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Should feminists be vegetarians?

Food, Gender and Oppression in a Feminist Brazilian Perspective
Les féministes devraient-elles être végétariennes ? Alimentation, genre et oppression dans une perspective féministe brésilienne
Livia Barbosa, Diego Silva and Veranise Dubeux

Abstracts

This paper examines how a group of seventeen self-defined Brazilian feminists reacts to the idea of a moral link between feminism and vegetarianism, as developed by some ecofeminists in the eighties of the last century. These women argue in favour of vegetarianism as the correct ethical behaviour for feminist women, articulated as an expression of their fight against oppressions concerning themselves, nature or animals. Through a series of semi-structured interviews, we analyse the reflections of these Brazilian feminists about this moral link and their position in relation to the question: should feminists be vegetarians?

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We would like to thank all the women who participated in this research for their generosity with their time and their interest in the questions posed to them.

Introduction

1Since the end of last century, the “traditional” western diet based on “meat, milk and bread” has been under intense criticism due to the growing concerns about its health and environmental implications, coupled with a greater awareness about the cruel treatment of animals by the meat industry and the social inequalities in food distribution. How to “eat right”, however it may be defined, ceased to be a concern limited to the nutritional aspects of “what we eat” and became also a preoccupation about the social, environmental and moral aspects involved in the production, marketing and consumption of food. Expressions like “voting with your fork”, “eat consciously”, “responsible eating” express the understanding that our personal food choices are no longer only a matter of individual tastes and preferences and have become a matter of moral and public concern (Barbosa 2015). In short, “the personal became political” to repeat the words of the popular feminist mantra of the seventies (Hanisch 1969 ; 2006).

2In this context, the advantages of a vegetarian diet came to the fore, with its fast growth all over the world, mainly among young people1, and seen as a response, among others, to ethical concerns regarding not only the health and environmental crises but also the welfare and rights of animals, that have been championed by philosophers like Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Gary Francione, Dean Curtin, who are fierce proponents of what is called “ethical/ moral vegetarianism”.

  • 2 Ecofeminism can also be referred to as ecological feminism, feminist environmentalism and critical (...)

3Less known and discussed is the moral link between feminism and vegetarianism theoretically developed by some ecofeminists in the eighties of the last century2. It argues in favour of vegetarianism as the correct moral behaviour for feminist women, in their fight against oppression.

4Historically, the relation between feminism, food and eating has been a troublesome one, since it was predominantly approached through the lenses of patriarchal oppression (Avakian & Harber 2005). With the moral implications established between being a feminist and also a vegetarian, this situation is inverted. Food, in the form of the vegetarian diet, is transformed into a key political weapon which aim is to dismantle patriarchalism, capitalism and their oppression over women, animals and nature.

  • 3 More recent contributions related to the different ecofeminist approaches to food ethics, can be fo (...)

5But as it is well known, ecofeminism never became a central theme within feminism (Puelo 2011). Its lack of popularity can be attributed to its association with “essentialism”, “totalizing discourses” and positions which curb women’s right to choose (Gaard 2011: 31)3. In Brazil, ecofeminism and vegetarian feminism followed similar paths.

  • 4 Unpublished literature review conducted by the authors in preparation for the research, complemente (...)
  • 5 See Vettese Troy & Blanchette Alex, COVID 19 shows factory food production is dangerous for animals (...)

6Both have been ignored, until recently academically as well as in terms of activism.4 However, the deepening of the ecological crisis, the growth of animal rights, the fourth wave of feminism and the strengthening of identity-based movements are beginning to change this picture, opening up the possibility for converging agendas inter and intra social movements that have traditionally been kept apart. If we add to this the current COVID 19 pandemic, that has highlighted many new questions involving the production and consumption of meat5; Brazil’s position as the world’s second largest producer of animal protein and the dominance of meat culture, the convergence of feminism and vegetarianism on ethical grounds will be an important variable to be considered in any discussion of food ethics and food policies in the near future.

7Guided by this perspective, we developed an exploratory piece of qualitative research, as part of a broader research project on food ethics and trends in contemporary Brazil. Our objective was to map the extent to which a small group of Brazilian feminists was aware of the debate on feminism and vegetarianism. Based on the literature developed by ecofeminists we explore how the moral link established between feminism and vegetarianism reverberates in our sample’s engagement with feminism, their food practices, social and professional networks and in their willingness to consider vegetarianism as the correct moral behaviour for feminist women.

8A prior analysis of the Brazilian literature, informal interviews and “searches” on the internet indicate that Brazilian feminism attributes little or no importance to the moral link between feminism and vegetarianism. Although the percentage of vegetarians/vegans is increasing in Brazil6, the adoption of this diet is motivated more by environmental concerns, animal welfare and the fight against the meat industry and capitalism than by a new ethical stance of feminism toward nonhuman animals7 in a context of combat against oppressions.

9We have divided this article into five sections. The first one, this introduction, is followed by a brief review of the academic debate conducted by ecofeminists regarding ethical vegetarianism and feminism in the United Sates from 1980 onwards and the critiques that followed, which informed the structure of the interviews and the key ethical points discussed. The third section deals with the research methodology and the sample profile of our qualitative research. In the fourth section we present and discuss the interview data. The last section is devoted to final remarks.

The theoretical framework of Vegetarian Ecofeminism

10The theoretical framework that links feminism with vegetarianism, in the ecofeminist perspective, is rooted in the idea that all forms of oppression are interlocked, reinforce one another, and are equally the consequences of a single system of inequalities produced by the patriarchal society and its underlying hierarchical dualistic logic (Gaard 1993; 2002; 2011; Donovan 1990; Kheel 2005; Warren 2000; 1990).

11For vegetarian ecofeminists, the inequality of women in relation to men is not considered as different from the inferiority attributed to animals and to nature in relation to humans. In this context, the fight against the oppression of all women, as well as animals and nature, should be adopted simultaneously. This perspective rejects a hierarchy of causes, as has been proposed by mainstream feminism, with the argument of not dispersing forces and efforts.

12Susan Griffin (1979) was one of the first authors to indicate the similarities between the condition of animals and women under patriarchal societies. After her original work in the 1970s, other theorists supported the idea that a patriarchal “logic of domination” rested at the heart of the mistreatment of women, nature and animals (Warren 1990). For ecofeminists such as Geert Gaard (1993; 2002) and Lori Gruen (1993), vegetarian feminism is the logical development of feminism and ecofeminism. Gaard (2002) goes even further and suggests that vegetarian ecofeminism should be a special strand within the fight against speciesism; to exclude the oppression of animals from feminist and ecofeminist analyses is to offer an incomplete picture of reality

13For Carol Adams, the oppression of non-human animals is at the root of all other types of oppression. According to her, every time a human group has been persecuted, humiliated and made the object of genocide, the association with animals was always at the starting point (Adams 2016). She also argues that social inequalities among humans are structurally similar to the treatment imposed on animals, and just as we see them as inferior and subordinated to us, the unequal treatment of people becomes similarly acceptable to our society. This attribution of inferiority has been used to justify slavery, genocide, discrimination and many other forms of brutality and injustice.

14The process of objectification – the denial to others of the legitimacy of his/her subjectivity, interests and rights - is the first step in the establishment of oppression and opens the door to violence and subjugation. But the oppression that links women to animals is not sexually neuter. Just as in patriarchal society, the female body is treated differently from the male one, by having their sexual physical dimensions controlled and explored according to certain criteria (beauty, emotionality, fecundity and so on), the non-human animal female body is also differentially treated and abusively explored in its reproductive capacity (rape rack, permanent pregnancy, etc.), in modern industrial practices (Kheel 2005; Adams 1991; 2010; Mackinnon 2004).

  • 8 See Peta’s advertisement “The animal Liberation Project” and the introduction of Sistah Vegan by A. (...)

15For Adams (2007), the association between the oppression of women and non-human animals should not be seen as a devaluation of women or a dismissal of black people’s suffering during the period of slavery, as has been argued by many feminists and black activists when they react to these analogies made in a variety of circumstances and marketing campaigns in defence of animal rights.8 In fact, such associations allow us to perceive the structural links that lie behind the treatment bestowed upon both women and animals, and how different forms of oppression are intertwined and can be captured in negative associations in everyday life and language. In “The Sexual Politics of Meat”, for instance, Adams (1990) analyses the process of cultural sexualisation of meat consumption and the animalization of women in western societies. The term meat, she argues, is used as an “absent referent”, a key analytical concept, for illustrating how we use language to ignore the presence and suffering that a concrete animal underwent until it arrived on our plates. Women are also used as absent referents when they receive objectifying treatment and have their body animalized as “pieces of meat”.

16According to Gaard (1993), Gruen (1993), Donovan (2007) and Luke (1995), human beings have an innate sense of sympathy towards animals that has been misrepresented by the meat industry, scientific establishment and marketing campaigns within patriarchal societies. Vegetarian ecofeminists want to break these social negative constructions and revive these feelings of sympathies. The similarities between the oppression of animals and women, recognized in multiple circumstances as mentioned above, can lead women to a feeling of identification with animal’s ordeal, opening space for the revival of compelling sympathies which see as abhorrent the idea of using them for food (Adams 1991:129), thereby undercutting the patriarchal hierarchical binary opposition between human and animal (Warren 2002) which justifies the exclusion of extending rights to animals.

17In this context, “ethical vegetarianism” should not be understood simply as a diet based on nutritional/ health/ environmental reasons or for the sake of animals rights, as argued by utilitarian and liberationist perspectives developed by Peter Singer (1975) and Tom Regan (2001). On the contrary, for vegetarian ecofeminists, the adoption of a vegetarian diet represents both an ethical attitude and a political act. It shows people’s ability “to translate their compassion and sympathy for the suffering of nonhuman animals into their own dietary choices”, (Gaard 2002 : 119), breaking interspecies boundaries. Instead of rights it speaks of care and emotions. It transforms into action the idea that “the personal is political”. And furthermore, vegetarian ecofeminism is a form of resistance to a capitalist male-dominated culture, where meat consumption is one of its best expressions, that treats unequally and oppressively both women and animals (Lewis 2015). Consequently, to be a feminist implies also to be a vegetarian.

Critics of Vegetarianism as a Moral Mandate for Feminist Women

18Not all feminists and ecofeminists agree with the arguments above. Diane Curtis (1991), for instance, rejects the idea of an absolute moral norm to be applied in all circumstances and proposes the idea of a contextual moral vegetarianism, that considers dynamically different cultural and social contexts and admits that it is impossible to eliminate violence and suffering from our existence.

19Christian Bailey (2007) also favours a more contextual position. To eat meat, she argues, has different meanings for different cultures and individuals. So, “ethical vegetarianism” should not adopt an inflexible position that shows insensitivity to the reality of women’s lives in other cultures. It should advocate the deconstruction of racial, gender and class identity and their associations with meat.

20Katherine Praxton George has also argued against vegetarianism as the correct moral behaviour to be adopted by feminists. In her article “Should Feminists be Vegetarians” (1994), she gave a very straightforward answer to the question: no. Developing her arguments in a dialogue with traditional moral theory, she states that in order to be true, a moral principle cannot infringe the equality/ impartiality principle and that is exactly what happens in the case of vegetarianism as a moral mandate. In practice it involves a higher nutritional cost for women, children and old people than for men, violating the principles of impartiality and universality and showing inconsistency with the feminist-vegetarian argument. For George, the answer that traditional moral theory would offer to the differences which exist among groups would be to allow some people to consume meat and other animal products according to their physiological need or environmental situation. However, this is an unacceptable solution for her, since such groups might become the object of a “moral permission” for not being complete moral beings, for reasons entirely out of their control: “we would be excluding other societies as morally ignorant or culturally backward”, (opus cit : 427). For George, this is moral arrogance. She concludes by affirming her ideas as “coextensive with the efforts of several feminists in developing a contextual ethics” (opus cit : 428).

21For Val Plumwood (2004), ontological veganism, as she has labelled the ecofeminist moral argument for not eating meat, is based on an anthropocentric perspective that does not confront the fundamental opposition between humans and nature. In fact, it exacerbates it, by attributing human status and privileges to a class of nonhuman animals, beyond any kind of possible use or relation with humans. This leads us to a universalized rejection of all social and cultural practices of societies that relate differently with their natural environment, and emphasizes western ethnocentrism by defending the universalization of elitist practices of urban western society and by treating all other cultures as exceptions to what is considered to be the ideal norm. This stance ends up increasing our ecological risk by preventing us, human animals, being conscious of ourselves as part of nature. The idea that we humans are not an integral part of a natural ecosystem emphasizes also the discontinuity between animals and plants and does not recognize our inevitable predatory practices in relation to both, if we continue to defend the right of the human race to survival.

22As an alternative to ontological veganism Plumwood (2004) suggests ecological animalism. In this perspective animals are celebrated without distinguishing any particular class among them. At the same time, it encourages dialogical ethics of sharing between humans and non-human animals. On this perspective, we are all part of the same system of exchange among vital cycles, feeding and being fed. By emphasizing this perception of humans as part of the same ecological system as all other vital cycles, ecological animalism proposes a new human identity, not outside nature, but on the contrary reinserted into it, as an integral part of the ecological system, as part of a holistic food chain, not only as predators but also as preys (Plumwood 2012).

23Several other critics have positioned themselves against vegetarianism as a moral mandate for feminist women. This further loss of autonomy, already usurped for centuries by patriarchy, would be unacceptable to many and seen as denying them their freedom of choice. It is also seen as an expression to value imperialism and cultural chauvinism (Meyerding 1982; Cuome and Gruen 1998), while a further critique argues that the absence of reciprocal relations between humans and animals would release us from the moral obligations of adopting a vegetarian diet (Nodding 1984).

24Ecofeminists react to some of these critics. For Adams, the feminists who interpret eating meat as part of their freedom of choice are mistaken. She asks if “we, women, should define our autonomy based on a male privilege dressed up in a female outfit? Or should we structure our autonomy in an entirely new form? One person cannot obtain autonomy at the expense of others. This is not freedom, this is not autonomy, this is privilege (apud Wiley 1991: 65).” For others, feminism was never only about women. “It is a critical discourse that asks uncomfortable questions about everything” (Burke Linda, apud. Garrad 2002 : 117). And it is exactly this capacity of feminism to ask uncomfortable questions that led Marti Kheel (2005) to change the traditional question “Why should we stop eating meat?” into “Why do we eat meat?”.

Research and Sample

25Based on the theoretical arguments developed in the previous section, we conducted a qualitative investigation among seventeen self-declared feminist women between 2018 and the first semester of 2019. All the interviews were recorded, based on a semi-structured questionnaire, conducted in person or via Skype and each lasted around one and half hour. The participants were chosen through the snow-ball technique, where one interviewee indicates another. Our snowball began with the academic networks of the authors of this article, and consequently the specificity of our sample should be taken into account. All verbatim are kept anonymous.

26The interviews were divided into four different sections. The first one dealt with the interviewee’s history and engagement with feminism, followed by their discourses and perceptions about their own food habits, their thoughts on the similarities between the oppression of women and animals and the adoption of feminism and vegetarianism as the correct ethical behaviour for feminist women.

27The interviewees’ ages ranged between 19 and 61 years old. Most women lived in urban centres in the Southern and Southeastern regions of Brazil, but originally they came from six different states in the country. Regarding their marital status, eleven declared themselves single, four married and two living with a partner in a stable relationship.

28 When their educational formation is considered, twelve had both a masters and a doctoral degree, five were undergraduate students, ten were university professors both in private and public institutions, in areas such as gender and feminist studies, social sciences, design and communication studies. Five were still studying at the time of the interviews, one was in the process of obtaining a post-doctoral fellowship and another was a liberal professional.

  • 9 Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistic

29Their personal and family incomes place them in the middle and upper middle classes of the Brazilian population, according to the income criteria of the IBGE9. In terms of status, thirteen saw themselves as members of the middle-class, four as upper middle class, with one defining herself as “poor”.

30Eleven out of seventeen women participated in some type of feminist, environmental or animal rights organization, with a participation frequency ranging from weekly to occasional; six declared that they did not belong formally to any kind of activist organizations. In terms of social media, nine followed groups on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, blogs and other social media; eight browsed the internet for their interests without being a regular follower of any specific group.

31None of the interviewees declared affiliation to any political party. However, most displayed affinity with leftist parties, such as the Socialism & Freedom Party (PSOL), the Workers’ Party (PT) and the Democratic Labour Party (PDT).

Feminism and Ecofeminism

32Most of the women had their first encounter with feminism at the end of adolescence. The reasons that led them to embrace feminism were varied: a patriarchal family structure, a divorced and independent mother, a political activist father, militancy in student associations, the experience of studying abroad, and others.

33 For all of the interviewees, to be a feminist is a central aspect of their identities. Some of them make it explicit in all social circumstances; others do so only when the situation “demands it”. Independently of the way they act in public, they are all very active in their daily lives in denouncing practices, jokes or behaviours they consider “sexist” or derogatory of the female condition.

34When asked which type of feminism they subscribe to, the interviewees mentioned progressive Marxist, intersectional, pre-figurative or “just feminism”. Notions of “equality”, “respect” and “sorority” were considered feminist values and agendas regarding equal payment, the defense of abortion, sexual harassment, violence against women, as well as participation in public life and political representation were frequently mentioned.

35Feminism is also a key factor in their political life and in their decisions for whom to vote. Eight women said they always looked for women candidates and one declared that she had voted only for women in the last eight years. On the other hand, seven preferred to vote accordingly to the agenda of the candidates.

36Regarding their knowledge about ecofeminism only one of the interviewees was aware of the concept beyond the level of “I heard something about it…” and was somewhat acquainted with the surrounding debates, authors and the academic theses involved in our research. Three other women had “heard about”, “knew someone that…” or “read something about ecofeminism” in a loose manner. Vandana Shiva, Carol Adams and Donna Haraway were the authors mentioned that most closely related to the subject. Tom Regan and Peter Singer were mentioned by one woman who was more active on animal welfare causes.

Vegetarian, Vegans and Meat Eaters

37It was not a requirement to be a vegetarian or a vegan to participate in our research, and we were surprised to find out that there were six vegetarians and three vegans, comprising a slight majority of the sample, nine out of seventeen (52%), with eight of the women declaring themselves meat eaters.

38More than half of the women in the meat eaters group reported feelings of discomfort about their diet. These varied from not being very fond of meat to health and environmental concerns. Plans for diminishing the consumption of meat or even stopping altogether were in the minds of at least four of them. Independently of the alleged discomfort of some, all the women in this group made a point of declaring their pleasure in eating vegetarian food and some even stressed that they did so frequently. Disapproval of animal suffering at the hands of the meat industry and a position critical of capitalism were emphatically present in the discourses of all.

39 For eight out of the nine women who declared themselves to be vegetarians or vegans, feminism came earlier than their option for a vegetarian diet. For only one, feminism and veganism arrived together in her adolescent years. Five out of six of the vegetarians expressed a growing desire to become vegans. However, to exclude eggs, milk, dairy products and all other kinds of animal products from their everyday lives was for them not an easy option. Practical reasons (time, living with parents, cooking skills, availability of products, price, etc.), taste and nutritious concerns all play a part in the decision making. But the desire is strong and two of the younger women established a kind of a ritual deadline for becoming vegans in the near future.

40Only one of the vegetarian women does not consider becoming vegan. She defines herself as a strict vegetarian, and does not think much of veganism. She sees it as a fashion, as marketing. For her, vegan labels on food do not mean very much; what is important is to eat healthy, which means “giving the body what it needs”, “you can be a vegan and eat only junk food”.

41Similar to their engagement with the feminist cause, to become vegetarian or vegan was, for most of the interviewees, a process usually marked by a “turning point”. This varied from “watching a documentary about the food industry and meat factories, that changed my mind” to a feeling of repulsion for meat and feelings of pollution.

42Most responded negatively when asked whether their diet choice had brought them difficulties and tensions in their social and family lives. Reactions appeared disguised as jokes, ironic comments or worries about health, but not as direct aggression. One young woman reported a negative reaction from her mother, who refused to eat a vegetarian meal prepared by her daughter and went out and bought a roasted chicken. Two other young women reported concerns about their father’s reaction, but in both cases everything turned out well. In one case, the young woman’s vegetarianism has brought them closer. The father likes to cook and every time he cooks, they choose together something exciting that will please them both. In parties and family gatherings she listens to jokes like, “are you eating grass?” but this does not bother her. It is her family’s way of showing her affection and concern. Besides, she is “so proud of not being a part of all that” (food with meat), that she “couldn’t care less!”.

43For the other interviewee, initially her father was upset because he usually prepared a barbecue for the family over the weekends and she, as a vegan, would not be able to participate. But she explained to him that she would be participating as actively as before since it was only a matter of substitution, changing meat for vegetables, roots and other things. She also added that her diet has never restricted her social life; on the contrary she uses it to make a point in favor of veganism. She likes to present herself as a vegan, “to convince people through their stomach of the goodness of her choice”, demonstrating that it is not only feasible but also good to be vegan. It is important to mention that these three women are the youngest in the sample, and they make a point of presenting themselves in social occasions as feminists and vegetarians/ vegans. For them, their food option is an integral part of their social identity.

44Only one woman declared that her diet brought her difficulties in her social life. Her “strict vegetarianism”, as she defines her option, regulates her social, sexual and emotional life: “My partner has to be a vegetarian. In my place there is no meat and no possibility of cooking meat. If you are open to having a meal without meat, then we can be friends…”.

45A young vegan woman declared also that she would not date or marry anybody that would eat meat. To be at least vegetarian would be a requirement for a partner. For all the other interviewees, to be vegetarian/ vegan is not a criterion mentioned for choosing a partner or a friend. Three of the interviewees specifically mentioned that their current partners do eat meat. By the same token, the vegetarian/ vegan choices of these women are taken into account in family and friends’ outings. People make an effort to choose places where a menu can be found with different options and where everybody could enjoy a good meal. Sharing a vegetarian/ vegan dish with a vegan/ vegetarian girl friend or a brother is not uncommon. “Get togethers” are also organized along these lines. Food is planned in advance for everybody to have what they normally eat and enjoy.

46Although vegetarian/ vegan diets, in the last decades, have come to be considered sufficiently nutritional for a healthy life, several women in our sample went to a doctor or a nutritionist before or during the transitional phase, or spent time on the internet gathering information about how to eat nutritiously, experimenting with foods and organizing themselves for becoming vegetarians.

Is Vegetarianism the Correct Moral Behaviour for Feminist Woman?

47We approached this topic in two steps. We began by questioning our interviewees about their thoughts on the similarity between the oppression of women and the oppression of non-human animals. Most of the interviewees said they never had thought along these lines, but once the argument was posed it sounded logical and coherent for some of them.

“-At the beginning I said no, because I had never established this relationship, but now thinking about it… it makes sense. The world has been subjugating animals and disposing of their bodies as if they were created to serve it, and this is similar to what has been happening all along with women…

-I became a vegetarian out of pity for the animals. I had never thought about it before. As I became more involved with the cause I started thinking more about female exploitation… about humans exploiting non-human females, like having a pet or buying a pet from a female animal kept in captivity for reproduction.”

48However, the majority did not see similarities between the oppression of women and animals. “I do not think that female oppression is similar to animal’s oppression… For me, animal suffering is even more brutal than women´s suffering since they can’t even ask for help or consideration.”

49Other arguments were: women are recognized as subjects of rights, animals are not; women can plead their cause, animals cannot; woman and animal oppression have their roots in different social and political grounds; and, they are not intertwined oppressions, since one can finish and the other can continue. As one said: “the fight in favor of animal rights will not be better fought by feminist women nor will I feel less oppressed if the world becomes vegetarian.”

50Regarding the question: is vegetarianism the correct moral behavior for feminist women?, the responses were much more cautious. Of the seventeen interviewees only two, the youngest ones, agreed explicitly with the idea that to be a feminist also implied being vegetarian/ vegan. But they did so with caveats. For one, it would be wrong to judge the feminism of other women because they eat meat. In addition, this debate is not sufficiently disseminated within Brazilian society and feminism: some ideas, it was argued, are difficult to grasp for many people. “I always try to elucidate my position in order to at least help to diminish the consumption of meat. We need to place patriarchal oppression in the center of the discussion about meat but this does not invalidate the fight of other women who are not vegetarians/ vegans”

51For the other, feminism implied vegetarianism/ veganism, not in the sense of being an obligation, but rather in the sense of being a good choice. Such a choice does not imply the exclusion of or the establishing of a distance from people who are not vegetarians.

“I have my own values and I would like other people to share them because I know that animals suffer because of our meat consumption. We human beings have reached a level of technological development that our power over other species is disproportionate to any other. So, I do not think that it is fair to argue that we are all part of the food chain. The fact that we can also be a prey to a wild animal does not imply the right to exploit other animals and reduce their existence to our food and to damage the environment.”

52Another interviewee neither agrees nor disagree entirely, but is in her own words “in between”:

“Feminism is about freedom, about women being free to do whatever they want, but always with an awareness of the many oppressions. As Bourdieu taught us: “our” tastes are not ours, they are socially constructed. So our taste for meat is still a consequence of a profoundly sexist and racist society… From a feminist ethic point of view, it makes sense to tie feminism to vegetarianism. But this does not allow me to deny women their feminism because they are not also vegetarians/ vegans, since many will not even understand the concepts behind this...”

53All the other interviewees had difficulties with the ethical link between feminism and vegetarianism for different reasons. The fact that there may exist similarities between woman´s and animal´s oppressions does not imply a moral obligation to be vegetarian. The sources of oppression are different as well as their nature; women are the subjects of rights, they can defend themselves, they have a voice. The nature of women´s oppression also varies and is different according to class, race and ethnicity. Women´s and animal´s oppression are not interconnected nor do they reproduce one another, since the end of one does not necessarily imply the end of the other. Besides, from a strategic point of view:“This ontological relationship places both movements in a very difficult position in their political fights for social justice, because it limits them both in the establishment of alliances and coalition, as a consequences of the individual practices of their members.”

54For another, “I do not consider that to be a feminist woman implies also being a vegetarian or vegan. I eat meat and I do not intend to stop doing it for feminist reasons. What bothers me is to eat an animal that was ill-treated and to finance the meat industry, but not as an expression of fighting oppressions”.

55And finally, feminism does not have to be the solution to all problems: “I do not have to assume all the “causes” and “to solve all the problems” because I am a feminist. And in my perspective the engagement with vegetarianism has to emerge out of the more complex relationships a person has with issues such as the environment, animal rights, etc.”

Discussion

56Our sample is composed of seventeen highly educated, self-declared middle and upper middle class feminist women. Therefore, the results presented cannot be extrapolated to feminism and feminists in Brazil as a whole. However, they do provide some clues for considering the broader picture in the future.

57Taking into account the data analysed, we can see that, proportionally, vegetarians/ vegans comprise almost the totality of the youngest group of women, four out of five (80%), and half of the second, five out of ten (50%), and none of the older age bracket (100%). When we consider the intention of changing diets, we registered five of the vegetarians of all ages, two of the youngest and three of the middle age brackets, planning to become vegans in the near future and four out of five meat eaters planning to cut down their meat consumption(three) or become vegetarian (one).

58The higher proportion of young vegetarians/ vegans in our sample is consistent with the growth of vegetarianism/ veganism among youth around the world and in Brazil, and suggests that this dietary option might have become a generational trend and value independently of feminism, rooted more in animal suffering and rights and environmental causes. In relation to the proportion of women planning a dietary change in the future, some considerations are due. First, almost all the vegetarians desiring to “evolve” in the direction of veganism do so because they consider veganism a step higher in their fight against animal suffering and exploitation in the hands of the meat industry and capitalism. Even when personal reasons are involved, the focus is on the ethical and political fight. To become vegan is seen as a sharpening of their food ethics. Second, regarding the intention of changing diet by the meat eaters in the sample, the important point to stress, is the growing “ethos” against the consumption of meat. To consume meat, in the context of the environmental crisis, animal suffering and the growing health problems of the western diet is increasingly a practice subject to scrutiny and questioning, requiring justification and the conscious taking of a position. All the women in this category mentioned some of the negative implications of eating meat and how they felt about it, even if they intended to go on consuming it under “labels” such as free range, humane slaughter or compassionate carnivore. The option left for the meat eaters without plans for changing diet was to emphasize their pleasure with vegetarian food, the “food chain” argument, or the long ethnographic history of the human species with meat.

59 Feminism and vegetarianism seem to have been having a different impact in these women lives and social networks. The adoption of vegetarianism/ veganism by our interviewees does not seem to have brought a great deal of tension in their professional, social and family networks. This means that most of the vegetarian feminists have been keeping the same social dynamics and networks as before, which agrees with similar reports about reactions to vegetarianism in the context of Brazilian society (Nunes 2012). The negative reactions reported were disguised as jokes, ironies, and health concerns but were not interpreted as intended to be aggressions or a rejection of vegetarians.

  • 10 Expression used by an English anthropologist on his visit to Brazil and looking at the restaurants’ (...)
  • 11 A type of everyday place to eat, that contemplates all types of foods, ranging from the well-known (...)

60We would not argue that what we have found in our sample can be regarded as the “Brazilian” norm in relation to vegetarianism. However, the accommodation of different tastes and preferences is a common strategy in the Brazilian “model” of social relations. This can be appreciated in the “weird food combinations”10 that can be found on the menus of Brazilian restaurants. The best examples are the “pay by weight”11 and grill houses, both of which contemplate a huge variety of foods, ranging from salads, vegetables, fish, pasta, sushi/ sashimi, rice and beans, meats of all sorts and much more. For “food purists” this can be interpreted as evidence of a lack of taste, refinement or respect for culinary traditions. For Brazilians, it is an attempt to neutralize possible conflicts on where to eat amid a variety of ideological and dietary demands. It can be “read” as the conscious privileging of sociability over food ideologies and the fear of weakening family and social ties around meals.

61The impact of feminism on these women’s social networks, however, follows a more complex dynamic that varies according to age. For most women above thirty, feminism is an issue more articulated with professional and public life and kept more at bay in social and family relations and gatherings. As reported by some interviewees, “feminists” are seen as “aggressive”, demanding and rigorous. Expressions such as “here you are again with feminism …” were reported. So, some prefer not to discuss it in family gatherings or social events because tensions might arise. Others select the subject matters according to the persons with whom they are engaging with.

62For the younger feminists, feminism and vegetarianism go together and are intrinsic to their interaction with family, friends, and professional networks. They are a fundamental source of discussion and argument and their engagement is seen as a way of growing, of expanding their knowledge of the cause and the ramifications of oppressions.

63When it comes to identity questions, the roles of vegetarianism and feminism seem to be reversed. For women above thirty years old, their diet choices seem to be more a private matter, inspired by a mixture of personal reasons, such as taste and disgust, as well as political and ethical reasons. They adopted vegetarianism in a period when this diet option was still a source of awkwardness and curiosity and a choice which was difficult to enact in everyday life; and was even less a positive source of identity than it is today. Consequently, they are not very vocal about publicizing their vegetarianism as a mark of their identity. This is, however, the choice adopted by the younger vegetarian feminists. They introduce themselves as feminist and vegetarian in public spaces, and they like to affirm the goodness of their dietary choice, not as a moral imperative but as an opportunity to share something good. It is a matter of pride and a positive source of social identity rooted in political and ethical reasons.

64When it comes to the central questions of our research, the existing differences are also related to age. For older vegetarians and non-vegetarians the violence against the female animal body was not seen as ontologically similar to the control and oppression of women in patriarchal societies. It is understood as a fight against cruelty, the meat industry and capitalism, and not as a result of one and the same structural system of oppression. Similarities and sympathies with female animal’s ordeal is translated into the language of rights and not seen as a vector turning one type of oppression into the other. The younger feminists, on the other hand, are willing to accept the ontological similarities between the oppression of women and animals. By translating the suffering and exploitation of female animals into their own dietary choice they also transform food into a weapon to fight their oppression.

65The idea that vegetarianism is the correct moral behaviour for feminist women was frowned upon by all the interviewees with the exception, again, of the youngest one. To establish a moral norm such as ethical vegetarianism was seen to go against everything feminism has fought for and also means to ignore the different social/ economic/ environmental/ racial conditions that women have to face in their lives and that make the burdens of some heavier than others. In this context, to disqualify their choices and solutions in situations as moral infringements and declassify their feminism would mean to ignore the diversity that feminism has continually emphasized and embraced. The idea of a contextual vegetarianism, as defended by some ecofeminists (Curtis 1991; Praxton 1994; Bailey 2007) does not represent their position. It is not a question of being vegetarian when it is possible. For these feminist women, being vegetarian as a moral requirement is out of the question. It might be a good choice or even the best choice, but it is seen as an individual decision, not a moral imperative in their fight against woman’s oppression in patriarchal societies. It has to emerge out of the engagement with other causes and related to other questions and dimensions, such as culture.

66The younger vegetarian feminists accept and defend vegetarianism as a moral requirement for feminist women. However, they are eager to stress that their position does not imply any criticism of the other women’s feminism. They would love people to share their values, “but if not…it is their choice”, and both “us and them” must be respected for this. It is not a question of presenting rational arguments, of an epistemological stance, it is a question of values, and values must be respected. This line of argument can be understood in the context of Charles Taylor’s Ethics of Authenticity (2010). The acceptance and respect of other people´s values, by contemporary youth, is not a position defended on the basis of rational criteria. It is above all a moral position, in the sense that all values should be respected, and cannot be hierarchized as either right and wrong, or good and bad. What is important “is to be true to yourself” (Taylor 2010 : 24).

Final remarks

67This article has explored the idea of vegetarianism as the correct moral behavior for feminist women through an analysis of the international literature on this question and through in-depth interviews with self-declared Brazilian feminists. Although the results are not representative of Brazilian feminists or different feminisms, they do offer food for thought in a context where the traditional western diet is under question and scrutiny and are indicative of broader societal trends, especially inter-generational differences.

68As we expected, most of the women had little awareness of the theories and debates presented to them, and age seems definitely to play an important role in explaining the differences among the women. The younger interviewees were vegetarians/ vegans in a greater proportion, and were more willing to accept the ontological similarity between women´s and non-human animal exploitation, and the moral link between feminism and vegetarianism. Older feminists, vegetarians and non-vegetarians, although open to consider new ideas about food ethics, rejected the idea of the similarity between the exploitation of non-human animals and women, and that feminism also implied vegetarianism.

69We suggest that the roots of the difference between the two groups of feminist women are due to a change in the environment surrounding social movements. Although feminism and animal rights have traditionally evolved apart, the demands for change in the “planetary diet” have turned our “plates” into the meeting point of several causes, contributing to greater interaction, with animal rights, environmental sustainability, and feminism becoming interlinked as never before. This has led to greater mutual knowledge of each other’s causes. To the extent that this dynamic advances, it is probable that ecofeminist and vegetarian feminist agendas will gain visibility in mainstream feminism providing a more favourable climate for new generations of feminists to adopt vegetarianism. Food consumption is being increasingly driven by ethical concerns such as environment, animal rights and social justice, and meat and dairy are the two products which have become the focus of this changing mood of the consumer (Wilkinson 2019). It is likely, therefore, that even in Brazil, a very meat oriented culture, we will see the continuous growth of vegetarianism/ veganism, fostered by ethical motives and also led by a new generation of feminists.

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Notes

1 https://worldin2019.economist.com/theyearofthevegan; https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/apr/01/vegans-are-coming-millennials-health-climate-change-animal-welfare;https://www.financialexpress.com/world-news/china-going-vegan-massive-decline-in-meat-consumption-vegetarian-restaurants-double-in-5-years-in-shanghai/1079511/

2 Ecofeminism can also be referred to as ecological feminism, feminist environmentalism and critical feminist eco-socialist analysis. The common thread among all of these expressions is the notion of a shared conceptual structure underlying all forms of oppressions, particularly of woman and nature.

3 More recent contributions related to the different ecofeminist approaches to food ethics, can be found in Hypathia (2012) “Animal Others” and in “Just Food”, International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics (2014).

4 Unpublished literature review conducted by the authors in preparation for the research, complemented by interviews with experts on feminism, vegetarianism and animal rights.

5 See Vettese Troy & Blanchette Alex, COVID 19 shows factory food production is dangerous for animals and humans alike, Guardian, September 8, 2020; Malafaia Guilherme Cunha, Os Impactos da COVID 19 para a cadeia produtiva da carne bovina brasileira. Brasília, Embrapa, 2020.

6 See:https://www.svb.org.br/2469-pesquisa-do-ibope-aponta-crescimento-historico-no-numero-de-vegetarianos-no-brasil; https://www.portalveg.com.br/noticias/opiniao/por-que-os-dados-sobre-veganos-e-vegetarianos-no-brasil-sao-enganosos-por-robson-de-souza/

7 From now on referred to only as animals.

8 See Peta’s advertisement “The animal Liberation Project” and the introduction of Sistah Vegan by A. Harper Breeze for some reactions to this.

9 Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistic

10 Expression used by an English anthropologist on his visit to Brazil and looking at the restaurants’ menus.

11 A type of everyday place to eat, that contemplates all types of foods, ranging from the well-known rice and beans to Japanese foods, Italian dishes, grilled meat, fish, salads and vegetarian options.

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References

Electronic reference

Livia Barbosa, Diego Silva and Veranise Dubeux, « Should feminists be vegetarians? », Anthropology of food [Online], S17 | 2022, Online since , connection on 12 August 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/aof/13154 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/aof.13154

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About the authors

Livia Barbosa

anthropologist, Associate Professor Fluminense Federal University, Visiting Researcher at Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro ; email livia.barbosa3@gmail.com

Diego Silva

International Relations, Professor and Researcher in the Professional Master's Program in Creative Economy Management (MPGEC) and Professor of Social Communication - Advertising and Business Administration in the Superior School of Advertising and Marketing of Rio de Janeiro (ESPM-Rio); email dvieira@espm.br.

Veranise Dubeux

Engineer, Associate professor and Researcher at the Master's Program in Management of the Creative Economy at the Superior School of Advertising and Marketing of Rio de Janeiro (ESPM-Rio), Researcher at the Creative Cities Laboratory and Part-time at the Business School of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro; email veranise.dubeux@gmail.com

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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