Under certain circumstances, human and non-human animals sharing things in common and being treated the same would be a victory for the animal rights movement.
But when it comes to MeToo, an initiative meant to create dialogue on sexual harassment and violence (aka #MeToo on social media), it’s anything but. That women and animals are equally subjected to bad, abusive behavior within a movement that centers on moral values and compassion proves there’s still so much to be done.
And ARMeToo is this particular movement’s day of reckoning. That’s why Friends of Animals President Priscilla Feral joined together with other leading female activists in animal advocacy to discuss what needs to be done to right the wrongs. Julie Gueraseva is the founder, as well as creative and editorial director of LAIKA magazine, a groundbreaking publication that showcases modern vegan living through a diverse range of original content.
Anna Charlton is an adjunct professor of law at Rutgers University School of Law. She served as co-director (with Gary L. Francione) of the Rutgers Animal Rights Law Clinic/Center from 1990-2000 and co-authored Eat Like You Care: An Examination of the Morality of Eating Animals and Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach.
During a teleconference discussion held March 29, Feral, Gueraseva and Charlton focused on the intersection of feminism and animal rights as well as sexual harassment in the workplace, sharing their personal experiences and dissecting what needs to be done to end the abuse and showcase women in the animal protection movement.
Actress Alyssa Milano tweeted #MeToo on Oct. 15, 2017 in response to Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual assaults that were recounted in a New York Times’ story, but it was actually sexual violence survivor and activist Tarana Burke who launched MeToo back in 2006. In January, a group of 300 Hollywood celebrities launched Time’s Up, an action-oriented next step in the MeToo movement to create equity and safety in the workplace.
Burke recently pointed out the severity of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace and beyond that still exists 12 years later.
“In the first 24 hours of #MeToo going viral just on Facebook there were 12 million engaged with the hashtag,” she told Variety. “If, in this country, we had an outbreak of some communicable disease that 12 million people got in a 24-hour time period, we would be focused solely on a cure.” To help remedy a situation that’s gone on far too long, in this special report, Feral, Gueraseva and Charlton examine ways to help ensure no organization, from the wealthiest to the smallest, gets away with functioning as what some have described as a “misogynistic cult.”
Were you inclined to think the MeToo/Times Up movement would take on a life of its own in the animal advocacy community? Can it be sustained?
Priscilla: I am more surprised there’s been a breaking of the status quo; I am unsure whether or not it can be sustained. I am mostly an optimist, but after some of the earlier revelations, I found it very disappointing to see females rushing in to defend a couple of male leaders of animal advocacy organizations who were accused of sexual misconduct and/or assault. These females did this publicly, on social media; it was also done by the animal advocacy group’s board of directors. It’s what we’ve been indoctrinated as women to do—and that’s to support men, who are supposed to be leading us, at all costs. From an early age, women are taught that we need male approval. I hope that this is a breakthrough. And I hope that we’re going to see more female leadership and voices emerge— voices that have been buried.
Anna: It’s strengthened my idea that it’s only going to be through the individual—through grassroots vegan education, reaching out to everyone we possibly can—that is going to change things. If the power continues to be channeled through old-fashioned, structured corporations, then that’s what we are going to keep getting. They’ve enshrined male values, male power. If we can focus on getting a critical mass of more progressive people—not just women, but there will be many women in that—getting really involved and taking responsibility for their individual obligations to move this thing forward, not just sending their money to an organization that they don’t hold accountable to do heaven knows what, that could really transform the movement.
We had a chance we really squandered in the late 1980s. We were really trying to make the animal rights movement go in a different direction—with an understanding of sexism and civil rights issues. Gary Francione and I were just talking today about the time we went to a Feminist for Animal Rights’ conference, which I think happened in 1989—because we were concerned about the really sexist path that PeTA was taking. FAR would not criticize PeTA because it was led by a woman, and it was about five years before they would take a stand against the misogyny of that whole arena. That was the problems of corporate interests and identity politics, which have had a corrosive impact on the animal rights movement. We have a chance to reinvigorate the movement in light of what’s going on now. It’s a new injection of energy, and I hope people run with it. I think this one will be hard to put back in the bottle.
Julie: I agree. A lot of this is going to come down to grassroots efforts and taking individual responsibility and asking yourself, ‘What am I doing to showcase and support other women and individuals who identify as women? What am I doing to be as inclusive as possible in my work?’ If I am a female entrepreneur or otherwise an authority figure, am I treating the people I work with well? It has to be a holistic examination of our individual lives. And then we need to continue the dialogue with our communities and be unafraid to offer and accept criticism.
Part of the Me Too/Time’s Up movements have been women sharing stories of unwanted advances and every day sexual harassment/sexism. These stories are popping up in animal advocacy. However, many women let the men off the hook because they are “helping animals.” What needs to be done so that women are not attacking other women who are harassed and protecting the men?
Priscilla: If women protect the men who objectify and harass them, nothing changes. My experience harks back to, maybe, 1971. I was working for Olin Corporation in Stamford, Connecticut. I was in a secretarial position in the pool chemical division. It was Christmas and we all went to the Lemon Tree Bar in Stamford after work for a little party. My boss kept putting his hand on my leg under the table, and explaining that his spouse was nine months pregnant, as though that was his perfect way to channel his idea of a flirtation. I told the other secretary, sitting next to me, what he was doing and she got up and literally put him up against a wall. And yelled, “Cut it out.” I thought I’d tell her and then I would have to leave, then I’d have to figure out how to keep my job. The next day I was transferred to another division. He kept his job; she even kept her job. It was another female who risked everything. I didn’t expect that to happen. People who abuse their power have to be held accountable.
Women have to refuse to be complicit, under the guise of protecting their own careers or interests. Maybe it’s stopping now, which is a very good thing, but it does require women supporting each other.
Julie: We live in a society that glorifies power and status. Of course, the animal rights movement is not immune from that. The aspect of idol worship, the word hero gets thrown out a lot in the movement. People can get put on pedestals. I think it’s almost like there’s a bit of an element of a brainwashing thing that happens where people fall under that spell. So there is this initial temptation to rush to defend the perpetrator. But we need to be in a place now where we make sure we check ourselves and know that it’s imperative we acknowledge the victims first and foremost for all their pain and suffering. The stories that I read about Paul Shapiro and Wayne Pacelle—my hair stood on end. If you have experienced flirtation in the workplace, without anything overt, you know how uncomfortable that is. To know what those women had to endure, the extreme levels that they had to endure, it’s horrific. We have to cultivate that spirit of sisterhood very actively, even if the judgement is clouded by this whole heroic, animal savior, our leader mentality, as if we couldn’t function without those male figureheads. But now we are seeing that of course, the movement can.
Anna: I think you are very right. We have to be willing to stretch a little in terms of how we exercise our moral courage. It is a time to step out of our comfort zone and call someone on bad behavior. Even if you are told you are antisocial or a killjoy or something because these situations need to be nipped in the bud. The really awful, horrendous things that we have been reading about recently come at the end of years of practicing before they got to that point. People acted badly and were not stopped. I think the idol/hero worship in animal rights is essentially a lazy position. We are asking someone else to do the job for us and we are there with the puppy eyes to watch them on the stage.
We need to stop that within ourselves. Everyone has a job to do. We don’t need any more charities. We need people doing what they can every day in their own lives, in their own context, until we get animal rights ideas infused in the whole society. So it’s not something that’s only done by charitable corporations.
Carol J. Adams, feminist theorist, writer and animal activist, has been discussing this topic for decades. In a 2011 essay, she wrote: “Sexual inequality is one of the defining elements of the animal movement … Men still predominate as leaders and speakers, women as the grassroots workers. The animal movement, by ignoring or remaining insufficiently attentive to the connections between patriarchy and speciesism, ends up reproducing women’s inequality in its structure, its focus, its arguments, its use of women’s labor, and in the accessibility it provides to sexual exploiters.” Does the animal rights movement need the feminist movement and vice versa?
Priscilla: Feminism challenges objectification and the status quo, and a division of labor. Animal rights theory requires feminist principles. I became a vegetarian and later a vegan connecting it to my feminism, and I saw meat as a status symbol for male control through domination of animals. And I saw animals as voiceless and defenseless and females similarly oppressed and under someone’s thumb. I use that phrase because it was the Rolling Stones’ lyrics from that song back in 1966, that if you heard them once they never left your head. You couldn’t believe that a misogynists’ screed like that was popular. In 1966, I was 17 years old so what I heard was “… under my thumb the squirming dog who has just had her day. Under my thumb a girl who’s just changed her ways. It’s down to me, yes it is. The way she does just what she is told. Down to me the change has come. She’s under my thumb. A Siamese cat of a girl under my thumb. She’s the sweetest pet in the world. Under my thumb her eyes are just kept to herself. Under my thumb I can still look at someone else.” I jumped out of my skin when I heard it. That song was my wake-up call. It symbolized toxic masculinity. So for me, I can’t separate feminism from animal rights.
Julie: They are so intertwined. Animal agriculture is built on violation of motherhood, reproductive subjugation. There are terms like rape rack; it’s all about dominating, subjugating a species, and reducing them to objects. So if we are fighting for dismantled speciesism and equal consideration for nonhuman animals, we have to completely practice that when it comes to how women are treated in the movement, and insist on total gender equality and complete respect for women. To in any way belittle, objectify or be dismissive of women and their experiences or suffering at the hands of men or just in general is a complete contradiction. We have to practice what we preach.
Anna: When Feminists for Animal Rights refused in the late 80s, early 90s to speak out against the path that PeTA and its president Ingrid Newkirk were taking, I think that was an unfortunate victory for the corrosive impact of identity politics. But I think we have a different opportunity right now, and I think we need to make sure we get it right this time, that the new energy really respects the serious issues around sexism, racism and the other important social issues that have been getting a new focus.
How do you feel about the animal rights movement’s use of the female body as an attention-seeking billboard? i.e. “I would rather go naked than wear fur” type of campaign? Do you feel it’s misogynistic, sexist, ageist or do women have agency and it’s victimless?
Priscilla: This question really rings all my bells. I’m particularly soured by one group’s Sexiest Vegan over 50 as it plays into the degrading sexist theme that women must achieve sexiness to be useful and praise worthy. When the Veg News editor and I chatted about this in San Francisco I told her that freedom arrives when age doesn’t define females or whether we are marketable as sexy. And it doesn’t make me wonder why some males feel entitled to make women feel uncomfortable in the workplace when we’ve got a movement that apparently can’t stop getting so jazzed over such irritating, demeaning spectacles. Of course males never expire until they are dead. This really dooms women swept into this kind of thinking—that our relevance depends on being sexy and categorized as such. The most recent ‘I would rather go naked’ campaign image was probably the worst ever. The photo was so sexualized with the model’s posture and heavy makeup that any intended anti-fur message was completely lost. It was non-existent. And that of course makes that entire effort worthless for animal rights.
Julie: If we look at other social justice movements—they are moving away from that. Instead, we have a body positivity movement, people are talking more about inclusivity and less retouching and less projecting of this unattainable perfection that is so alienating to the average woman. It does negate the ultimate message, even if it’s a positive message. The animal rights movement needs to be in step with that and focus more on telling women’s stories and celebrating our attributes that are not connected to our physicality or using that as a crutch or as a marketing gimmick. Aside from the sexism and misogyny, it’s just been used to death and we have to question whether it’s effective. I guess that’s the excuse for stuff like this—it’s like let’s get attention for animals by any means necessary even if we have to show this perfect beautiful woman’s, white most of the time, bod, anything to get attention for animal rights. We have to start critically examining the tactics. Is that ultimately working?
Anna: You are right. Have we ever assessed the number of people we have turned away by this approach? I often think if I was a young person right now and being presented with the idea of animal rights through this lens, if I was a serious young person, who was sensitized to other social justice issues, would I really be attracted to the animal rights movement, which has been allowed to degenerate into this self-indulgent, I find repulsive, stew? I agree with you on the ‘I’d rather go naked than wear fur campaign.’ It was the first campaign that we really should have taken a stand on and said, ‘We don’t want to go that way.’ One of the most effective anti-fur ads I have ever seen is the old Friends of Animals’ one that says ‘Get a feel for fur, slam your fingers in a car door.’ That gets people’s attention.
Let’s make sure that we are remembering who we are supposed to be representing in the animal rights movement. I am very concerned about the human participants in this movement, but it also seems like we are completely forgetting who we are supposed to be representing. This is the only social justice movement where the persons we are representing have no say in who their representatives are, and who don’t get to kick us out if we are doing a bad job. Where are the animals in these silly displays that PeTA has thrown upon the world and other people have followed them? Where are the animals in this? While I think it’s a great time to recalibrate and self-reflect on the women’s issues involved in this, it’s a really good time to refocus on the animal issue too.
Julie: Yes I think that it’s more important than ever to be telling the animals’ stories. Half of my magazine is dedicated to telling the stories of animals through long-form features where they are treated with the same dignity and respect as human subjects. And their experience is validated. We have to make sure we don’t lose the animals in all this.