Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Veganism, feminism, integration...
Ever since I was old enough to form a self-aware thought, I was a feminist. More accurately, I was a pre-feminist: feminism implies, at least to me, that there is something in the world that feminists are responding to: inequality, injustice, fewer opportunities, something bad. As a young child, I was blissfully unaware that there were even those who considered anything but absolute shoulder-to-shoulder equality. Thankfully, I grew up before Disney had princessified girlhood, thus it never occurred to me to aspire to being such a creature. Like the other daughters of second wave feminism, I would go wherever my myriad electrifying passions took me. My Barbie proxy figure hung out at the beach with Skipper and Ken from time to time, but she also traveled the world as a high-stakes business woman and volunteered as a veterinarian and rescued horses from equine-oppressing dolls with evil eyebrows drawn in with a ball point pen. My desk drawers were messily stuffed with the loose papers upon which I mapped out my future: what my house would look like (there was always an indoor pool in the basement), stories about the mysteries I would solve, the secret worlds I would discover. Why would I think anything wasn't available to me? I believed that I was born into a benevolent matriarchal dictatorship with my grandmother as good-natured empress and everyone else falling into line behind her. Though the women in my family pulled the strings to make their units function well, they had to keep up appearances that their marriages were egalitarian to be nice. This was all just for appearances, I was certain. I extrapolated it to become my earliest interpretation of women in the world.
And then the real world started trickling in. I would watch All In The Family and wonder what that Archie Bunker character was talking about anyway, always mocking the "women libbers" on the show. He was just stupid, right? But Edith, his wife, would greet Archie at the door, as endlessly sunny as Archie was scowling. Why was she subservient to anyone, let alone such a grouch? And what was this Equal Rights Amendment, anyway, the thing that was making everyone so upset on the news? Why was something like the ERA even necessary? Of course we were equal. Whoever thought otherwise? Lots of people, it turned out. I started to notice that the principal and superintendents at school were always men. All the presidents were men, too. Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and all the men around them: one after the next, like a row of mechanical ducks at the carnival game. I saw my mother, hardly an avowed feminist, derided by the fathers at the Little League games when she was coach of my brother's team, the only female coach in the league, time and time again. I remember one opposing coach telling my mother that she was out of her element, that she should join the PTA instead. My mother didn't skip a beat when she informed him that she was also president of the PTA, her arms folded in front of her chest, just short of saying, "And what have you done lately?" He stormed off in a huff, I remember the cloud of dust puffing up behind him, as my mother savored the moment before she resumed her coaching. The battles she couldn't win at home, she would win on the field.
Watching my mother and her friends and the world around me, my natural response was to become a feminist. It was as intuitive to me as turning on the light when you're trying to see in a dark room. Of course! It was the same thing when I became a vegetarian at fifteen. It was utterly natural, putting my beliefs into practice. My feminism and my veganism grow from the same seed, even from the same root. They have both been nurtured by my unquenchable drive to live a passionate, honest life. Just like a plant stretches toward the sun, that is how I stretch. To me, it is only natural for vegans to be feminists and feminists to be vegans. Otherwise, it seems that something went wrong with the growth of the seed somewhere.
The food animals most abused and exploited are female. The layer hens that produce egg after egg until they are calcium deficient, crippled and spent at a year or so. The female dairy cows with swollen, infected udders and prolapsed uteruses, having been turned into virtual meat and milk machines. The enslavement in cages and crowded buildings, the forced impregnations (rape in our species), the stealing of babies, of milk intended for their babies. To my mind, it is only natural for a feminist to be deeply and personally appalled. And thus it seems natural to me that feminists should strive toward a vegan diet. ( I do understand that this is part of the luxury of my privilege talking: just the fact that I can choose what to eat and what not to eat is a position of enormous privilege.)
By the same token, it would seem that a vegan - someone who is guided by principles of compassion and freedom and the inherent dignity of all - would be a feminist. As has been documented frequently in our shock-value driven popular culture, this is not a natural conclusion for all. I have been disappointed and perplexed again and again by those I assume I am walking shoulder-to-shoulder with, only to discover that my vegan colleagues - people who will stand up for a newborn chick's right to autonomy and dignity - think it's perfectly acceptable for a woman to strip on camera while reciting statistics about the exploitation of animals. The refusal to acknowledge and address the obvious intersectionalities of exploitation is one of my biggest disappointments with both feminist and vegan communities. What is the hold up?
I am far from perfect. I stick my foot in my mouth, act impulsively, look at the world from a position of privilege way too often. I understand that. The point is, though, to evolve, right? To find areas that are malnourished and cultivate them better. I don't think it's enough to acknowledge weakness, shrug and say, well, that's how I am. Of course we need to accept that we're imperfect, but striving toward ethical consistency is not the same thing as perfectionism, at least not to me. I know that we all have contradictions and areas of inconsistency: is it enough to just admit to that? I don't think so, not if we're trying to live mindfully.
I guess part of the answer is that we all have different orientations and interpretations of things. Relativism gets on my nerves, though, so much blunting of anything worth saying. Perhaps an answer is that veganism is more specific: it expects certain beliefs and practices, though anyone who has spent time with a group of vegans knows that we are hardly walking in lockstep on everything. Feminism, though, is more open to interpretation, less specific, more personal in ways. I can accept that, totally. But for vegans to downplay the importance of feminism, well, that is highly agitating to me. Same thing for feminists who choose to ignore their participation in oppression as omnivores. It seems clear that I haven't changed much from that little girl who simply did not understand disconnection: I am still seeking integration and connection everywhere and am deeply rattled when it's not there.
One day, it'll all make sense. Or I'll just learn to live with that which doesn't.