We Are All Earthings: Speciesism and Feminist Responsibility Toward Animals by Amy Levin


Amy2“earth’ling: n. One who inhabits the earth.” – Earthlings, 2006

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creatures through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion.” -Henry Beston, The Outermost House

I was passing out leaflets at Columbia University a couple weeks back, when a passerby who took a pamphlet on veganism and the cruel uses of animals turned back around to approach me. He said, “I am a vegetarian, so I understand not eating meat. But what is wrong with some of the uses of these animals? What is wrong with seeing eye dogs?”  A valid question indeed, and one I had to pause for a moment to answer. I mustered up something along the lines of the ways that many of the seeing eye dogs in the industry are unfairly treated or neglected. “Oh, he said.” He seemed content with an answer he could relate to – suffering. In my experience leafleting and participating in animal rights advocacy, I receive a number of questions, many of them wanting to know the same thing, what is WRONG with the horse-drawn carriages at Central Park? And each time I (and I presume many other activists) offer similar answers, the suffering answer. But there is another layer, beyond the quick, violent spark of imagination that connects physical pain with empathy. And it has to do with power and structural inequality, and the use of one group for the benefit of another. And it has everything to do with feminism.

I think growing up my evolving education about power took the form of various identifying factors. It went like this: vegetarian, feminist, ecofeminist, vegan. I remember first coming into my vegetarianism, then my feminism, and didn’t necessarily connect the two. I saw the sturdy and easily identifiable connections between religion and feminism, but those were easy assimilations for me – they performed a direct impact on my life. Once I read the basic ideas behind ecofeminism I realized not only the (necessary) connection between the two, but suddenly it began making sense why feminist theologians were the ones most able to articulate this connection. The same Judeo-Christian beliefs that project a sacred patriarchy into the world also promote a domination of homo-sapiens over the earth, including non-human animals. I began thinking back to so many arguments and discussions I had with family and friends about why I chose not to eat fish as a vegetarian. I couldn’t understand the ideological difference between killing one animal over the other, until I realized that the conceptual differences between “fish,” “meat,” and “poultry” date as far back as the bible. Like so many other “religious” dualities and concepts we carried with us through the long ride to modernity, the stark separations of human/animals, fish/meat were ingrained in even my most secular friends.

There are, of course, scholars who I owe the growing passion and articulation of my politics. When ecofeminism began to emerge in the 1970s with brilliant of scholars like Rosemary Radford Ruether, the field, though diverse, made a commitment to the (Judeo-Christian) connection between the dominance of women with the dominance of nature. Western culture, springing from Greek culture, traditionally defines women with nature and materiality, and men with the spiritual, higher sphere of immateriality. Scholars like Ruether argue that Western culture not only identifies women with nature, but nature is often seen as an object of domination by men, thus the patriarchal mindset often promotes mentalities in which the domination over women and nature are connected.  These dichotomies of male/female, spirit/matter, then set the stage for the domination of men over women, and human over earth.

Ruether’s call to humanity that we raise public awareness regarding the need for justice based on equality is one that I feel connects her to other activists and literature concerning animal rights. Specifically, she offers the exploitative injustice of using women and nature as commodities in order to enrich those in power. This connection to commodification is one I believe wreaks of potential, especially in regard to the mainstream media. Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, was one of the first to connect the objectification of women with that of meat as part of the same system of oppression. Adams points to the ritualization of the mediatized male gaze and its reduction of women to mere “parts.” Women in advertising, the media, pornography, etc. become breasts, butts, and thighs, fragments without individuality, much like the breasts, thighs, and even bacon and veal we devour, all stripped of the whole of life and ready for consumption. She believes that linking the exploitation of women and animals is actually necessary to change the culture of objectification in which we live, and that perhaps ecofeminism doesn’t do enough ideological work for the domination of animals.

Even as well minded as so many feminist activists are, Adams claims that the failure to connect animal objectification for the objectification of women is to participate in a similar system of oppression. When self-identified feminist Lady Gaga paraded in her “meat dress” to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, she was accompanied by U.S. Soldiers affected by “don’t ask, don’t tell,” as she explained to the media that if we don’t stand up for our rights, “pretty soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our own bones. And, I am not a piece of meat.” However, as vegetarian-feminists screamed in outrage, and I join in this fight, Gaga’s offering of butchered meat in place of her fragmented body is merely invoking the same system of oppression. Gaga sacrificed/used/exploited the life of another in order to gain attention for her own powerful needs and desires.

Many people criticize vegans and animal rights activists for neglecting the needs of humans. But the belief in equality, the rage against exploitation and commodification, the commitment to ending unjust sources of domination and the condemnation of the powerful to take advantage of the weak are just as much the tenants of veganism as they are humanism, feminism, and social justice. In fact, the documentary Earthlings, which exposes the uses of animals for profit and considered the most persuasive documentary ever made, invokes sexism and racism as similar systems of oppression in its very introduction.

Earthlings bases the source of animal cruelty in speciesism, or the discrimination of non-human animals based solely on their species. As the narrator of Earthlings, Joaquin Phoenix explains, “By analogy with racism and sexism, the term “speciesism” is a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.” I want to end with a few more quotes from the documentary and urge those who have not seen it to find a friend and view it.

In each and all such cases, humans who have power exploit those who lack it.

Might the same be true of how humans treat other animals, or other earthlings?

Undoubtedly there are differences, since humans and animals are not the same in all respects. But the question of sameness wears another face.

Granted, these animals do not have all the desires we humans have; granted, they do not comprehend everything we humans comprehend; nevertheless, we and they do have some of the same desires and do comprehend some of the same things.

The desires for food and water, shelter and companionship, freedom of movement and avoidance of pain? These desires are shared by nonhuman animals and human beings.

As for comprehension: like humans, many nonhuman animals understand the world in which they live and move. Otherwise, they could not survive.

So beneath the many differences, there is sameness.

Like us, these animals embody the mystery and wonder of consciousness.

Like us, they are not only in the world, they are aware of it.

Like us they are the psychological centers of a life that is uniquely their own.

Amy Levin completed her M.A. in Religious Studies at New York University with a focus on American religious liberalism. She is a vegan and a feminist. 



Categories: Abuse of Power, Activism, animals, consumerism, Ecofeminism, Feminist Theology, Gender and Power, Hierarchy, Power relations, Rosemary Radford Ruether

Tags: , , , , , ,

18 replies

  1. A powerful, welcome piece of writing. Thank you, Amy.

    I do prefer, however, the term Spretnak uses in Relational Reality of “more-than-human”, rather than “non-human” and, am dismayed to still find the inclination of human arrogance embedded within comments like “granted, they do not comprehend everything we humans comprehend” … Seriously? Animals comprehend far more than we can possibly imagine. David Abrams’ book Becoming Animal illuminates many potential perceptions of more-than-humans and spirit-within-nature that are completely incomprehensible to “we humans.”

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    • Thank you so much darladiane and I agree with you that some of the script in Earthlings and in animal rights literature is dismaying. For those of us who do believe animals have souls, it seems obvious that animals have more power and comprehension than we can begin to imagine. In truth, I believe that some of the language is strategic in order to speak to and relate to an audience not-yet-convinced. This is a problem I think campaigning and activism deals with fairly often, unfortunately. But thank you for reading and I very much appreciate your comment!

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  2. So why do you exploit plants?. The latest research finds they have decision making abilities and feel pain.

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    • Hi Elfkat,

      I’m not familiar with the research, but I’m definitely interested in it. What have you learned about how people eat differently in light of this new research? I am also vegan and have often wondered about plant life too. Carol Adams explains that one of the differences with eating plants and animals is that plants have a more organic life and death and life again cycle – so that especially if we are people who compost, buy local, support small farmers, we are contributing to the life cycle of plants even while they are contributing toward ours (http://www.caroljadams.com/book_livingamong.html). But the research you mention is new information to me – I wonder how we will take it into account in vegan ways of eating. Do you know where I could find more about the research?

      Amy – thank you for writing about this! I have the same trajectory as yours – vegetarian, feminist, ecofeminist, vegan – it just seemed the most organic evolution of my feminist commitments. Carol Adams writes a lot from the point of compassion, and that really did it for me. I wanted to develop my practice of compassion and extend it further to also include the animals we share this planet with. When I heard her talk on a WATER teleconference (http://www.waterwomensalliance.org/teleconferences-audio-and-notes/), that was my turning point. She is such a beautiful human, I really couldn’t help but want to be more like her!

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  3. I suspect you have already crossed paths with Peter Singer and his ground breaking text from the 1970’s Animal Rights in which he disputes the argument of human intelligence over animals as a just argument for their consumption. Instead he offers equal consideration in difference based on an animal’s ability to feel pain, to suffer, but also to experience joy and happiness.

    I recently came upon a free documentary put out by The Humane Society entitled Eating Mercifully which examines factory farming from a Christian perspective. The doc debuted in 2008 at Washington National Cathedral in Washington D.C., & continues to be circulated to churches and universities as a way to initiate dialogue about the suffering and conditions animals experience in factory farms.

    This past semester I had 2 of 6 groups present on those issues surrounding animal rights (they read sections from Peter Singer and Andrew Linzey). My contention (& then theirs): if you are going to eat meat, then you must see how they are 1) raised and fed; and 2) slaughtered, from factory farming to “ethical” kills. Here are a sampling of websites to view:

    For The Humane Society’s free DVD + : humansociety.org/eatingmercifully (also able to download study guides)

    Factory Farming see “Slaughterhouse Cries” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNUmH1E21Q4

    “The Good Slaughter” follows the ethical slaughter practices of a company in New York. This is as good as it gets with regards to care and concern for the suffering of the animal. It’s a great contrast to factory farming methods, but cannot side-step the issue of suffering. (You tube “The Good Slaughter,” otherwise the url address inserts the video)

    Thank you Amy for bringing the crucial relationship between ecofeminism and animal rights to the surface. The issue of culpability cannot be side-stepped or ignored, regardless of food preference or time-saving eating practices.

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  4. I grew up as one of five children on a farm in South Africa’s Frees State in the 1950s. Without the weekly slaughter of a sheep and the annual slaughter of a cow and a pig from which we made jerky (biltong), sausage, ham and corned beef that would last for the following year, my parents would not have been able to feed and sustain their family. Were we culpable? Or did my father, a staunch Calvinist, use the products of his labor to feed his family?

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  5. We must kill to live. This is a bottom line, even if we only eat plants. Knowledge of this may be the original guilt. I admire Amy and Xochitl’s vegan choice, but I have not made it. When I first moved to Lesbos, I had not been eating meat for several years. After my first Easter here, it was pointed out to me that if the young male lambs had not been slaughtered, they would eat all the grass and the herds would die. The females are kept–and they seem quite happy on the hillsides–because they produce milk which becomes cheese and yogurt. In the traditional Greek diet, meat is not eaten every day, but only on special occasions. Factory farmed meat eaten at every meal is a far cry from this. I try to buy meat that is locally produced and not factory farmed. I feel better on a high protein diet. I keep thinking about these questions. Thanks for raising them here, Amy.

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  6. I am also reminded how many years ago when I lived in New York, a friend of mine, a feminist, admitted to me that she would not tell her male colleagues at a small town college in the late 50s that she had a little daughter, because she feared that her motherhood would make them less likely to accept her academic standing. I remember feeling somehow betrayed by this admission, thinking how I would never deny the existence of my daughter. When I shared my feelings with another feminist friend, she replied (very wisely), that feminism does not just come in one form, that my friend had done what she needed to do to carry her female voice in male-dominated academic setting. I would hate to think that the feminist I am is somehow tainted by the label “specieist” because I eat meat, and that I am therefore a less responsible feminist.

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  7. I now live in the African bush against the Drakensberg mountains in Limpopo Province in a veritable green paradise. Outside my window I can watch a frog swallow a bug, and an exquisite green snake strike and swallow the frog. I have lost beloved dogs to the leopards that have their natural home in mountain cliffs. The baboons come down to my garden and bark from the trees trying to coax the dogs to a fight. There is an amazing balance here of wild, uncontrolled nature, and the peace in the early evening when the tree frogs whistle their mating calls, or the bush babies call outside my bedroom window. Nature, animals, and wild things are awesome in their beauty and brutality. To sentimentalize them would be to neutralize them.

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  8. I find the connections between veganism and feminism very interesting. In the early 70s, long before I understood or identified as a feminist, I became a vegetarian, including eschewing all fowl, fish, and shellfish, because they are, after all, living creatures. Eventually I began eating meat again, in part because I need it to be truly healthy. What can I say?

    In my journey of spiritual growth and understanding I have connected with plants and their amazing spirits. If we understand animals as beings with a spirit and nervous system and rights, then, to truly move beyond speciesism, we have to understand the same thing about plants. They are sentient beings with which we can and do communicate.

    This brings us to a baffling problem–what do I eat to survive? No meat, no plants, what am I left with? Not many of us can be breatharians.

    I would like to change the discussion to looking at cruelty and humanitarianism–how do we treat all beings, animal, vegetable, mineral? As humans, we have to accept that we kill something (we kill plants to eat them) in order to live. That is the condition of being on this Earth plane. We don’t have a lot of choice about that, but we do have a choice about how we treat the beings we eat and that we use in various ways–other humans, and animals, vegetables, minerals.

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  9. Thank you, Amy, for this post, especially for your lucid description of how sexism and speciesism are connected in our cultural history. Having read many of the same authors as you, none of this was new to me, but you summarized the material concisely and well.

    Many of us who read these posts have had different trajectories in the evolution of our feminism than yours. We have come to ethical eating issues as full-fledged feminists. What worries me about the discussion that has ensued in the wake of your post is the sometimes either/or tone it has taken. I think it’s important for all of us to think about what ethical eating means to us and to eat ethically. This may take different forms for different people in part because of health concerns, in part because of where we live, in part because of our different thealogies, etc. But as soon as an ethical argument becomes either/or, we’re partaking of patriarchy. And people will start feeling that they are being negatively judged (or positively), called names (“speciesist”), and just plain feel bad.

    I believel that I’m moving slowly toward vegetarianism, first quitting beef, now pork, belonging to a CSA, and eating healthily, and who knows what after this. I’m taking these steps on the basis of what is good for the Earth, our Mother, of which we are all a part. I know that I have to kill to survive, but I have choices about what I eat, and I make them on the basis of our long-term survivability as a planet, not on the basis of alleviating the suffering of a single animal. I only eat free-range poultry, so the issue of suffering is of secondary importance to me, but primarily it’s the Earth as a whole that is the basis for my ethical choices.

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  10. Hi Amy, thanks you for your thought-provoking article.
    I have, however, difficulty with an argument that states, “Earthlings bases the source of animal cruelty in speciesism, or the discrimination of non-human animals based solely on their species.” Why would ecofeminism necessarily be against killing for food? Could ones choice to eat either vegan or not, not also be called a discriminating choice? Before my father would shoot the cow or ox that would become our food for the following year, I remember him apologizing to the animal in a calm voice, simply saying, “I am sorry” before he delivered a neat shot between her/his eyes. While it was heart-breaking for us children to see the big beast drop to its knees, we were never in doubt that its death meant life for us. There was respect in this event. Food, whether animal or vegetable was worked for. There were no supermarkets in those days or animal parts neatly styrofoamed in cling-wrap to disguise the fact of its origin. We grew up knowing that our food came to us by my fathers labor, and as he believed, by the grace of God. Treating animals kindly and respectfully was not an option, but a necessity. Cruelty to animals by humans is deplorable, but in the animal world there are many who are eaten by others and benefit from the death of other species. This is part of the great sacred round. The forest around me benefits from dying and decaying vegetation, as do micro-organisms from dead insects or animals. Death is part of the life of this place and integral to its beauty. Yes, fight deliberate and heartless cruelty, but also respect nature’s awesome indifference to suffering. I am not advocating for an either/ or position, but rather for the nuances and textures, the great awe inspiring opposites inherent in LIFE on our mother planet.

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  11. Hi again. I resonate with a lot of what you all have raised here. Carol, the choices you make make a lot of sense to me – I do think context makes a bit difference to what our ethical possibilities are. Like Nancy mentions above, I do not like to think of this topic as an either/or discussion. We each have to do what we can and how we can for who we each are in our particular time and place. And dietary needs can sometimes can definitely impact our options too of course. With Carol Adam’s inspiration, I try to approach my eating and food purchasing choices as an extension of compassion and part of my spirituality, and so it would be incongruent for me to be judgmental toward others about their choices. I think that the important thing is that we are reflective about our choices and aware of their economic and political implications. I appreciate Amy getting this conversation going on the blog – maybe someone will write a part II :)

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  12. Thank you everyone for reading and engaging so closely. In many ways, I am not surprised that this topic has ensued such a passion and diversity of responses. The food we consume and the way we nourish our bodies is one of the most personal and intimate practices we engage in. Everyone has a relationship to food, whether or not they politicize it for themselves. Thank you especially, Xochitl, for taking such an active role in responding, and it is always validating to know someone followed the same trajectory as I have. Of course there is no linear progression of coming into identifying your forms of compassion, and there are swerves and detours along the way. Like you, my politics involved in my veganism come from a hermeneutic and ethics of compassion. In fact, I almost titled this piece “practicing feminist compassion,” but part of me worried that people would respond negatively if they assumed an either/or stance, aka, if you aren’t a vegan, you aren’t compassionate.

    My post was not meant to guilt feminists into being vegan/vegetarian. And being vegan certainly doesn’t mean you are necessarily more compassionate than others, especially towards animals. Practicing an ethical diet, as many of the bloggers pointed out, is about more than “not eating animal products.” Part of the reason I became vegan was because I realized in was an unethical vegetarian in many ways, and I wanted to make myself more aware of every aspect of the way we treat other species, including humans. If we put the sentiment before the practice itself, I believe we’ll live in a much more cruelty-free environment. Humans used to kills animals because they needed to survive, and yet now that we can live without that practice, it seems that conditions have only gotten worse for animals. Factory farms are a modern invention, and we know so much less about where our meat and dairy come from than our ancestors. My aim to tie in animal welfare with ecofeminism was not to say that ecofeminists “ought” to be vegan. It was to say that both animal rights activists and ecofeminists are fighting for the same cause. I think that building bridges across social justice efforts only makes us more compassionate human beings.

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  13. And I would love someone to write a part II!

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  14. I think Xochitl (I love that name!) is right to emphasize context and informed choice regarding these decisions about what to eat and the influence of those choices on the web in which we all co-exist.

    Those elements were brought home to me this year in a striking way when I was diagnosed with a weird, intermediate type of diabetes, and found my vegetarian–not vegan, although I admire that choice–principles were challenged by the fact that many of my wonderful fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (all, to my thinking, stations on the road of consciousness) were exactly the foods which would raise my blood sugar precipitously.

    What…to do? I needed protein, but even having been raised on a farm, and understanding a non-supermarket setting, I could no longer bring myself to eat meat. I used to simply smile and say “nothing with a face!” when people asked me what I ate, but that was now inadequate even to a lacto-ovo like me.

    I have made my peace, with not a few feelings of regret and pangs of conscience, by drawing the line at the addition of sardines and some salmon to my diet. I try to be conscious about what I do, and–in the spirit of the first inhabitants of this North-South landmass, and like Majak’s father, being thankful to the fish for their lives.

    This brings me back to Xochitl’s final point, with which I couldn’t agree more: I do think we need to be “reflective about our choices and aware of their economic and political implications,” too., and understanding of other people’s choices.

    I will admit, I do find it unnerving when my Greek neighbors (pace, Carol!) decide to slaughter a sheep in their back yard each Spring at Orthodox Easter! (Ah, the perils of awareness…)

    Thank you Amy, for a thought-provoking essay, and thanks to all you other contributors for your equally-thoughtful and interesting comments.

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  1. Affirmations for the New Year « mazzoladm
  2. Extending Compassion and Vegetarianism by Xochitl Alvizo | Feminism and Religion

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