Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Exploring Ecofeminist Principles - A Move Toward Animal Advocacy?

While animal rights and feminism seem at the outset to embody different principles, goals, and objectives, a structural analysis demonstrates these two sets of ideas may not be so different. In discussing solution and problem-solving strategies regarding our gender-based goals, it seems we often come back to the same underlying structural deficiencies: patriarchy, hierarchy, entrenched status quo. The agreement many of us come to about these problems is that developing an approach with any real chance of success requires an extreme overhaul of our societal framework, including the way we build and view relationships with others.

Where do nonhuman animals fit into this model? The patriarchal attitudes of dominance, ownership, and hierarchy create a very similar relationship structure between humans and animals that also often characterizes male-female treatment and relationships. A real problem develops when we fail to recognize the similarities, in that it leads to perpetuation of these attitudes.

One of the most powerful demonstrations of this phenomenon can be found in our everyday language. Using the assumption that humans are “above” animals as a baseline, how does that affect the treatment of women when they are referred to as “chicks”, “foxes”, and “bitches”? Accepting even playful terms that dehumanize women does exactly that. Separating women from “human” to equate them with “animal” removes them from a level of linguistic equality to one “below” human.

Acknowledging intersectionality is also an important pillar of feminist theory. Failure to recognize intersectionality leads to an incomplete look at the individualized feminist “picture”. The separation of animal from women’s rights is understandable in certain respects, but can also lead to an unnecessary divide. For example, animal rights activists People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) regularly use sexist and exploitive imagery in their advertising. They have justified the advertising on, essentially, the tired assumption that “sex sells”. By placing the rights of animals on a separate and elevated plane, the group damages the fight for gender equity by glorifying the stereotypes feminist groups seek to eliminate.

The Ecofeminist movement explores and works to subvert these intersecting oppressions, particularly as related to women, animals, and nature. It embraces the subjectivity of an individual‘s own definition of feminism, but recognizes the oppressions of women, animals, and nature as part of the same underlying problem. Ecofeminism advocates for the restructuring of the hierarchy by which we define relationships as the one of the only ways to establish real, substantive change. By developing relationships that emphasize a “working with” rather than “power over” model, respect for nature, women, and animals becomes part of our cultural framework, rather than a series of independent movements.

Ecofeminist theory embraces an approach to animal rights and nature that is more comprehensive than any theory we have discussed in class this semester. Obviously this kind of social restructuring demands shifting the attitudes of a large number of individuals. If the underlying necessity for true equality is a major societal overhaul, is a more ecofeminist approach a productive answer? Does bringing animal rights into the feminist movement inhibit the progression of gender equity? Or provide two movements with similar goals a stronger foundation?


samina hitch said...

I was unfamiliar with the ecofeminism movement until your student leadership presentation, and I agree wholeheartedly that animal advocacy is a step towards understanding gender equality. When we make it okay to cause suffering for our own benefit, such as dominating and killing animals in order to satisfy a taste for their bodies – whether we acknowledge it or not, we are also making it okay to cause suffering to others who are weaker (in this case, often women).

I visited a local farm the other day to watch a sheep shearing. There was a collective of women farmers who raised sheep for the purposes of dyeing and spinning their own wool. They named the sheep, kept them remarkably healthy, and took pride in the “happiness” of their herds.

Yet, I noticed that the atmosphere was not all that different from other exploitative animal practices. In conversations, I overheard that baby rams are often sold for meat (and the proceeds go to feeding the rest of the herd). I heard the women discussing different breeding practices to get the “best” wool—or how an angora goat’s lush coat “goes downhill” after pregnancy and “becomes great for rugs.” They talked about the breeding success of certain ewes, versus the failures of others. It sounded like (forgive me, this is a stretch) a room full of men gauging and rating women. It was hard to realize that even in the wool industry we have commodified animals – we breed them and care for them solely in order to take from them. Is it unsound to do so – even for wool?

There was nary a man at the shearing, save for some teenage boys who helped to wrangle the animals into the barn. The only adult man in attendance was the professional shearer. To his credit, he must have sheared close to 200 sheep that day, but it was difficult to watch how detached he was from the sheep as living beings—often kicking away the sheep once he was done shearing them.

Much of our everyday life involves the commodification of animals – even for vegetarians like myself who are fooled into believing that we might be making a gentler footprint on the world. In describing wool yarn to my daughter, I used to say that the sheep “gave us” the wool. Do animals really “give” us anything? After watching the terrified struggle and exasperated "giving in" of most sheep during the shearing, what is it exactly that we are doing for them in the process of taking from them?

A shearing may be a far cry from the butchering of an animal, but in the end, I walked away from the sheep shearing feeling a little unsettled about the ways in which we take from animals—suddenly desiring a switch to cotton yarn (sustainably grown, fair trade and organic, right?).

Anon5 said...

I think you make a really good observation about the use of terms like "chicks" or "foxes" to refer to women. "Cougar" is another term that came to mind when I read your post. Although I hadn't thought about it before, these terms really do seem to dehumanize women. Maybe I never thought about it because the terms aren't necessarily derogatory. Nevertheless, use of such terms seem to perpetuate an image of women as objects rather than people. Human beings also treat animals as mere objects much of the time, so I think the comparison is really interesting.

As for PETA, I'm not sure that their sex-based campaigns are really so bad. Feminism seems to be a lot about being free to make choices. In a recent class discussion we explored the possibility that feminism should respect the rights of sex-workers to use their body in any way they choose, even if doing so may perpetuate gender stereotypes. Here, the ends PETA are working toward are clearly just. If sex-workers can use their bodies in order to make a living, is it really so bad for other women to use their bodies to fight for animal rights?