Our ethical decisions are our own.
But Defiant Daughters, the new anthology of feminist food politics out this spring from Lantern Books, pushes readers to consider the connection between oppression of women and oppression of animals. It's especially relevant this week as we reflect on the links between meat and American identity: the US consumes an estimated 150 million hot dogs on the 4th of July. Defiant Daughters unravels and explores the identities and big issues wrapped up in rejecting our country's carnivorousness.
"I wanted to convey to feminists the immense world of injustice we end up participating in if we think feminism only addresses oppression among human beings," writes Carol J. Adams in the introduction to Defiant Daughters.
Adams herself is the activist and thinker behind the Intro-to-Gender-Studies required text The Sexual Politics of Meat, a revolutionary book about the intersection between feminism and animal rights that turns 23 this year. Adams' insistence that animal rights activists cannot succeed without a feminist viewpoint brings to mind many of the PETA campaigns that lean heavily on the abuse and objectification of women and people of color as analogies for animal cruelty.
Where The Sexual Politics of Meat is dense and academic, Defiant Daughters is intimate and emotional. Together, the two provide a framework for how the oppression of females—both human and non-human—are intertwined. The anthology functions best if the reader is familiar with Adams' seminal "feminist-vegetarian criticism" and is interested in the intersecting politics of food and feminism.
This anthology excels at showing the dual oppression of woman and animals. But in targeting an audience that it assumes is sympathetic to vegetarian choices, some of Defiant Daughters' discussions could alienate omnivorous readers. The contributors to Defiant Daughters share many stories that are deeply personal and affecting. Be warned: it's exhausting to read intimate stories of the abuse, objectification, and rape coupled with images of animal suffering.
When I had to take a break from reading, my partner and I went on a walk. Our conversation drifted to discussion of war. He talked about what it meant for him, as a veteran, to come back from deployment in Iraq with no effective resources for coping with the things he saw, experienced and participated in. In the grand scheme of global violence, I thought, what is factory farming, anyway? What gives vegans the right to think they can advocate for the liberation of animals when so many humans suffer around the world?
But institutionalized animal suffering is a great, invisible, violent machine. Few of us think about the lives of animals lost to a system that prioritizes capital over life and reassures us with fictionalized, pastoral imagery.
The Defiant Daughters anthology comes out of the confessional tradition of gathering and sharing our stories to learn more about one another. The danger of confessional intimacy is that it can work to build a monolithic identity to the exclusion of others. Fortunately, this anthology provides ample breathing room for a variety of women to express their stories while leaving room for other identities to flourish. Perhaps it is because "vegan" is a chosen identity, though not all the contributors identify as such. The writers included in Defiant Daughters represent a wide (but mostly white) swath of the female-identified feminist community, including women of many nationalities and ability levels, queer women, anti-sexual-and-domestic abuse advocates, academics, zinesters, artists, chefs, and high school students.
"I felt inherently betrayed by every smiling, loving family member, schoolteacher, or friend who had made the consumption of meat from factory farms a willing and regular part of their diet," writes high school student Vidushi Sharma in the collection. "At the same time, my mind had a hard time labeling the integral people in my life as cruel." Sharma grew up vegetarian and often fumbled through explaining her diet to young friends. In her essay for Defiant Daughters, she explores her own uneasiness with her choice to remain vegetarian despite her knowledge of the ways that dairy cows and laying hens are treated. She acknowledges the argument for humane meat, while others in the book advocate for animal liberation and the abolition of animal agriculture.
This collection of stories about personal ethics and food brings to mind another anthology, S. Breeze Harper's Sistah Vegan (Lantern Books 2010), which collects essays from women of color who are also vegan. The power in that anthology is seeing how different women grapple with the racial connotations of vegan and vegetarianism—a diet and way of life that has been historically linked to whiteness and affluence—and how they define those things for themselves.
In Defiant Daughters, chef Kate Jacoby's essay touches on the idea of the vegan police, and how "It's tempting to inflate your inner tube with self-righteousness to keep you floating about the heathens who have no self-control," but that this strategy doesn't achieve progressive change.
In speaking to women who have more than a passing familiarity with Adams' work and veganism, Defiant Daughters does have the power to address intimate issues of veganism—like comparing common dairy-industry practices with rape. Animal rights activist and Our Hen House cofounder Jasmin Singer (with partner Mariann Sullivan) effectively personalizes the issue in her Defiant Daughters essay. She explains that when she started to think more deeply about dairy, she couldn't help but connect cows strapped to "rape racks" and her own sexual assault.
Singer's story may be familiar to others who grew up feeling trapped and dissected by patriarchy. Instead of shutting down, though, she turned her energy outward to push back against oppression, including the oppression of animals. A light bulb moment for her was connecting the fragmentation of female bodies (both human and non-human) for visual and literal consumption to the way she was treated as a voluptuous 12-year old.
Meanwhile, in her essay "Happy Rape, Happy Meat," writer Dallas Rising deals with the feminist critique that vegans should never use rape as an analogy for the treatment of female food animals. Her assertion that people should deal with the reality of what they are participating in (including the discomfort that realization brings) is a point of contention even within the vegan community.
It is said that violence against animals is often a precursor to violence against humans. By linking the oppression of both women and non-human animals, Carol J. Adams has borne a dialogue of interspecies intersectionality that has the potential to carry us into a more compassionate future: one where the abatement of all violence is possible.
More than twenty years after she published The Sexual Politics of Meat, the stories in Defiant Daughters expand that dialogue and carry it forward.
For more on feminism and food politics, listen to our podcast episode "The Dinner Party"—featuring vegan chef Isa Chandra Moskowitz.