Very Vegetarian

November/December 2002, 36-37, 50-51
Nervy Girl: The Thinking Woman's Magazine

Interview by Leah Bobal

Carol Adams' groundbreaking first book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, published in 1990, set the foundation for feminist-vegetarian theory by recognizing the relationship between the treatment of animals and the treatment of women. Since then, she has authored and edited books and articles on eco-feminism, domestic violence, vegetarianism and animal advocacy.

In the 1970s, Adams started working as an anti-violence activist, in addition to fighting racism, poverty, and sexism. She started a hotline for battered women in rural New York after finishing her Masters of Divinity from Yale Divinity School in 1976. Adams has also served as the Chairperson of the Housing Committee of the New York Governor's Commission on Domestic Violence (1984-87). She currently lives in Texas, where she enjoys yoga, meditation, and creating vegan meals.

As well as speaking on vegetarian and feminist issues, Adams has presented her Sexual Politics of Meat Slide Show at universities across the country. Adam's work is also featured in  A Cow at My Table, an award-winning documentary on our relationship with non-humans by Vancouver filmmaker Jennifer Abbott. Adams is currently at work on her new book, The Pornography of Meat. A kind, powerfully cerebral woman, Adams talks here with Nervy Girl! about the past, present, and future of vegetarianism.

Why did you become a vegetarian?

Feminist philosopher Sandra Barky observed that "feminists don't see different things than other people, they see the same things differently." I became a vegetarian because I started to see the same things differently. Specifically, the death of my pony prompted me to see differently. At the end of my first year of Yale Divinity School, I returned home to Forestville, New York, the small upstate town where I had grown up. As I was unpacking I heard a furious knocking at the door. Our neighbor greeted me as I opened the door. He exclaimed, "Someone has just shot your pony!" I ran, with my neighbor, up to the back pasture behind our barn, and found the dead body of the pony I had loved. Those barefoot steps through the thorns and manure of an old apple orchard took me face-to-face with a non-human's death. That evening as I bit into the hamburger, distraught about my pony's death, I stopped mid-bite. I was thinking about one dead animal yet eating another dead animal. What was the difference between this dead cow and the dead pony whom I would be burying the next day? I could summon no ethical defense for a favoritism that would exclude the cow from my concern because I had not known her. Now I saw the same thing differently.

What are your feelings on the general use of the term "vegetarian"? Is it important to stick to definitions or is there room for flexibility? What's your definition of vegetarian?

I like the term vegetarian. It is a case of "self-naming." Vegetarians themselves chose the word, not from "vegetable," but from the Latin vegetus, that is, lively. But the word vegetarian is in trouble because omnivores who do not eat four-legged animals think they are vegetarians. This happens, I think, because "meat" is often equated with "red" meat. So people think there are such beings as "pollo-vegetarians" or "pesco-vegetarians." Also, because many people think it is healthier not to eat meat from four-legged animals, but think it's healthy to eat meat from dead chickens or dead fishes.

Most vegetarians have had the experience of discovering that this "pseudo-vegetarian" has preceded them to a restaurant and calling themselves "vegetarians" ordered chicken or fish. This teaches everyone they interact with that a vegetarian eats dead animals. When an actual vegetarian enters that same restaurant, or eats with the same friends who have been exposed to the faux vegetarian, we are the ones who might be offered food from someone with a face.

For me, vegetarianism is less a health issue than an ethical issue. The great writer Isaac Bashevis Singer said, "I don't do it for the health of myself; I do it for the health of the chickens."

How are the treatment of animals and the treatment of women linked in our culture?

We live in a racist, patriarchal world in which men still have considerable power over women, both in the public sphere (employment, politics) and in the private sphere (at home, where woman-battering results in the death of four women a day in this country). Gender is not about difference, it is about dominance. The way gender is structured into our world--the way that men have power over women--is related to how we view animals, especially animals who are consumed.

For a long time what was human was really white male. Manhood meant "not woman nor animal"; and woman was not included in manhood because she was both woman and animal. We get movements that try to expand the definition of human because the recognition is that when something is defined as not human it does not have to be taken seriously -- it can be abused, it can be misused.

Oppression requires violence and implements of violence. This violence usually involves three things: objectification of a being so that she is seen as an object rather than as a living, breathing, suffering being; fragmentation, or butchering, so that the being's existence as a complete being is destroyed; and then consumption -- either literal consumption of the non-human animal or consumption of the fragmented woman through pornography, through prostitution, through rape, through battering.

Briefly delineate the heart of feminist-vegetarian theory you originally outlined in The Sexual Politics of Meat.

The Sexual Politics of Meat means that what, or more precisely who, we eat is determined by the patriarchal politics of our culture, and that the meanings attached to meat eating include meanings around virility. The Sexual Politics of Meat argues that the way gender politics is structured into our world is related to how we view animals, especially animals who are consumed. Patriarchy is a gender system that is implicit in human/animal relationships. Moreover, gender construction includes instruction about appropriate foods. Being a man in our culture is tied to identities that they either claim or disown -- what "real" men do and don't do. It's not only an issue of privilege, it's an issue of symbolism. Manhood is constructed in our culture, in part, by access to meat eating and control of other bodies.

Everyone is affected by the sexual politics of meat. We may dine at a restaurant in Chicago and encounter this menu item: "Double D Cup Breast of Turkey. This sandwich is so BIG." Through the sexual politics of meat, consuming images such as this provide a way for our culture to talk openly about, and joke about, the objectification of women without having to acknowledge it. The sexual politics of meat also works at another level: the ongoing superstition that meat gives strength and that men need meat. There has been a resurgence of "beef madness" in which meat is associated with masculinity.

This is tied to a mythology about strength--men need strength, they get it from meat--of course, numerous vegetarian sports figures refute this myth, but myths are hard to quarrel with. It is also tied to the historic class association of meat as an upper class food, especially in Europe in the past few centuries (they were the only ones with access to huge amounts of meat every day). A sexist culture will recreate the class system in relationships between men and women--men have access to that which women cannot. So, it was assumed that men deserve, or have the right to meat in a family. It was the male prerogative.

Finally, there is a sense that meat will make men happy with you--his partner. Throughout the years, there have been articles telling women how to fix meat so that their man will be happy. An example from the 1990s is a ridiculous article in one woman's magazine (written by a former New York Times columnist!) that began "What do men want? In my experience the answer is great sex and a great steak and not necessarily in that order."

Now, I have to say, that is a pretty limited view of men too. Why buy into assumptions about limiting roles such as these?

In The Sexual Politics of Meat I argued that women become vegetarians for several reason. As we become in touch with our bodies, we learn to listen to them, and we notice that we feel better after going without meat. In addition, many women, because of the way we are raised, have an ethic that isn't about rights (who has rights and why) but about care (who needs our help and why). This happens simply by looking down at one's plate and realizing, "I am eating a dead animal. How did that animal die? How did that animal live? Why am I participating in this?"

You have a new book coming out, how does it build on the foundation set by Sexual Politics?

The Pornography of Meat examines the way popular culture, advertisements, and pornography together create a hostile, demeaning environment for women and animals that parades as "fun." It shows how animals are sexualized/feminized and women are animalized. It introduces the idea of "anthropornography"--depicting animals as whores, and gives examples from advertisements that do this. Examining the "female of the species," I show how women become bearers of "species-identity" and farmed animals have lost status in our culture because of the necessity to control the female of the species to ensure the reproduction of animals so that they can become meat. So species becomes a category that is associated with "female."

After over 20 years as a feminist vegetarian, do you see any changes in how we treat animals/and or women?

I wish I could say I do...but the government bolsters the dairy and the meat industries. Slaughterhouses have quickened the kill line, so that the workers must handle (kill and dismember) animals at a frighteningly quick pace. When I wrote Sexual Politics of Meat, in 1990, an estimated 6 billion land animals died a year for meat eaters in the U.S. meat-eaters. By the time the tenth anniversary edition of The Sexual Politics of Meat came out, that number was at 9 billion and growing.

In addition, pornography has grown incredibly through the Internet. Pornography makes women's inequality sexy. The good news is that more and more activists are making the connections between a patriarchal world view and how we treat the other animals and the Earth. The fact is that vegetarianism has made serious inroads into the popular consciousness these days--big companies in the States are buying up health food companies and soy producers left and right.

Many meat eaters claim that it is "natural" for humans to eat meat. What is your take on this argument?

There are two things we need to respond to when meat eating is "naturalized." One is that, supposedly, we humans get to eat animals because we_re different from animals -- and then suddenly the justification for eating these non-humans is that other non-humans do it. We become inconsistent. Secondly -- and I think this is part of patriarchal culture -- we not only symbolically uphold carnivores in our culture, we uphold what are called the top carnivores, carnivores that actually eat other carnivores. Most meat-eaters eat herbivores. Humans are a good example -- we eat cows, lambs, etc. Yet we uphold lions and eagles in a cultural mythology — carnivorous beings who are actually more carnivorous than we are. (The fact is, less than six percent of animals actually are carnivorous.)

I think what is actually going on with that argument is that people are building defenses around their meat eating because they are already uncomfortable with the fact that they are eating dead animals. They simply engage us with these arguments that aren't really very logical to keep themselves from engaging with their own relationship to vegetarianism.

In Neither Man Nor Beast, you discuss privilege. It seems now that grains/vegetables etc.--foods that were once considered only for second class citizens (rich people ate meat)--are now luxury goods in the US. Specifically, I'm referring to organic produce and meat alternatives sold at health food stores. How can we make these healthy alternatives more affordable?

First, the government provides price support to the dairy and meat industry. If we didn't have a socialized governmental relationship to those industries hamburgers would be $35. Pretty quickly veganism would be seen for what it is: an inexpensive way of eating. Second, it has been suggested that we should include our health and food expenses together--then the cost of a vegan diet would be seen to be incredibly cheaper. In the United States, six out of the 10 leading deadly diseases have been related to the high fat, high cholesterol meat and dairy diet. Third, the reason the majority of the world existed primarily on a vegetarian diet was because grains, legumes, beans are inexpensive.

How is vegetarianism a spiritual practice for you? How has being a vegetarian changed your life?

By deciding to change to become a vegetarianism and then by changing, I began to experience the world in a more positive way. I learned how to make a commitment through vegetarianism, and then I learned how to keep a commitment. Anyone who wants to change the world or themselves can learn this too. Vegetarianism offers this to everyone.

I believe that we human beings often fail to recognize that we are animals, that we are really a part of nature, that we are all interconnected and interrelated. Living a spiritual life, for me, means honoring these interrelationships.

For me, doing the least harm possible is a very spiritual path and a path with integrity. People think they're going to harm themselves by giving up meat — there's some protective nature there that keeps them from connecting the dots about the environment and human well-being and health. Vegetarianism arises from a desire for wholeness; it is a spiritual practice that links us to the rest of nature and the rest of our own nature; it acknowledges the interconnectedness of all beings and enacts compassion toward them; it is a living ahimsa, the absence of violence.

To be a vegetarian is to be a witness: I will do the least harm possible. To be a vegetarian is to celebrate good food from the earth. To be a vegetarian is to experience grace, and on this grace I feed. A spiritual life is a life of abundance, but when it comes to meat-eating, people think they're going to experience scarcity. The most important thing vegans can do is simply live a life of abundance.

In the preface to Neither Man Nor Beast you relate that your primary commitment has been the Feminist movement. Why was that? Has your perspective changed over the years, to say, commit yourself to the animal rights movement instead?

When I say my primary commitment is to the feminist movement, I am not saying that I am not committed to the animal rights movement. I don't see the first commitment as eliminating other commitments. I mean that my advocacy for animals is done from a feminist perspective and maintains connections between animal and women's oppressions. For instance, the issue of violence against women includes the issue of harm to animals by batterers. Until we hold a batterer accountable, his partner and any animals that live with them are in danger. Or the issue of abortion rights. Some animal rights activists argue that animal rights should be against abortion. But from a feminist perspective, I see that the issue is forced pregnancies: I am against the forced pregnancies of women and of females of other species. So feminism provides the context for advocating for animals. This is key since some animal rights ad campaigns can end up being misogynist when they are cut off from a larger societal analysis.

What are some actions feminist vegetarians can take to encourage vegetarianism?

Cook delicious vegans meals and share them. Order pamphlets like "Why Vegan?" and "Vegetarian Living" or "101 Reasons I'm a Vegetarian," by Pamela Rice, and hand them out. Work with battered women's shelters to insure that resources are available for the companion animals of battered women and offer to cook a vegan meal there. If you are students or scholars, pursue feminist-vegetarian ideas through writing papers. When feminist conferences offer dead animals for food, write thoughtful letters that raise the issue of  feminist-vegetarianism. Write letters to the local paper and respond to sexist/speciesist ideas, especially when you see them combined. Enjoy life. Feel that your veganism is making a difference and see it as an opportunity to do the least harm possible. Don't feel you have to answer every argument you hear from a meat eater. Feel relaxed about it. Buy books that you believe in and give them as gifts. Spread the word.

What is your hope for the future of vegetarianism?

Way back in 1976 I wrote that if feminists' vision is for a world without oppression, where does meat-eating fit into that vision? My hope is that we work toward a world without oppression and we do it with awareness that we are not the only species on the earth. Think of it this way: By becoming vegetarians, women reduce their risk to six out of the 10 leading diseases; so, by choosing to be vegetarian, feminists can add a few years of activism to their lives.