Historically, women have played a very important —although hidden— role in the fight for the rights and liberation of animals, and they continue to do so. Many animal causes and some aspects of feminism have been closely related for centuries. Since the 19th century, many feminists were crucial in the constitution of the first organizations in defense of animals and in the expansion of vegetarianism. Today, the growing animal movement is made up mostly of women, who are also more predisposed than men to avoid products of animal origin.
One of the first women that the records allow us to recognize as a defender of animals and, at the same time, of women is Eleanor of Arborea, who, as the reigning judge of Sardinia at the end of the 14th century, promulgated one of the first civil codes that are known in the history of Europe. Her laws protected women’s property rights and authorized them to annul their marriage in case of mistreatment. Likewise, she established for the first time the formal defense of birds of prey, specifically hawks, whose nests were legally protected against hunters. These innovative laws remained in force until the unification of Italy in 1861, showing the great impact of this woman in history.
The data allow us to see more clearly the link between the fight for women’s rights and the defense of animals later, from the 19th century. It is known, for example, that many of the activists of the suffrage movement were vegetarians. Such is the case with Lady Constance Lytton, Charlotte Despard, Teresa Billington-Greig, Margaret Cousins, Anne Cobden-Sanderson and Leonora Cohen, to name a few. Even in prison, many suffragettes refused to eat animals because it went against their principles, in some cases being allowed to eat a vegetarian diet during their imprisonment. And not only did they limit themselves to practicing an empathic diet personally but they also spread vegetarianism by distributing recipes through different media and opening vegetarian restaurants that became meeting places for feminists.
The struggles against vivisection and hunting also had large female participation, as several publications in Shafts, one of the first feminist magazines, show. In turn, many of the organizations in defense of animals that proliferated between the 19th and 20th centuries were founded by women, many of them also feminists. Battersea Dogs’ Home, the National Anti-Vivisection Society (Ireland), the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, the Animal Defense and Anti-Vivisection Society, the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the American Anti-Vivisection Society, the Plumage League, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the League for the Prohibition of Cruel Sports, the Vegan Society, the Animal Welfare Institute, and the Humane Society of the United States, to name just a few examples, were created or co-founded by women.
But the female participation in the active defense of the interests of animals is not a thing of the past. Currently, the animal rights movement is made up mostly of women, and various studies show that the same is true of the vegan and vegetarian populations in different parts of the world. Why?
There is no single answer, but there are several reasons why the fight for animal rights has a clear link with feminism. As Aph Ko discusses, “the objectification and exploitation of animal lives and bodies ought to come under great scrutiny by feminists given that feminism is all about fighting against the way patriarchy dismisses certain being’s interests and subjectivity for the benefit of arbitrarily designated ‘superior’ beings.” The activist mentions that the bodies of animals are also objectified and used to normalize the culture of rape, that domestic violence affects both women and animals and that our society tells lies about animals in the same way as about women to naturalize cultural attitudes that affect these two oppressed groups.
Another activist who makes the link between different forms of oppression very clear is Angela Davis, for whom “the fact that we can sit down and eat a piece of chicken without thinking about the horrendous conditions under which chickens are industrially bred in this country is a sign of the dangers of capitalism, how capitalism has colonized our minds.” Likewise, she mentions that “there is a connection between the way we treat animals and the way we treat people who are at the bottom of the hierarchy.” In her opinion, “people who commit such violence on other human beings have often learned how to enjoy that by enacting violence on animals.”
It should be clarified that, despite the link between patriarchal and speciesist domination, not all feminisms consider animals in their horizon of struggle. However, some currents, such as ecofeminism or, more directly, anti-speciesist feminism, do promote the inclusion of other species in the joint struggle for a non-anthropocentric social liberation, as an obvious premise of the most elementary principles of feminism.
Unfortunately, despite the major women’s participation in the animal movement since its origins, many spaces of power in this area continue to be occupied by men. For this reason, animalist feminists have the double task of making the animal issue visible among feminist circles and combating sexism and male privilege within the animal movement. For a radical social change that benefits all animals, including humans, an intersectional approach is essential.