Genealogical Entanglements of Animal Rights and Feminist Movements

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of posts from contributors to Animal Metropolis: Histories of Human-Animal Relations in Urban Canada (University of Calgary Press, 2017). In each entry, the contributors use their own chapters as the basis for wider discussions about contemporary developments that highlight the complex interactions between humans and animals. The editors of are pleased to publish these pieces that originally appeared in late February in The Otter, the blog of the Network in Canadian History & the Environment.  The first post in the series by Darcy Ingram spoke to strategies in the animal rights movement.  Christabelle Sethna followed, commenting upon the animalization and racialization of humans and nonhuman animals. Joanna Dean then discussed the use of guinea pigs in medical experiments. Today, Carla Hustak speaks to the visceral entanglements of women’s and animal bodies.

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My essay “Got Milk? Dirty Cows, Unfit Mothers, and Infant Mortality, 1880-1940,” in this edited volume grew out of a rich literature on the entanglements of feminism and animal ethics. At the same time, my attention to milk, both as a food source and as a lens for exploring the fluidity of women and animal bodies, suggests a possible new trajectory for capturing the viscerality of those entanglements.

It may seem that feminist and animal rights activists have very little to say to each other. However, the bodies of women and animals have been mutually affected by the cultural constructions of nature. Ecofeminists such as Karen Warren, Carol Adams, and Val Plumwood have shown that patriarchal and capitalist oppression of nature have snared together women and animals. Under patriarchy and capitalism, both share the material, discursive, and historical effects of being constituted as natural ungovernable bodies contrary to reason and culture, which continue to be perceived as human and masculine domains. Similarly, feminist science studies scholars have shown that putative scientific truths about nature have had significant negative consequences for the cultural, economic, and political treatment of women and animals. Their scholarly contributions have been marked by social and political activist movements. From vegan feminist dietary choices to public protests, feminist and animal rights activists have formed alliances that highlight the intersection of feminist and animal ethics.

Contemporary intersections of feminist and animal ethics have a long genealogical trajectory that can be traced to the politicization of affect in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Anglo-transatlantic societies. Feminist and animal rights movements found common ground in the advocacy for the rights of women and animals to be protected from male brutality, increasingly seen as a hallmark of the illegitimate and irresponsible exercise of patriarchal power. This entanglement of women and animals occurred in the broader historical context of their shared oppression as beings said to possess an inferior capacity for reasoning. As such, these movements marked a turn toward the ethical treatment of others, be they animal or human, based not on reason but whether or not they could suffer. This shift toward an ethics based on sympathy occurred in the context of Anglo-transatlantic romanticism in Britain, the United States, and Canada, which drew attention to a new and profound cultural respect and reverence for nature. Constructed as beings that were more natural than cultural, emotional rather than rational, women and animals were entangled as vulnerable subjects whose suffering under a patriarchal regime was increasingly called into question.

Frances Power Cobbe, a Victorian feminist and advocate for animals. Wikimedia Commons.

In considering the material entanglements of women and animal bodies, both Victorian and contemporary activists have focused on their sexualization. For instance, Victorian images of animal vivisection resonated with cultural concerns over male physicians’ intrusions upon women’s bodies. Similarly, Victorian feminists such as Frances Power Cobbe and Anna Kingsford drew direct connections between men’s violence against women and violence against animals. At this time, Victorian feminists mounted a critique of men’s sexual control over women’s bodies, expressed in multiple issues of feminist concern such as marital rape, property rights, domestic abuse, and prostitution. Edward Carpenter, a prominent Victorian feminist and advocate for vegetarianism, explained these forms of dominance as symptomatic of patriarchal sexual oppression. Today, the connections drawn between women and animal bodies persist in the deployment of provocative images by organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). The theme of sexual violation is, for instance, reflected in the economic violation of pigs and cows. Sexualized images of scantily clad women in cages or chains suggest contemporary genealogical connections to Victorian associations of men’s dominion over women and animals.

Indian actress, Shilpa Shetty poses in a cage for a PETA ad. Wikimedia Commons

Without discarding nature as a productive means of addressing feminist animal ethics, other lenses may be more useful for grasping the intimate entanglements of animal rights and feminist movements. Feminist scholars have turned to the lens of viscerality to draw attention to the significance and agency of bodies, corporeality, and nature. Elspeth Probyn, for example, has noted carnality and gut ethics as the feminist body’s engagement with politics. As a lens for rethinking the status of women’s bodies, viscerality also highlights the material intersections across women and animal bodies.

“What do you call a female who is not allowed to control her own reproduction?” Courtesy of Carol Adams,

Food politics, for example, highlight the visceral experience of feminist and animal ethics whereby sexism and speciesism may be experienced through feelings of indigestion. In the final chapter of When Species Meet (2007), Donna Haraway’s “digestive ethics” indicate that the act of eating or not eating animals might further how we think about the personal and the political, while feminist interest in such issues may also inform animal ethics. Digestive ethics may be another avenue for considering the roles of gender in conjunction with digestion as modes of incorporation and engagement with the world, aligning the bodies of women and animals in patriarchal capitalist economies that involve the multiple and diverse consumption of human and nonhuman others.


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