Does feminism require vegetarianism?
This is something I am asked about often. More specifically, vegetarians and vegans sometimes go around telling meat-eaters whether their eating habits are consistent with their feminist beliefs.
I’m a vegetarian myself, but I do not feel any need or desire to tell other people how they should eat or how their eating may or may not relate to feminism.
That said, it is an interesting question – if meat consumption (or maybe more accurately, supporting the meat industry) is anti-feminist in some ways or destructive to equality in some ways, does that make us morally required as feminists to be vegetarian or vegan?
Let’s break it down a bit, with some help from a paper by philosopher Christina Van Dyke.
The main argument you will likely hear in favor of feminist vegetarianism is that of linked oppression. Basically the idea is that women are consistently objectified in a morally problematic way that is very similar to the way animals are objectified.
It’s similar in that both women and animals are positioned as objects rather than subjects. Different in that women are positioned as sexual objects and animals as edible objects.
Both women and animals are also often thought about as especially embodied – so, women are considered more tied to nature and the body than the archetype of the rational disembodied man. Animals are also clearly tied to nature and to their bodies rather than their minds.
So not to say that women and animals are equally irrational, but just that both are seen to lack properties that are thought to elevate men to a higher status.
The next argument for vegetarianism is that female animals are particularly oppressed and they become oppressed by their femaleness. So, we consume animal products which must come from female bodies (i.e., milk and eggs), and when those bodies lose productiveness, they are butchered and treated as any other meat.
So, this can be understood as a type of male domination of female bodies. We are treating female animal bodies in a way differently than male ones and specifically using their femaleness for our own gains. This is also about linked oppression, then, when you consider the way female or feminine bodies in our human society are treated very differently from male or masculine bodies.
Many feminist theorists have therefore recommended that refraining from consuming animals and their products is a necessary step toward undercutting patriarchal power. It will not only benefit non-human animals, but also work to undermine the entire system with disadvantages women. These are not the only arguments against meat eating but they are the ones I have come across most commonly.
To sum up in simple terms, to eat meat or animal by-products we may be contributing to a system which positions non-human animals as lesser than humans, which is the same system and by the same logic which positions women as lesser than men. We may also be oppressing female animals by virtue of their femaleness, which seems like at least comparable to the way women in society are oppressed by their status as women.
So, it could be argued (and certainly has been) that to be a feminist, one must work against these injustices to non-human animals and to do so we must stop participating in the meat industry.
I personally do not believe there is anything morally wrong with eating meat in itself, as in I think if one was in a culture where killing and eating the animal was a part of survival (whether literally or culturally), that seems much less morally problematic than the type of meat industry we have in North America where a ridiculous amount of meat and animal products are produced and done so in obviously inhumane ways.
And while I think that, I also do not think that that means we must all be vegetarian or vegan. It is an issue much more complicated than it is often presented.
Here is why it is not obvious that we must all be vegetarian/vegan to be morally good feminists:
1. The Linked Oppression Argument Is Flawed
Not that it carries no merit, but it is dangerous to frame the dichotomy as male/oppresser and female/animal/oppressed. This is because animals and women are exploited quite differently in the patriarchy.
Animals are killed for their products while women often willingly participate in the system which disadvantages us. This does not make our oppression lesser; it makes it different, though. It means that combatting one injustice will not necessarily change the other.
Downplaying this difference ignores women’s subjectivity and the role we play in these power structures. If we want change, we will need to recognize our power to resist them.
2. We Need to Be Aware of Existing Social Norms Relating to Food
Next, we must be sensitive to the ways that advocating vegetarian or vegan diets as a feminist ideal relates to the existing social norms surrounding women’s eating.
In other words, some people cannot eat a vegan or vegetarian diet as it is triggering for their eating disorder. And even those who do not struggle with disordered eating habits, it is the social norm in our society to read meat as a man-identified food as it is linked to weight gain, etc.
So, women avoiding male-identified foods is already the norm of our sexist culture. Women are also socialized to monitor their food intake much more closely than men, to feel guilty about “overeating” or eating the “wrong” foods.
Making vegan diets the moral ideal would not destabilize these harmful gender norms.
3. It’s Not Feasible for Everyone
And another very real reason to be critical of this kind of feminist ideal is that many people simple cannot meet it. This could be for various (sometimes overlapping) reasons like physiological, economic, or cultural reasons.
For instance, there are what is called “food deserts” all over the developed world. Food deserts are areas which affordable and nutritious food (read: fresh fruit and veggies) is hard to obtain, especially for those without access to a car.
This means that residents in these areas, and in low-incomes areas generally, are not able to access the kinds of food that they would need to be vegetarian or vegan and get the nutrients they need.
Being vegetarian or vegan involves a kind of privilege, and we do not want to make the moral ideal one that can only be accessed by those already privileged in society. That would mean those already most dis-advantaged by the current system would also be considered acting immorally.
Or, if you were to say that one should be vegetarian/vegan if you can afford, effectively making those who cannot an exception, you are still ultimately reinforcing their status as lower down in the hierarchy (by being like, we are acting morally, you can’t so, we’ll give you a pass).
This is not a feminist approach, either.
So, I actually do not have an answer to this dilemma. I think that everyone is in a different position to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet.
For some, like me for instance, this can be done with relative ease. But this is because I have a great deal of privilege. For someone without my privileges, living a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle would involve a much greater and more complicated commitment. It may not be financially possible.
So instead of having this one feminist ideal – that feminists must be vegan or that being vegan is the most moral way to eat – perhaps we should try looking the way everyone’s choices are moral in a way relative to them.
Their unique circumstances determine what is morally required of them. And since we cannot ever truly know the details of someone else’s inner life, we cannot judge them according to our standards or the standards we think apply to them.
I am a vegetarian because I do not want to support the morally indefensible meat industry. But I am simply not able or interested in applying my moral choice to others. I will let them decide, because I am a feminist and know there are many intersecting issues which complicate these decisions.