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The idea that vegetarianism and feminism are intricately connected makes some people uncomfortable.
When I express this idea out loud, I get weird looks. My family members, who come from oppressive countries with histories of both animal-eating and anti-woman attitudes, tell me I’m going through a phase. Or that I have a belief in something that doesn’t make sense, as if I’m exposing them to a made-up conspiracy theory shared by a random man in his underwear who posted it to Reddit.
They treat me and the ideas I present like I belong to a cult, indoctrinated by an odd belief system that doesn’t have solid footing in any aspect of reality — not one they know, at least.
When I first read Carol J. Adams’s groundbreaking book, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, I felt less alone. It put into words these feelings that I had inside of me but never knew how to express before the moment I read it.
Adams’s book examines in great detail the connections between meat-eating and misogyny. Veganism challenges the patriarchy, Adams argues, in that it rejects and dismantles meat-eating because of undeniable parallels between the oppression of women and animals at the hands of man.
Adams, now 70 years old, spoke to me more than three decades after The Sexual Politics of Meat came out. She started working on it in the ’70s, she said in our interview. When it was finally published in 1990, mainstream media outlets were harsh in their reviews.
She remembers the criticism clearly, some of it verbatim.
“A full-page discussion of it happened in one of the large Australian papers,” she recalled. “Oh my, they just hated the book. Or in England, one of the leading papers, they allowed a novelist to devote a whole page – a whole page – to hating the book.”
Reception was also poor in the United States. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who died in early 2021, “couldn’t stop talking about it” on his show, Adams noted. He mocked her and her book for “a whole summer” and egged her on in front of his millions of listeners.
As Adams remembers it, at one point he threatened to eat a whole cow while giving his opinions on her book and asked his audience, “What is Carol Adams going to do about that?” Fans and those close to Adams contacted her after hearing Limbaugh’s segment, imploring her to take a public stand against him and fight back – but, she says, she never thought it was worth it to get into a feud with Limbaugh.
It wasn’t until The Washington Post published a positive review of the book that it took off.
“The book just sort of started having its own life,” Adams told me.
From all over the world, Adams began receiving examples of billboards or sculptures in public depicting one of the main tenets of her book, the sexualization of meat. Fans fervently asked her what she’d write next.
In June, 1990, animal rights activists gathered for a march on Washington, D.C. They “were so excited that there was a book that provided a social justice context to what they were doing, or that helped explain how thinking about animals, thinking about eating animals and what we’re doing to animals is part of a progressive or a liberal framework perspective,” Adams reflected.
Yet, here we are, 31 years later, and not much seems to have changed. Meat-eating is still accepted in American culture. Nobody asks why somebody eats meat. It’s always the person resistant to meat who gets asked why. Non-meat-eaters are still ridiculed, even by some of the world’s most famous chefs. Think of Gordon Ramsay who, before a more recent change of heart, was known for mocking plant-eaters and even attempting to trick vegans into eating meat.
“If someone has made his livelihood figuring out how to infuse flavor into dead flesh, he doesn’t want to necessarily be proven wrong, or that he wasted his life. He’s defending his own self-identity, not just his business, but the identity he’s created for himself,” Adams said of Ramsay. “So much of the taste is coming from what you do to the flesh, the spices, the marinades, all those different flavors that are being put on it,” rather than any unique flavor of meat itself, she added.
In the more than 30 years since Adams’s book has been published, there have been tremendous changes to the way people experience fast food and fine dining.
Plant-based meals have creeped into America’s finest dining experiences, suggesting that a tide is turning. The three-Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park, for example, has become the latest restaurant offering exclusively vegan cuisine.
Adams said she’s met Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown. He told her about how he views the Impossible Burger as food’s “equivalent of the gateway drug.” It shows people they can live without a hamburger, contrary to their deepest belief that they cannot.
To Adams, Eleven Madison Park’s menu overhaul and the development of the Impossible Burger are signs of changes to the way humans think about and the frequency with which they consume meat. But I wonder if those changes are enough.
I asked Adams whether she views them as a good thing, as a positive step toward achieving a meat-free world.
Adams’s answer surprised me. She said a lot of people — and restaurants — adopt meat-free diets because they want to either have or at least offer a healthier lifestyle. But, she suggested, health virtue alone might not be deep enough a reason to create meaningful change. We have to think about the tension between animals and humans that places the former on a lower rung of the hierarchy.
There is “this sense that we are different from and better than the other animals,” she said, which “helps to perpetuate a focus only on what’s happening within the human world […] this human-centered, anthropocentric world, it is just suffused with male attitudes,” Adams added.
Maybe we’re not better than the other animals living on this planet. Maybe human consciousness isn’t worth as much as we say it is. Maybe we are clinging to these distinctions between humans and animals that need to be more carefully scrutinized. Until we are willing to think through these questions, Adams seemed to suggest, connections between feminism and meat-eating will not be apparent to most people. And an element of the patriarchy will be perpetuated if we feminists don’t address meat-eating in our ethos.
Now, once again, to try to explain this to my carnivorous parents.