Monday, October 28, 2013

Animals and Women

“If the cutoff for perceived dignity and worth, and for the right to be free from exploitation and abuse, were not the border between human and nonhuman, the suggestion that women are somehow less human than men would have no political force….

…When human society moves beyond speciesism – to membership in animalkind – ‘animal’ imagery will no longer demean women or assist in their oppression, but will represent their liberation. When we finally cross the species boundary that keeps other animals oppressed, we will have crossed the boundary that circumscribes our lives.”
– Joan Dunayer
I think I’ll have to make my fiction and nonfiction social justice and animal liberation reading lists into continually updated resources as I become aware of and read new books and articles. I’ve just started Animals and Women: Feminist Theoretical Perspectives (1995), which, judging from what I’ve read so far, is very likely to be added to the list of recommendations.*

The editors and authors speak to other feminists, calling for an inclusive feminism that’s morally consistent, empirically grounded, and practically effective. In response to the “historical alignment of women and animals” at the heart of patriarchy, the editors note, “liberal feminists have stressed that women are intellects and have rational minds – like men and unlike animals.” While sympathetic to this impulse,** they advocate “a broader feminism, a radical cultural feminism, which provides an analysis of oppression and offers a vision of liberation that extends well beyond the liberal equation, incorporating within it other life-forms besides human beings”:
We believe that all oppressions are interconnected: no one creature will be free until all are free – from abuse, degradation, exploitation, pollution, and commercialization. Women and animals have shared these oppressions historically, and until the mentality of domination is ended in all its forms, these afflictions will continue.

…[W]e believe that women, as themselves victims of objectification and exploitation, must not abandon other victims of such treatment in their rush to be accepted as ‘persons’ entitled to equal rights. Women must not deny their historical linkage with animals but rather remain faithful to them, bounded as we are not just by centuries of similar abuse but also by the knowledge that they – like us, often objectified as Other – are subjects worthy of the care, the respect, even the reverence, that the sacredness*** of consciousness deserves. Such an assertion of subjectivity is necessarily subversive of domination in all its forms.
The first chapter, “Sexist Words, Speciesist Roots” by Joan Dunayer, is especially relevant to ongoing discussions of bigoted slurs and woman-animal comparisons. Dunayer notes that feminists “have long objected to ‘animal’ pejoratives for women and the pseudogenerics man and mankind.” “These linguistic habits,” she explains, “are rooted in speciesism, the assumption that other animals are inferior to humans and do not warrant equal consideration and respect.”

Denigrating humans by comparing them to other animals works within and because of a context of speciesist habits of thought and practices of exploitation, which it in turn helps to perpetuate:
Although nonhuman animals cannot discern the contempt in the words that disparage them, this contempt legitimates their oppression. Like sexist language, speciesist language fosters exploitation and abuse. As feminist philosopher Stephanie Ross (1981) has stated with regard to women, ‘oppression does not require the awareness or cooperation of its victims’ (199).
Dunayer discusses the tendency among women and feminists to respond by emphasizing our alleged distance from other animals and likeness to (the ideological image of) men:
When a woman responds to mistreatment by protesting ‘I’m a human being!’ or ‘I want to be treated with respect, not like some animal’, what is she suggesting about the acceptable ways of treating other animals?

Perhaps because comparisons between women and nonhuman animals so often entail sexism, many women are anxious to distance themselves from other animals. Feminists, especially, recognize that negative ‘animal’ imagery has advanced women’s oppression. However, if our treatment and view of other animals became caring, respectful, and just, nonhuman-animal metaphors would quickly lose all power to demean. Few women have confronted how closely they mirror patriarchal oppressors when they too participate in other species’ denigration. Women who avoid acknowledging that they are animals closely resemble men who prefer to ignore that women are human.
As I move on to the subsequent chapters, I’m sure I’ll find much with which to disagree, but I suspect all of it will be worthwhile.

* There are animal studies bibliographies available (this one isn’t as intimidating as it looks, since several books are listed under more than one category), but I prefer to limit my recommendations to those works with which I’m more familiar personally. I was pleased to notice there a book that seems to be what I’ve been looking for.

** They suggest that “It may be that this emphasis on severing the woman-animal identification was a necessary phase in the transformation of cultural ideology about women.” I’ve never believed that liberation movements have necessary phases that are contrary to the culture and society they’re trying to create.

*** Not loving this language.

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