comfortable with them remaining absent referents. They're concerned with species rather than individual animals. And so the defense of animals locates itself within an ecofeminist politics, and says we cannot look at the whole without looking at the individual. We cannot work for justice and challenge the oppression of nature without understanding that the most frequent way we interact with nature is by eating animals.

MH: Women have traditionally cared more about other victims than about themselves and about what happens to women collectively as a result of their simply being women. What do you say to feminist critics who charge that animal activism really serves to distract women from the women's movement itself?

CA: Well, I think that they are partially right. Women, who constitute at least 80 percent of the animal rights movement, may not deal with or recognize the issue of oppression in their own lives. Some women do recognize it or are the survivors of sexual violence. They realize that while there are feminists advocating positions on battering, rape, and other forms of institutional violence against women, there are not many feminists advocating on behalf of animals. So these women gravitate to the place where they feel they have the most to offer. But I do think the male hierarchy within the animal rights movement makes this a problem. We do not necessarily recognize it as a place for enhancing one's own consciousness as a woman in a patriarchal world.

MH: Do you find it more difficult to raise consciousness about feminism among animal rights activists or animal rights issues among feminists?

CA: One is not easier than the other.

MH: Which is a more natural progression?

CA: For feminists to recognize animals. That's my own progression. My goal is not to take animal rights, add women, and stir. I'm taking the basic concepts and ideas of second-wave feminism -- concepts about structures of oppression -- and saying that species is one of those structures. We cannot just stop at the human/animal barrier, because that barrier is part of the construction of patriarchy.

MH: When we were together at a recent Feminists for Animal Rights conference, you told me that you came to understand the antipornography position far more deeply by being involved in animal issues than in feminist politics. Can you explain that?

CA: Well, I always knew that I felt pornography was wrong. It was part of my feminism from the 1970s on. Later, I realized that this applies to animals too. Catharine MacKinnon talks about how epistemology constructs ontology. For instance, we look at a cow and say why else does that cow exist except to be our dinner? It's a forced identity that reveals more about us. Distancing ourselves from animals enforces the subject/object relationship and creates a false construction of animals as meat. Once I recognized that, I also recognized how pornography constructs a forced identity.

MH: You write that feminists "traffic in animals." I find this a provocative statement. Does it refer to trafficking in women and pornography?

CA: I think that we traffic in animals literally whenever we purchase products that derive from animals. I built on the concept that feminists have developed of trafficking in women because I wanted to politicize the use of animals' bodies as commodities that objectifies them and denies them any individuality.

MH: Pornography is a $10-billion-a-year business. In the case of animal trafficking, it infuses every part of our lives.

CA: Both of them infuse every part of our lives. When the religious right keeps sex education out of schools, teenagers learn about sex from pornography. So they de facto endorse a sort of pornographic hierarchy of men and women even though they explicitly condemn pornography.

MH: I think they would debate that vigorously. Many on the Right excoriate the Left for creating a pornographic culture where women have sexual liberty and freedom through birth control and abortion. They see that as making women far more accessible to men's sexual needs. I believe you can make an argument that the Left has also objectified women and has created a pornographic culture. Let's talk about the Hill/Thomas hearings. When Anita Hill gave her testimony that Clarence Thomas had talked to her about pornography that showed women having sex with animals, what do you think was really going on there?

CA: Several things were going on at the same time. First of all, it reminds us that women's sexual violation and exploitation are often linked with that of animals, because for pornographers to picture women with animals, the animals have to be coerced into those situations. It also creates what I call a "bestializing discourse" which always saw African-Americans as closer to beasts than animals. In the nineteenth century, black women were objectified by the white male gaze on black women's bodies. Patricia Hill Collins has argued in Black Feminist Thought that this led to the pornographing of white women. Ostensibly, black women could not be violated because they were seen as sexually voracious. Therefore, picturing black women with animals is a representation that excuses as well as invites the sexual exploitation of black women.

MH: Which is a point missed by all the media, and probably by many of the people who were watching.

CA: I'm not sure the feminist movement has looked closely at how often the presence of animals is a vehicle for announcing our own oppression. Battered women are often terrorized, traumatized, and kept hostage by their batterers by the mistreatment of their animals and children. Children who are sexually abused are kept hostage by threats to animals. There is a continual ratification of male control through acts of violence against animals.

MH: Let's talk about PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA has been described in a recent piece in New York magazine as a sort of "Act-Up for Animals." They have outrageous media campaigns and "in your face" tactics, very much like WAC, and a bevy of celebrity spokespeople. Just a month ago, Ricki Lake was arrested for doing an antifur protest at Karl Lagerfeld's office, but was caught eating a bologna sandwich when she was sent to jail overnight. PETA also has an "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" campaign in which models pose nude with animals. Is this just another example of the prime directive of capitalism, where women's bodies are used to sell everything from toothpaste to cars? Or are women being coopted as pornographic signifiers for a radical cause? One "absent referent" posing for another? If, by posing nude, models can make a dent in the fur industry which causes so much suffering and death for animals, isn't it worth it?

CA: No, definitely not. The end does not justify the means. This is not theory, it's practice. That means how I live, how I interact with people, has importance in itself. I don't raise my kids by doing X and think they are going to become Y. I don't liberate animals over the bodies of women.

MH: If, tomorrow, fifteen thousand women standing up in Grand Central station posing naked could stop all animal oppression, wouldn't you support that?

CA: If I were going to have fifteen thousand dressed, clothed people who could stop anything, I would stop meat-eating because that is the most serious form of oppression of animals in the United States. To focus on fur is to play into a misogynist view about women. The antifur campaign gives lots of animal rights activists another way to harass women. I question why the fur campaign gets all the energy it does. Why? Because it is one of the few areas of animal oppression where women are seen as culprits, the takers of life. I think this feeds right into the antiabortion viewpoint, and also gives some credence to antiabortion in-your-face activities.

MH: You mean their strategies are like those of Operation Rescue?

CA: That's right, so that's my first objection. My second objection is that the "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" campaign really just accepts the cultural construction of women's bodies as commodities. And thirdly, I think that subliminally what this campaign says is you can still have objects in your life, they just can't be animals. You can still have women objects. It's a very big setback to conversations between feminists and animal rights activists because it is so clearly a form of participation in the dominant patriarchal construction of the male gaze on women's bodies.

MH: And it is easier just not to wear a fur coat to certain events anyway than to change your entire structure of eating.

CA: Right. Then I think the further insult was the celebration of PETA's alliance with Playboy by having a jointly sponsored event last summer, at which Patti Davis was featured. I'm glad she gave some of her money to PETA. But like Catharine MacKinnon, I'm not sure reparations money is the way we go about changing the status of women. I abhor the alliance of any animal advocacy with pornography.

MH: It's interesting because this was a debate in the prochoice community a few years back. The Playboy Foundation was giving money to prochoice causes. I was personally involved with a couple of national prochoice organizations when the question of whether or not to accept funds came up. I was very opposed to it for the same reasons.

CA: I think that what it shows is the kind of "add women and stir" attitude that's going to survive as long as the animal rights movement is controlled by men or has a patriarchal theory governing it. I've talked to a lot of antipornography workers around the country, and they're one group of feminists who I can predict have read The Sexual Politics of Meat. Many liberal feminists have decided that this is a form of feminist theory they don't have to deal with, probably because they don't want to change their diet. But the antipornography activists always understood what's going on with the objectification of animals.

MH: It's very interesting how the themes of the prochoice movement are coopted. The profur campaign focused on women having a choice, even an "informed" choice. It's subtly saying you can do what you want with other creatures' bodies.

CA: Having access to other bodies is exactly what we're challenging in terms of male privilege over women, and that kind of privilege is suddenly constructed as "choice" -- whether it's dietary choice or fashion choice.

MH: What specific tactics or strategies do you think the animal rights movement shares with Operation Rescue? Can we look forward to a vivisectionist being gunned down in the back like an abortion doctor?

CA: No, I don't think so. We have to look at the extreme right wing's religious language. They invoke God and suddenly see themselves as having a divine right to kill to save life. The kind of Paul Hill "justifiable homicide" defense. I'm concerned with any animal rights activity that gives credence to the activities of Operation Rescue. For instance, I've always opposed picketing at vivisectionists' homes. Last year our home was picketed by Operation Rescue and I thought, what's the effect on the kids in the home? What kids of vivisectionists are ever going to be able to come to animal rights without drawing on the traumatic experience of being picketed? We need a generational commitment to not inflict pain on children. Secondly, I object to any tactic that invokes the "voice for the voiceless" argument and the kind of dangerous sentimentality that says "I've got to protect you." Rather than talk about privilege, we've got to examine the language about privilege-because ultimately there is a lot that the abortion rights and reproductive freedom movement have in common with animal advocacy.

MH: Why don't you expand on that.