Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, looks at the role of people identified as women in leading the vegan movement today
It had not happened to me for a long time.
When I first emigrated to the UK from Catalonia about thirty years ago, the feeling of being an “outsider” was very palpable. Naturally, during the first years, being an immigrant learning the English language made me experience the outsider feeling in practically all social situations, from shopping to attending any party — unless it was a typical London party where most people were immigrants like me.
About five years or so after settling in the UK, that feeling kind of vanished. Once I became proficient in the language, became a British citizen, and had a stable job, I kind of forgot that I was a foreigner in the eyes of some people. Since then, I have worked for many animal protection organisations in the UK, and I was very lucky to feel quite at home just a couple of weeks after joining their teams. I felt in the right place, as I knew what was expected of me and the roles seemed to fit me.
However, in 2019, I experienced the feeling of outsider again when I started working with a new one, but this time it had nothing to do with where I was born, but with the gender I willingly had aligned myself with. When I joined the team of the UK office of the animal rights organisation PETA as a Senior Campaigns Manager, I suddenly realised that I was a man in an office run by women. According to their names and appearance, it seemed that there were only two other people identified as men in the office of more than 20 people — and all staff above me seem to be women.
So what? you may think. Indeed, it should not make any difference, I agree. However, I, somehow, felt “my gender” in a work-related situation for the first time. I had line managers who were women before, and I worked with organisations led by women before, but, somehow, not until then, I “felt” my gender.
This was because, perhaps in this case, the gender imbalance seemed much more pronounced. This is not a secret. PETA itself wrote the following on one of its web pages: “Women have always led PETA — from its founding in 1980 by our president, Ingrid Newkirk, to today, when women hold the majority of the U.S. executive positions. Tough, smart, and strategic female activists make up almost 75% of PETA’s workforce.” I don’t know when they wrote this, but I think this percentage was higher in the UK office in 2019.
That gender feeling made me think about how women must feel every time they go to work in a male-dominated environment — and that’s not even considering the fact we still live in patriarchal societies with unchallenged sexism and misogyny.
It’s not that I was discriminated against for being a man. On the contrary, I was treated as anyone else, and gender never had become a problem in any of my interactions with staff, but I could not remove from my mind the “idea” that this office runs differently, and I did not fit in. I was also older than the average co-worker, and this may have contributed as well, but age did not appear that much in my internal monologue as gender did when I felt any “that’s not how I would do it” thought coming in.
I did not last long. Three months later, despite I needed the job because I was in the middle of an expensive litigation against a previous employer (the one that later led a judge to rule that ethical veganism is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010), I decided to leave. There were many reasons for that decision which would not be appropriate for me to spell out here, but I sometimes wonder if those intrusive gender thoughts might have somehow contributed to it. That may me think about how often women may also have such thoughts interfering with their chances to succeed in a male-dominated environment.
These days, gender is a delicate issue to talk about, and as people identify me as a cisgender man — an identity I do not feel too attached to, but I never proposed an alternative — I wondered if it would not be such a good idea to write about the role of women in the vegan movement. I may be of the wrong generation and gender to write about this topic with enough propriety and skill not to offend anyone. But perhaps, if I keep it honest, I may have something useful to say as an ex-outsider, I don’t know. There is only one way to find out.
Are Most Vegans Women?
First of all, let’s get something important out of the way. Not all people who look like women or men identify themselves with such genders, and not all trans people identify as any of these two traditionally binary options. So, inevitably, throughout this article, I would be overestimating the number and proportion of women and men, not because I ignore the existence of non-binary genders (I don’t) but because, in most cases, I would not be able to ascertain whether someone is trans or non-binary by just looking at their name or appearance, or whether some statistics have been inflated because they lumped together people with different genders. I apologise if this makes trans or non-binary people feel ignored, but if I had the data or the insight to add them to my analysis, I certainly would have. However, as this overestimation can occur in the quantification of both men and women, I hope it will have little effect on my comparative assessment of their numbers.
Having clarified that, let’s go into perhaps the least controversial statement on this issue I could find. It appears that “most vegans are women” is a fact undisputed by most people. You can see stats paraded among many articles talking about veganism that suggest the vast majority of vegans identify as women. Many say that as much as 80% of vegans, but, is this value accurate? I don’t think so.
When you try to find the sources of many of such high percentages, you will find that many just quote other articles that quote other articles that quote the numbers without mentioning the source. In journalism, for any careless cross-quote event, some pieces of the truth may fall off. The common claim that 80% of vegans are women is a good example of this phenomenon. Looking at the trail of such claims, I found that what was quoted as 80% turned out to be 74%, the “women” turned out to be “US women” only, “vegan” turned out to be “vegetarian or vegan”, and “now” turned out to be in 2014. I tried to dig deep to find the original source of that popular 80% stat, but it seems that it started with a 2014 US survey of 11,000 people that found that, compared to the US population as a whole (51% identified as women), there was a far higher proportion of people identified as women among both current (74%) and former (69%) vegetarians/vegans. That is the closest I could get, and even this study is quite meaningless when you realised that the number of vegans from the 11,000 people surveyed was only 54.
The Vegan Review has reported that, worldwide, the gender split between vegans is thought to be 33% identified as men and 67% identified as women, but I don’t know where they got these stats from.
Some statistics do have a proper source to suggest that it is true there are more people identified as women at least in some vegan populations (although not that many more than identified as men). A 2016 Ipsos MORI survey for the Vegan Society covering a sample of around 10,000 people from Great Britain found 0.7% could be classed as vegans, and 64% of those identified as women. In one 2019 study, the demographic group in Great Britain that was most commonly adhering to a vegan diet were people identified as women aged between 18 and 34 years. In that study, more people identifying as women than men were found in all age groups (three times more in the 18-24 years group, and twice in the 25-44 years group).
However, we need more up-to-date figures as the vegan movement is very dynamic, and things may have changed. A YouGov study of 2021 found that 68% of the 274 UK vegans polled identified as women. The latest study is a 2022 YouGov poll of 2001 UK adults that found 2% defined themselves as vegans or plant-based. If we split these 52 vegans per gender, 39% identify as men and 61% as women. It seems that the ratio is levelling up (but the samples are still quite small).
Regarding other countries, interestingly enough, there are not many surveys that show a gender breakdown. A 2022 study involving 1,143 adults in Saudi Arabia found that 79.6% of the vegans surveyed identified as women. However, this study was based on recruiting people in shopping malls and asking them to fill out an online questionnaire containing questions on demographics, type of diet, eating behaviour and physical activity. It would not be unreasonable to think that, in such locations, this sample could be biased toward people identified as women, so these high percentages should also be taken with a pinch of salt.
The non-profits ProVeg International and VeganaGal surveyed the eating habits of 2,749 Spaniards who follow a flexitarian, vegetarian, or vegan diet. The survey showed that 79% of vegans identified as females, a smaller percentage than vegetarians (87%) and flexitarians (83%). This may suggest that the “extra” vegans found in one of the genders may actually be plant-based people who eat what vegans eat, rather than ethical vegans who follow the definition of veganism to the full.
My conclusion after trying to find hard data is that, although probably more vegans identify as women than as men, the differences are not as big as many people think (less than 30 percentage points, a ratio of about three out of five vegans). We do not have information about how many of the vegans do not identify as either men or women (as the few demographic studies there are either did not register them or were made at a time were gender was considered binary), and neither we know whether the gender percentages in ethical vegans and dietary vegans (plant-based people) are different.
Despite all this uncertainty, let’s assume there are significantly more vegans identifying as women than as men. Why would that be? The Beet website has speculated the following reasons: 1) women are nurturing by nature, 2) women may be more interested in self-improvement than men, 3) men are afraid to give up their “grillmaster” rep, 4) women feel more pressure to be slim, 5) hormones, hormones, hormones, 6) women want to reap the benefits of anti-inflammatory diets, and 7) women want to take charge of their mental wellbeing. Some of these may be true factors, while others may be expected stereotypes.
The BBC has also speculated about it, stating that when women hold two incompatible beliefs, they are more likely to change their behaviour to reconcile them, while men, by comparison, tend to dig themselves in. Perhaps this psychological insight holds water as a 2022 study from Perez-Cueto et al. found that women tend to score lower in all barrier statements toward plant-based food consumption.
In an article in cardifjournalism.com, a vegan interviewee speculates that it could be because there are more female influencers who exist in the realms of “sustainable living”, and a higher percentage of female vegans could be related to societal notions of perceived femininity/traits we traditionally associate with women (i.e., being caring or nurturing). In line with what Carol J Adams wrote about in 1990 in her book “The Sexual Politics of Meat” (which I analysed in one of my articles and discussed in one of the episodes of the podcast Vegan Reflections), the website Howstuffworks says, “Meat is masculine. And eating it proves you’re one tough dude. At least that’s what the American media tells us. And that message’s pervasiveness might be one reason the vast majority of vegans in the U.S. are women.”
I am not going to speculate in this article about any of these explanations, but I do not have any problem believing that there are more vegans identified as women than identified as men, or anything else. It doesn’t sound like a preposterous proposition to me, and it does not clash with my personal list of vegan friends and acquaintances. However, does this mean that women are in charge of the vegan movement?
Are Most Vegan Animal Rights Organisations Led by Women?
We know that since PETA’s co-founder Alex Paxeco left the organisation in 1999, this animal rights group (arguably the biggest in the world) has been led by people I believe are identified as women. Ingrid Newkirk, the other co-founder, is still on top as President, followed by Tracy Reiman (Executive Vice President), Kathy Guillermo (Senior Vice President, Laboratory Investigations Department), Lisa Lange (Senior Vice President of Communications), Colleen O’Brien (Senior Vice President of Media Relations), and Daphna Nachminovitch (Senior Vice President of Cruelty Investigations). Only Jeff Kerr (Chief Legal Officer) appears on the PETA Foundation Leadership website breaking this pattern, making it a W (women) ratio of about 3/4. As far as the PETA UK office is concerned, Mimi Bekhechi is the Vice President UK, Europe & Australia, and the UK director is Elisa Allen. Also, Yvonne Taylor — who I have known for decades from the time I was an undercover investigator — is now the Director of Corporate Projects at PETA UK.
As I have been in the UK for about 30 years, I am more familiar with the animal protection organisations there that could be classed as “vegan animal rights organisations” because they promote veganism with abolitionist campaigning (rather than direct action) and are run by vegans. Currently, in addition to PETA UK, I know about Viva!, Animal Equality UK, Animal Save, and Animal Aid.
Viva!, possibly the biggest organisation in the UK dedicated to campaigning for the vegan cause, was founded in 1994 by Juliet Gellatley, who still runs it as international director, and now is expanding into other countries, such as Poland. Lex Rigby is the Head of Investigations and Laura Hellwig the Managing Director & Head of Campaigns. The list of staff on Viva!’s website shows 22 people, with names and images that suggest only six may identify as men (W ratio of about 4/6).
Animal Equality is an international animal rights organisation co-founded in Spain by Sharon Núñez and Jose Valle, but the former is the current President, while the latter the Vice President. The UK office is led by Abigail Penny (Executive Director), Susanna Feder (Philanthropy Manager), and Giovanna Lastrucci (Digital Marketing Manager), with only Olaf Garvey (International Technology Manager) breaking the gender trend (W ratio of 3/4).
The Animal Save Movement is a grassroots animal rights organisation founded in 2010 by Anita Krajnc in Canada, but has now many chapters around the world. She still runs it as its Executive Director. The Advisory Board of Directors is composed of Anita, Genelle Palacio, Jane Velez-Mitchell, Varum Virlan, and Brian Brophey (W ratio of 3/5), and its annual report lists a global core team of 23 experts, only four of which are likely to identify as men (W ratio of about 4/5).
Animal Aid breaks the gender pattern of the top person as it is directed by Iain Green (but he got this role recently, and before the director was Isobel Hutchinson). However, its current General Manager is Carole Backer, its Head of Campaigns is Jessamy Korotonga, and its Head of Merchandise is Sophie Clements. They publish a magazine called Outrage, and behind its cover, you can find a list of 38 people (staff, council, and patrons), 22 of which with female-sounding names (W ratio of about 3/5).
Looking at all this, I must conclude that most of the biggest and better-known animal rights organisations of the West are led by people identified as women.
Are Most Vegan Campaigning Organisations Led by Women?
In addition to animal rights organisations, we have the vegan organisations that are not animal protection organisations as such, but which promote veganism. In the UK we have Veganuray and the Vegan Society. The CEO of Veganuary is Ria Rehberg, followed by Dr Toni Vernelli as International Head of Communications & Marketing, Ciara Ni Loingsigh as Chief Operations Officer and Wendy Matthews as the US Director. Only the directors of Germany and Latin America seem to be the only members of the Senior Management Team who do not identify as women (W ratio of about 2/3).
As far as the Vegan Society is concerned (the original one based in the UK which has its vegan certification programme), the Chief Executive is Steve Hamon, but Chantelle Adkins is the Director of Business Development; Phaedra Johnstone the Head of Business Development; Claire Ogley is the Head of Campaigns, Policy and Research; and Samantha Calvert is the Head of Communications. The Vegan Society’s staff website contains 58 people, only 11 or 12 of whom seem could identify as men — judging by their names and appearance— making it a W ratio of about 4/5.
The American Vegan Society, which is a separate organisation, is led by Freya Dinshah (President), Anne Dinshah (1st VP), and Sarah Filippi-Field (2nd VP) together with Carolyn Githens (Graphics Director/Asst Editor) and Gabby Mora (Membership/Development Manager). Only the director of communications and three trustees seem to be members of the leadership team that most likely identify as men (W ratio of about 3/5).
Vegan Action (Vegan Awareness Foundation) is the organisation that certifies vegan products in the US and other countries. Its Executive Director is Krissi Vandenberg, and four of its six board members have female names (W ratio of about 3/4).
The Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P) promotes ethical veganism through education, outreach, and providing tools. It was founded by lauren Ornelas, who continues to be its president. Brittany Ebeling is F.E.P.’s Development Manager and Alejandra Tolley is F.E.P.’s communication specialist. One of the other two members of staff could identify as men while the second I am not sure (due to the pronouns used), making it a W ratio of perhaps 3/5. Its four board members use “she” as pronouns (W ratio 4/4).
Beyond Carnism is an American organisation that raises awareness about carnism (what they define as the invisible belief system that conditions people to eat certain animals). Although some may disagree in characterising it as a vegan campaigning organisation, I am adding it here because it is run by Dr Melany Joy, a very influential psychologist who coined this widely used term. In addition to her, Jennifer Brunk (Fundraising and Development Manager), Lucy Evans (Digital Engagement Manager), Nirali Shah (Communications Manager) and Dawn Moncrief (Board Chair) are also members of Beyond Carnism leadership who may share her gender identification (only Ed Startup, Head of Programs, may not, so a W ratio of about 5/6).
In Ireland, one of the most well-known vegan organisations, Go Vegan World, is run by Sandra Higgins, who also runs the Eden Farmed Animal Sanctuary. There are also other important vegan animal sanctuaries I know that are run by people identified as women, like the Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary in Essex, England, run by the super-vegan marathon runner Fiona Oakes, or the Santuario Equidad in Argentina, run by the dedicated activist Alejandra García.
Another international vegan organisation is Vegan Outreach, founded in 1993 by Matt Ball and Jack Norris in Cincinnati, Ohio. I could not find any listings of who else is running it today, so this may be the exception to the gender rule and be a male-centred vegan organisation.
I thought that the Farm Animal Rights Movement may also be an exception because it was founded by Alex Hershaft in 1981 in the US, and the current CEO is Eric C. Lindstrom, but judging by the pronouns used by the other four members of the leadership team they all appear to identify as women: Addison K. Lantz (Program Director), Ally Hinton (Marketing Director), Lisa DeCrescente (Director of Special Events) and Shemirah Brachah (Program and EdLetter Coordinator). This makes it a W ratio of 4/5.
There are even vegan organisations specifically aimed at women. Tracye McQuirter is an American award-winning public health nutritionist and best-selling author. After years of championing veganism, she started the 10 Million Black Vegan Women Movement. She said to UnchainedTV, “my goal was to get 10,000 Black women to go vegan together for 21 days. And we ended up having 15,000 women go vegan with us. And their results were phenomenal… So, I wanted to expand that exponentially and do it as a non-profit so that we could get substantial funding to keep these programs free, and as low as possible for the ones that we do charge for.”
Regarding vegan media, I am currently a freelance writer for vegan media publications, and most of my clients are people who seem to identify themselves as women. For instance, the award-winning journalist Jane Velez-Mitchell, who founded the fully vegan free streaming network UnchainedTV. Also, VegNews is owned by Fresh Healthy Media, LLC, a company devoted to promoting the vegan lifestyle which is owned and operated by VegNews’ co-founder and publisher Colleen Holland. One of the most prolific vegan podcasters I know is Jasmin Singer, who together with Mariann Sullivan interviewed more than 1000 vegans in her podcast Our Hen House. Even most of the people working for Vegan FTA — and its founder Sarah Johnson — follow that gender pattern.
In conclusion, although I have only described the main organisations I know, and I have deliberately skipped grassroots direct action organisations (such as Direct Action Everywhere or Animal Rebellion) because they do not publicise much who run them, I believe that saying most well-known vegan campaigning organisations are led by women today is probably an accurate statement (if we assume that we mean by “women” people who identify themselves with such gender), at least in developed countries. According to my analysis, probably between 60% and 80% of members of the leadership teams of most vegan campaigning organisations identify as women.
I said probably because I am making assumptions about how people identify themselves rather than having asked them directly, but one thing I have learnt is that guessing the gender identity of a person based on the name, appearance, and pronouns used combined, is not a difficult task in most cases — as opposed to guessing sex or sexual orientation.
What About Women in Vegan Businesses?
As most of us still live in capitalist patriarchal societies, the business world still is dominated by people identified as men. Is this the same within the vegan business space? Several women who are part of it seem to think still is.
On 8th April 2022, more than 800 vegan businesswomen met in downtown Los Angeles, California, as part of a recurrent summit. In 2020, Jennifer Stojkovic, a Canadian vegan activist and businesswoman now based in California, founded the Vegan Women Summit ™ (VWS). It is a global events and media organization created to empower women to build a kinder, more sustainable world. The VWS premiere summit took place in San Francisco on 1st February 2020, but the number of attendees has grown considerably in the L.A event. The next summit will take place in New York City on 18th May. Stojkovic said the following to UnchainedTV: “I discovered pretty quickly that I was seeing the same kinds of founders over and over. And, unfortunately, all big investment companies from the Bay area in California generally were all male-led. That is kind of shocking. Especially considering that women are the main consumers and they make more than 90% of purchasing decisions.”
Thanks to the VWS, Stojkovic met enough vegan business founders identified as women to conduct a survey. She said this about the results: “In terms of the bias, the most significant one we saw was gender bias. 3/4 of women cited gender bias… Some of the stories we heard from funders were just shocking. It was everything from ‘every time I walk in a room an investor asked to speak to the CEO because they assumed I am the assistant or the aid’, all the way to ‘I had investors following me to my hotel room.’”
It seems that only 3% of investment dollars have traditionally been going to women-led businesses, but things are changing. Already, some of the most famous names in the plant-based food and vegan fibre space are people identified as women. For instance, Miyoko Schinner, founder/CEO of the very successful Miyoko’s Kitchen, maker of vegan cheeses; Pinky Cole, CEO of Slutty Vegan and Founder of Pinky Gives Back; Chloe Coscarelli, founder of the restaurant chains ByChloe and The Vegan Café; Marion Hanania, founder of Good Guys Don’t Wear Leather; Carissa Kranz, CEO of the vegan accreditation company BeVeg; Claire Smith, co-founder of Beyond Investing; or Heather Mills, founder of the multi-award-winning plant-based vegan ethical food company VBites.
Are Most Vegan Activists Identified as Men?
Anonymous for the Voiceless is a grassroots animal rights organization focused on vegan outreach in the streets. It was formed in 2016 in Melbourne, Australia, by Paul Bashir and Asal Alamdari. It has many chapters around the world now, but it is still led by its founders. Between 2018 and 2020, I used to volunteer in London for several of their vegan outreach events called the Cube of Truth, and at the end of the event, someone would take a group photo. I found on Facebook 32 group photos of these events where I was tagged, and I analysed them to assess the racial profile for another article I wrote about racism in veganism and animal rights. I thought I would do the same again looking at genders. The average number of outreachers per event was 17.72 (ranging from 9 to 35), and the average percentage of people per event that I thought may identify as women or non-binary was 40.2% (ranging from 10% to 61%). This means the average percentage of activists per event I presume identified themselves as men was 59.8%. Therefore, at least for London activists of this particular organisation, the majority went slightly toward the men gender in the period between 2018 and 2020.
Are we seeing a situation in which more people who say they are vegan identify as women, most vegan campaigning organisations are led and staffed mostly by women, but most grassroots vegan animal rights activists identify as men? Possibly, but we do not have hard data to test such a hypothesis. Perhaps the issue here is the intersection between the animal rights movement and the vegan movement (which I have argued that, although following overlapping, synergetic, and mutually reinforcing philosophies, they are not the same), and the former is dominated by people identified as men, while the latter the opposite, I don’t know.
There is another thing to consider. One of the hot topics of infighting within the vegan movement —at least a few years ago — is the issue of “famous activists”. These are activists who stood above the crowd, but others complained that either they were attracting too much media attention to themselves, or they did not represent the entire movement. This is because many of these were people identified as men — in a movement that, as we have seen, is quite woman-centric. I am talking about activists such as the American Gary Yourofsky, the Australian James Aspey, the British Ed Winters (Earthling Ed), or the Australian Joey Carbstrong, who are ethical vegans of the “prove me wrong” confrontational style (arguably, quite a “masculine” style). For a while, they attained considerable popularity which almost raised them to the category of worshipped “celebrities”.
However, their success was not well received by all vegans, who started to resent the idea of some activists being paid (by donations, fees, or online ads) and others not, who disagreed with their style or language, who did not like they were excessively “idolised” by many vegans, or who thought they were monopolising the limited available campaign platforms whilst most of them only represented a particular problematic demographic (young white cisgender heterosexual able males).
In recent years, though, I think the picture has changed, and some of these famous men activists are beginning to be replaced by some upcoming famous female activists, such as the Swedish Greta Thunberg, the American Genesis Butler, or the Australian Tash Peterson. I wanted to find a method to check if this is true, as there have also been other activists from other demographics getting noticed but who still are identified as men (such as the Lebanese Seb Alex, the American Soul Eubanks, the American Ryuji Chua, or the American Wayne Hsiung). Looking at pages listing vegan activists or vegan celebrities would not do as those producing them may have deliberately levelled the genders up to be politically correct (for instance, the page titled “Vegan Celebrities 2023: 55 stars share why they went vegan” which has 28 celebrities probably identified as men, at least one of them transgender, the exact 50%).
So, I devised the following method to evaluate this myself: I did a Google Image search with the term “vegan activist”, and I counted how many images I believed contain women or girls activists/celebs compared with how many I believe contain men or boys activists/celebs. Then I did the same, restricting the search to the period between 2nd January 2015 and the 1st of January 2018, and I repeated the search but this time for the period between the 1st of January 2000 and 1st January 2015. The results were very interesting because they are consistent with my hypothesis that, in recent years, we can see a shift from a men-centric grassroots vegan activism presence in the media to a women-centric one. For the period up to the year 2015, we see the men-centric paradigm with 54% of men activist/celebs appearances in the photos compared with 46% of women (n=470). If we look between 2015 and 2018, we can see a shift has been made with a 45% of men and a 55% of women (n=395). Finally, if we look at the current results (made in February 2023) the new status quo shows up, with 39% of men and 61% of women (n=484).
This, of course, does not actually tell us about a change in the demographics of vegan activists, but about their visibility on the internet. In other words, a shift of attention that has equalised genders. Is this shift also taken place at the “average” activist level, so now even most vegan animal rights activists are women?
The Pendulum of Dominance
In my book “Ethical Vegan”, published at the end of 2020, I wrote this:
“As far as gender equality is concerned, we have an interesting dynamic in the movement. Prominent male vegan activists are receiving a great deal of attention, while most vegan organisations are currently led by women (PETA, Animal Aid, Animal Equality UK, Viva!, GoVegan World, Veganuary, and Beyond Carnism spring to mind). I don’t think we want to be in either a pendulum of dominance or segregation of roles, but I am not quite sure how and when the right equity balance will be found.”
I think this is a good place to explain what the last sentence I wrote means. The term “pendulum of dominance” I used is a metaphor to explain a situation where we see a cycle of the vegan movement being dominated by men and women alternatively, as a pendulum that always swings back to the opposite direction when it reaches its peak. If you look at the history of veganism (to which I dedicate a long chapter in my book) you could see a bit of that happening. If we interpret the beginning of the vegan philosophy as the development of the principle of ahimsa (“do no harm” in Sanskrit) in many ancient religions, you could say that the pendulum was on the male side (with men such as Siddhartha Gautama, Mahavira, Makkhali Gosal, Lao Tzu, Pythagoras, or Plutarch dominating the scene). It is possible that around the Middle Ages, it had swung to the women’s side but the heavily patriarchal societies at the time would have erased that from history (I wonder if the female Arab Muslim Sufi mystic Hazrat Rabia had lived closer to a vegan lifestyle that historians believe).
Then, during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, it may have gone back to the men’s side (with Leonardo Da Vinci, Pierre Gassendi, John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, and Dr William Lambe playing important roles in the evolution of the vegan philosophy). However, in the 19th century, it clearly went to the women’s side, with women such as Frances Power Cobbe, Dr Anna Kingsford, Louise Lind af Hageby, Caroline Earle White, Annie Besant, and other suffragette vegetarian antivivisectionists.
In the first half of the 20th century, the pendulum might have swung again, with men such as Dr Josiah Oldfield, Mohandas Gandhi, Rev. J Brotherton, Louis Rimbault, Donald Watson, and Leslie Cross dominating the picture; perhaps swinging again in the sixties with women such as the writer Ruth Harrison or Kathleen Jannaway (who led the Vegan Society); back in the men side in the eighties with men such as Richard Ryder, Tom Regan, and Peter Singer; back in the women side in the 2000s with Carol J Adams, Dr Breeze Harper, Aph Ko, and so on. A pendulum whose frequency seems to accelerate with time.
Or perhaps none of these is true, and women were always dominating in the past, but they have been erased by male historians (for instance, people tend to only remember Donald Watson as the founder of the Vegan Society in 1944, often forgetting the other founders such as Sally Shrigley, Dorothy Morgan, or Fey Henderson). Interestingly, a photo of the delegates of the 1947 World Vegetarian Congress in Stonehouse, England, shows 23 women and 20 men. In any event, if the gender pendulum hypothesis is true, then we may be getting closer to the women’s peak…but it would then swing back.
The term “segregation of roles” I referred to in the paragraph of my book I quoted means that the movement may be divided into roles which are permanently dominated by different genders. For instance, formalised campaigning organisations run by people identified as women, while grassroots activism being dominated by people identified as men; or spiritual vegans, social justice vegans, and dietary vegans more numerous in the women’s side, whilst animal rights vegans and eco-vegans in the men’s side; or famous activist spokespeople being more likely men, while CEOs of organisations working behind the scenes being more likely women. Perhaps this could be explained if we see the animal rights movement and the veganism movement as two separate social movements with different demographics that are overlapping in many people.
I wrote that paragraph three years ago, and perhaps things have changed, as the hypothesis I postulated in this article about the recent gender shift of activism may be pointing us away from the segregation of roles hypothesis and closer to the pendulum of dominance.
All this is just speculation trying to explain the gender makeup we see, but, as people of my generation have recently learnt, gender (the social construction relating to behaviours and attributes based on labels of masculinity and femininity) is quite artificial, and the binary men-women paradigm might have its days counted. If that is the case, sometime in the future, the pendulum will stop in the middle — and this may be a good thing for everyone. Increasing the frequency of swings also means that each distance travelled is shorter, so what we may be witnessing is indeed a pendulum that is running out of momentum and will indeed stop.
Veganism is Not a Women’s Thing
We may not be in a gender-neutral world yet, so asking, “Is veganism led by women?”, may still be a valid question. The answer may be that, right now, it probably is. This has some social implications, though. As the famous spider comic story says, “with great power comes great responsibility.” If the power of the vegan movement is now mostly in the hands of people identified as women, does this mean that the current direction of the movement — whether it is the right one or the wrong one — now depends on them? Does this mean that dealing with the racism, ableism, xenophobia, transphobia, or sexism we may still find in the movement, is up to them now? Does this mean that the conspiracy theorists, the reducetarians, the flexitarians, the ostreovegans, the beegans, or the veggans that are freely roaming among us, have been let in by them? Does this mean that the rampant unscrupulous commercialism, the carnist-friendly explosion of fake meats, the creeping incursion of animal cell foods, or the erosion of the vegan philosophy, have been caused by them?
Not necessarily. Operating in an overwhelming supremacist colonial capitalist patriarchal system can make any social movement — and any organisation in it — fall into systemic problems of the nature I described, even if led by women. Women who may not always fight such systems — they may work with them instead — and may have inherited stubborn men-generated problems difficult to deal with. Besides, not every woman is a feminist — and not every feminist fights the system effectively — so a women-led vegan movement may still be plagued with carnism, speciesism, colonialism, and patriarchy.
Veganism may be led by people identified as women, but it is not a woman thing. It’s a philosophy that leads to a lifestyle, and both are genderless because they focus on animals. It equally affects sentient beings of all genders, and although feminists may have become vegan because of their discovery of what Carol J. Adams calls “feminized protein” (plant protein produced through the abuse of the reproductive cycle of female animals, such as cows, hens, or bees) is not that they do not care about the doomed fate of the male chicks emerging from hen’s eggs, the anxiety of male calves separated from their mothers before execution, or the agony of bullfighting bulls tortured in bullrings. Veganism, via its core principle of ahimsa, asks any human of any gender to “do no harm” to anyone who can be harmed. And in the last eight decades or so, veganism has generated a social movement that is building a vegan world for everyone. For women, men, non-binary people, males, females, intersex people, trans people, cisgender people, gay people, lesbians, bisexual people, asexual people, older people, people with disabilities, and all the individuals of all animal species. Veganism is not a women’s thing, it’s an earthlings’ thing.
Remember that the “80% of vegans are women” is likely to be an exaggeration — especially if we stick to actual vegans instead of plant-based people. People identified as women may be dominating slightly in numbers, and significantly in campaigning organisations, but they do not run the show entirely. The vegan movement is a transformative socio-political movement, and as such, is unled and it grows organically. It is not run by anyone — or rather, it is run by everyone. It is like a colony of ants which operates as a huge individual, but no ant or sub-group runs it (not even the queen who, essentially, has become just a reproductive organ of the colony).
But also notice this: In nature, when societies have evolved to their highest organisation level with the most effective social structures (what we biologists call eusocieties) they have become dominated by females. We see this in ants, bees, termites, wasps, etc. There is none of these “super societies” on Earth where males are the dominant sex in number or power. I know, sex and gender are not the same things (the World Health Organisation regional office for Europe describes sex as characteristics that are biologically defined, whereas gender is based on socially constructed features), and human societies have strong cultural dimensions that often overshadow our biology. But I am just saying this because, if in the future the role of women in the vegan movement increases even more, I would not find this “unnatural”.
I would welcome it. I would be happy to play any role left for me because I would trust more such a women-led movement than its opposite (look at what patriarchal societies have done so far with the world). This is because I now realise I have always been an outsider, and the best things I have done come from being an outsider. It has kept me alert and has allowed me to push the envelope. It has given me freedom and has allowed me to explore beyond boundaries.
I realise that seeing myself as an outsider is no longer a bad feeling for me. Being in the minority has sharpened my mind and cleared my voice. It makes me feel I have a purpose as an individual. Perhaps all those in history who propelled the vegan movement forward were all outsiders too, and that quality influenced more their actions than their gender.
I am an optimist, and this is why I believe in the vegan world. I have great hopes for a society that is slowly starting to embrace the other genders, the “outsider” genders, because this suggests maturity.
We are all outsiders from the moment we left our mother’s womb.
Accepting it may help us all.