I was recently asked to contribute an essay to a forthcoming book, Defiant Daughters, about Carol Adams’ seminal work, The Sexual Politics of Meat. How rad!
There will be several readings for the book (see the Facebook page for all the details). I will be attempting to overcome a paralyzing fear of public speaking at a reading for it at Bluestockings in NYC on March 22. Because of said fear of public speaking, I will be attempting to get as drunk as possible immediately beforehand at the launch party for it at Moo Shoes, which, disconcertingly, does not seem to be advertising how boozy it will be, so maybe I’ll have to secretly BYOB or something. Anyway, if you’re in NYC, come out to both events!
When I was asked to contribute to the book I at first misunderstood the assignment and handed in an essay about “What SPoM Means To Me.” Awww.
The assignment, if I’d read it more carefully, was “the impact of this provocative text on women’s lives [to]day.” Like: not just why do you like the book, but what have you done with the book. Like, in your life.
I submitted a different essay (one based loosely on a blog post, actually!), and I’m excited to see the book, which comes out in March.
But first, here’s the original essay. It’s sorta college-y.
It was fun to write.
I first read The Sexual Politics of Meat my freshman year of college, fifteen years ago. I had been a vegetarian since I was twelve and a vegan since I was fifteen, when I turned a love of animals into action by joining an animal rights group, as well as starting a small group at my high school in Phoenix, Arizona. I figured I’d eventually find a job in the animal rights world and devote my life to ensuring animals were treated with greater respect and dignity—starting with the right not to be needlessly killed and eaten.
I read a lot of what was, in retrospect, extremely dry animal rights tomes that I’m sure I couldn’t get through today—mostly endless readings and rereadings of John Robbins’ Diet for a New America and that cornerstone of the modern animal rights movement, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. They gave me a theoretical and intellectual framework for my beliefs as well as the practical arguments every vegetarian needs to memorize in order to make conversation—if you had to save your dog or your child, which would you choose? How do you get your protein? A vegetarian’s social life is studded with unfortunate and often unpleasant interactions with those who are defensive about their own diets enough to provoke those who have chosen not to eat animals with endless “gotcha” questions, and these books gave me plenty of ammunition for fighting back when necessary. (These days I try to forgo the rapid-fire factory farm facts and nutritional figures and instead speak from my heart, simply stating that I don’t believe animals exist for us to use. It usually works about as well as angrily hurling facts about how much protein one actually needs and how a vegan diet supplies more an adequate amount even if one were to subsist only on raw wheat.)
Like most very young, very political people, I was angry and eager to voice my intense passion for changing the way animals are treated in our society. I signed all my letters, even thank you cards to my grandmother, “for the animals, Lagusta.” I mail-ordered stickers and t-shirts from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States and plastered them all over my notebooks, backpack, jean jacket, bike seat—everywhere. My weekends consisted of hanging around the meat aisle in the supermarket and surreptitiously sticking bright yellow “DANGER: murdered animals” stickers on packages of ground beef and hot dogs. I could not stop talking about how I could not ever be friends with anyone who wasn’t a vegetarian, to the point where my friends fell into two neat camps: those I converted, and those I dropped.
I was a pretty annoying kid.
When I left for college on the East Coast, I threw myself into school and became slightly less shouty about veganism. For one thing, it was easier to be vegan in college in Rochester, New York than it was in Phoenix, Arizona. I even found vegan friends my own age (all my vegan friends in Phoenix had been part of animal rights groups and were at least 10 years older than me) I didn’t have to convert. At the dining hall the vegan foods were clearly marked—a revelation. It was nice.
I was a Women’s Studies major, completely immersed in Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf and Adrienne Rich. I was obsessed with feminist poetry, with women finding a voice for themselves through literary politics. I got into postmodern feminism, and the idea that our language itself was root cause of the systemic injustices in our society, which introduced me to Beauvoir, Lacan, and Julia Kristeva.
I didn’t do any animal rights activist work in college. I was active in my school’s environmental group, but we were too focused on traditional environmental advocacy to take up the issues like serving less meat in the dining halls. We campaigned for less paper usage in the computer center, for a mandate that all handouts be printed on both sides of the page, and held an annual Earth Day festival that was rather short on actual environmental content, but big on t-shirt sales and homemade cookies. It was activism lite, but it fit my college workload and practically full-time job at the campus coffee shop.
The summer after my first year, I moved in with my boyfriend and two of our friends, and got a job a short bike ride away at the decaying local independent bookstore. Technically I was working in the café, serving coffee drinks and wiping down tables, but in reality I did what every other employee did all day long: read. I worked my way up and down the aisles, browsing and using my generous employee discount to ensure most of my paycheck went right back into the cash register. I bought a lot of books that summer. I was interested in everything. I was living two thousand miles from anything and everyone I’d ever known, the world was fresh and new and filled with endless things to learn and do.
The day I came across The Sexual Politics of Meat, with its iconic red cover, I remember clearly that my heart started beating fast. I looked at the tagline, “A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory,” and remember thinking that the book was written for me. It so neatly combined all my interests, I was almost in shock. I rode home with it in my backpack and dug in, coming up for air only to get a pencil to write excited notes in the margins or to yell out to my boyfriend that “this book is changing my life!”
Before SPOM, I’d never seen any connection between my animal rights work and my feminist studies. SPOM not only connected my two passions, it gave me an overarching framework with which to more thoroughly understand the world: there is an ethic of domination that pervades our society. In order to become a truly free civilization, we must dismantle the structural underpinnings of patriarchy, speciesism, racism, and more that threaten the freedom of all through the persecution of some. Truly effective activist work cannot happen in a vacuum, it must take into account these interconnected threads and work for progressive change on all fronts at once, or else it is doomed.
The book also provided an explanation and thorough analysis of something unsettling I’d seen during my time in the trenches of the animal rights movement but had not had the tools to understand—the incredible vein of misogyny running through the top-tier animal rights groups. SPOM provided me with an investigation of my intuition that something was fishy with groups like PETA, that its fear of and hatred for women was hurting the movement in a way I couldn’t explain until SPOM.
The organizations I was active in in Arizona always had women leaders—at the time I thought it was a coincidence, but I’ve since noticed that women just seem more active in the movement overall. We worked on serious issues—legislative victories, primarily, with a good dose of protesting and marching mixed in. We were attempting to challenge the way our society saw animals at its roots. We had long philosophical discussions about the best tactics to use. We passed around books and stood around after meetings discussing Peter Singer, John Robbins, Tom Reagan, and other intellectual leaders of our movement. We were a bookish group.
I was thrilled by the whole thing—in my public school, loving books and ideas was something best hidden. The animal rights group was a safe space for me to be my awkward, teenaged, not-interested-in-dating, library-loving self. I felt understood and liked.
The slick newsletters arriving daily in my mailbox from national animal rights groups, however, told a different story. They were full of cute young women my age or a bit older shackled inside metal cages with porno-like outfits on to protest the cruelty of circuses, or wearing nothing but underwear and holding up huge signs that read “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur.” We did that campaign in Arizona too, at a demo in front of a department store that sold fur in conjunction with another animal rights group, but it was mostly middle-aged women wearing bikinis, and our little core group mostly laughed it off behind their backs as not a “serious” tactic. I spent many demonstrations in a full-body chicken suit (much to the humiliation of my friends in high school when a photo of me was printed on the front cover of the local newspaper [I’ve asked my mom if she knows where the clipping is, I’ll post it if she digs it up!]), probably the least alluring or flattering outfit a teenager could wear.
Whereas PETA’s tactics seemed only to make animal rights activists laughable to the mainstream public, the tactics we were pursuing on a local level were working—I was elated when I persuaded my entire high school science department to offer a computer alternative to dissecting a frog, and even happier when most of the students in my class chose to take the alternative. And I didn’t even have to take my clothes off.
The disconnect between the explicitly “sex sells” mentality of the mainstream animal rights and the more intellectual arguments pursued by the groups I was involved with annoyed me in a vague way I couldn’t put a finger on until SPOM.
After reading the book, I was dismayed by these aspects of my beloved movement, but was thankful Carol (unlike all other titans of the animal rights movement, I’ve noticed Carol Adams is almost always referred to by her first name, which I believe is not disrespectful, but rather a marker of how personable and accessible she is) laid out a path to redemption. Carol’s critique of women as being literally seen as pieces of meat in our society—and her analysis (more fleshed out [!], in The Pornography of Meat) of how the same oppressive view of women had invaded even the animal rights movement—finally brought my intellectual life into focus.
I had always had a vague feeling that if I was going to devote my life to working for freedom for animals, I had to incorporate other political views of mine into that life, too. Until SPOM what that mainly meant was buying recycled paper (the dingy, gray kind that was then the only kind available) to print animal rights fliers on. I was an environmentalist to my core, and my vegetarianism, and then my veganism, was a huge part of that.
And when I learned of the deplorable conditions for the human workers on factory farms-the suicide statistics, the sickening pace of the killing floor, I was proud that my eating choices did not contribute to such oppressive operations (I didn’t yet know how much more there was to worry about—citrus farms in Florida with virtual human slaves, chocolate plantations in Africa with actual child slaves, and so much more to depress me, and motivate me, for years to come).
I do remember one tiny inkling of a pre-SPOM feminist consciousness in relation to the animal rights world. My mother, an Abbie Hoffman-style hippie straight out of 1969, was also active in the animal rights world with me (today she is far more active than me, in fact.). We went to countless demonstrations and meetings together, and remained close throughout my tumultuous teenage years because of our shared interest in animal rights. We had become vegan at about the same time, and she was as evangelical about her veganism at work—a Jewish newspaper where she was an editor—as I was at school. We often commiserated about the annoyance of debating veganism with otherwise intelligent friends who just didn’t want to change their diets. We noticed one thing—that almost all of the vegan women we knew identified as feminists, but the reverse wasn’t true. At the time, we chalked this up to veganism just not being as visible in the mainstream as feminism, but the disconnect still annoyed both of us.
After reading SPOM, the innate connection that most vegans I knew seemed to have with feminism seemed to me the key to enacting lasting societal change—by not compromising our most deeply held values (in simplest terms, that women are people who deserve full human rights, most particularly the right not to be treated like disconnected body parts), we could let those values inform our animal rights practice. Our concern for animals, who are literally reduced to their parts, can make our animal rights work more effective. Even fifteen years later, this idea is deeply affecting and thrilling to me.
My senior year in college, I saw a notice that Carol Adams was on a college speaking tour. I arranged for her to visit my school, and was excited when a packed auditorium showed up for her Sexual Politics of Meat Slideshow. A friend and I picked Carol up from the airport, and I was happy to find that she was as kind and generous in person as her book. After the talk, we walked around campus together—coincidentally, she had gone to my same school, University of Rochester. We marveled at two political, literature-loving vegan feminists who loved such a math and science-focused school like U of R.
I confided in Carol that I was torturing myself with deciding what to do when school was over—I had been accepted at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study to study Ecofeminist Literary Criticism. I was filled with passion for studying women who embodied my politics in verse, but I was doubtful about what this passion could bring, realistically, in terms of bringing about positive change on a real level.
My second option was a natural foods culinary school in Manhattan, where I would learn to be a vegan chef and hopefully change people’s minds about veganism through their palates.
Without any hesitation, Carol encouraged me to go to culinary school. She explained that only a small audience would read even the best-written analysis of the ecofeminist poetics of Adrienne Rich’s early work, and even fewer people would translate those ideas into environmental, animal rights-related personal change. On the other hand, vegan food, made well, has the power (and isn’t feminism about power, of course?) to instantly change even the most carnivorous omnivore into a bit more of an herbivore.
That kind of realpolitik, which has always been the bedrock of Carol’s writing, instantly brought my difficult decision into focus. I went to cooking school and have never looked back. Today I own a vegan, organic, and fair-trade chocolate shop that almost no one who gushes over the outrageous confections knows is vegan until we tell them. Stealth veganism, using the pleasure principle. Unlike the tactics of PETA and other mainstream animal rights groups who attempt to convince us that the only way toward changing the way we view animals is to supposedly pleasure mainstream viewers with slick ad campaigns using the worst stereotypes about what women’s bodies are worth, my chocolate shop attempts to use pleasure to educate in a way that harms no one. In a world that looks at animals and women through the same narrow lens, I’m proud to be a feminist small business owner expanding the definition of what animal-free food can mean. My feminism and my veganism continue to inform every personal and professional decision I make.
SPOM opened my eyes to the twinned injustices of a meat-eating misogynistic culture, but it also taught me how truly free a society can be when it takes on the work of dismantling these dying cultures. The work of the world is difficult, but, when entered into joyfully, it yields deep rewards. The yields of a society—or even an individual life—that eschews the patriarchal values of the sexual politics of meat and instead builds a new way to live, brick by brick, are immense. And this work is easier than it appears.
Carol’s work taught me that an informed feminist vegetarian is the most revolutionary and revelatory force a civilization can have. At the end of the book, she issues a call to action for a new kind of culture of eating that does not celebrate animal flesh as the highest goal a meal could aspire to. Carol discusses the impossibility of “overthrowing patriarchal power while eating its symbol.”
In this vein, I strive to make eating chocolate—so tied in American popular culture with women’s rituals and private pleasures—a revolutionary act through not only the celebration of the pure pleasure of eating this feminine-identified treat, but through the political decisions made at every stage in the process of its manufacture. Organic cacao beans fairly brought from cacao farmers, transformed through equitable labor practices into silken decadence, mixed with local fruits, organic sugar, fair-trade spices, purchased at a small-town shop run by women. A political product on all levels, one that counteracts the sexual politics of meat with each bite.
I couldn’t have done it without Carol’s book.