Ecofeminism: The integration of veganism into popular feminist discourse
by Amy-Louise Edwards
Ever since Western feminism entered the zeitgeist, theorists have posited the argument that women are able to utilise their ‘maternal instincts’ to help bring about social change; a sentiment shared by many ecofeminists. This concept draws on the tradition of the early maternal feminist Hannah More. She believed in ‘empowered femininity’ and that women were caring and nurturing, different from men but deserving of education and equality (Sommers, 2013, p. 18).
Since the 1980’s discourse surrounding women’s femininity; their maternal instinct to adopt a caregiving role, has been omnipresent in ecofeminist circles. It has been suggested that women’s biological connection to reproduction brings them closer to nature. Thus, women are more likely to be affected by the dilapidation of the natural world (Kovarik et al., 2014, p. 30). Indeed, the social conceptualisation of nature as feminine (Mother Nature) has existed for generations; the spiritual idea being that Earth gives us life. Just as woman produces life from her womb, ‘Mother Nature’ creates and sustains the wildlife/environment. This thought process is what brought about the merging of feminism and environmentally friendly lifestyles, which advocate for sustainable development.
Sustainable development is about achieving the economic and political goals of humanity, without harming the environment. It is the consideration that each of our actions as humans on this planet could potentially create a ripple effect on its ecosystem. Ecofeminists believe that sustainable development benefits women, in their stronger relationship with nature.
As the ever-encroaching effects of climate change unfold, sustainability is more relevant and desirable than ever. But, the adoption of sustainable development by ecofeminists could lead to the misconception that sustainability is exclusively a ‘women’s issue’. Environmental damage is a detriment to humanity, regardless of one’s gender, and should be thought of as such.
With the shift from an anthropocentric to ecocentric philosophy came a new school of thought: vegan feminism. Ecofeminism incorporated beliefs about lifestyle choices; regarding how women can reduce their carbon footprint, practice sustainability and opt for alternative energy. This, in turn, sparked a debate about the food we consume. The movement rejecting consumption of all animal products has coincided with the campaign for a more sustainable way of living. Many vegans claim that this diet is better for the environment and that livestock farming contributes to global warming.
Vegan feminists such as Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, suggest that there is an intrinsic link between meat eating and concepts of masculinity. The act of slaying an animal and having it served to you on a plate (by a woman) has historically been related to male virility. Whereas the acquiring of meat is considered violent and bloody, vegetables are viewed as passive. Therefore, vegetarianism/veganism were always associated with women and are considered more socially acceptable for women. Additionally, the exploitation and objectification of animals, as ‘meat’, resembles the objectification and sexual exploitation of women at the hands of men (Adams, 2010, p. 304).
Some feminists now insist that feminism and veganism are synonymous; one cannot be a feminist without being vegan. This is what I refer to as the ‘no true feminist’ fallacy, which is underpinned by the implication that ‘if you are not the precise type of feminist that I am, you are not a feminist at all’. This radical ideology is potentially damaging. Firstly, feminism is not only about equality; it is about creating a social climate in which women are able to experience freedom of choice. A woman should be able to make her own decisions concerning her lifestyle, etc. Making one’s own dietary choices falls under this, and so the attempt of a minority of feminists to pressure other women to follow their way of life is counterproductive.
Secondly, the ideology is at risk of dividing vegans and non-vegans within the feminist movement. The dichotomy of ‘vegan feminists vs. other feminists’ encourages disputes over healthy dialogue. It draws attention away from important discussions surrounding women’s liberation, in place of a debate regarding animal welfare. Whilst not insignificant, this debate risks becoming a semantic squabble over identity, rather than a constructive discussion about women’s liberation.
It must be said that the arguments behind veganism as a lifestyle choice are not without merit. There are some genuinely disconcerting practices within the animal product trade- battery farming being one example.
Overall, I do believe that the treatment of wildlife and our environment are of importance to society. Climate change is a prevailing issue and if reducing our meat consumption as a planet may contribute to its relief, it is certainly worth considering. However, the adoption of veganism, as a feminist, should be a choice. Whilst women may have a connection to nature and may benefit from sustainable development, becoming vegan is not the only way to express this.
Adams, C.J. (2010). Why Feminist-Vegan Now?, Feminism & Psychology 20(3), pp. 302–317. SAGE Publications via University of Manchester Library [Online]. at: Available online. (Accessed: 02-03-2018)
‘BUTTERFLIES KATZ AND ANGEL FLINN’ (12-06-2012). ‘A Call to Feminists’, Gentle World. Available online. (Accessed: 03-03-2018)
Sommers, C.H. (2013). Freedom Feminism. Washington, D.C., American Enterprise Institute Press.
Kovarik, C., Meinzen-Dick, R. and Quisumbing, A.R. (2014). Gender and Sustainability, Annual Review of Environment and Resources 39, pp. 29-55. Annual Reviews via University of Manchester Library [Online]. Available online. (Accessed: 02-03-2018)
The Vegan Society. ‘How your diet could change the world’. Available online. (Accessed: 03-03-2018)