women and earth conference 2002

Paper delivered at the inaugural Women and Earth Ecofeminist conference held in Katoomba, Blue Mountains, April 2002

Hello everyone,

I am so excited that Bridget and Jo and all you hardworking women have organised this event! And I ‘d like to thank the traditional owners of this land for their hospitality.

For me, this conference it is a realisation of what I have been thinking and saying for years: you simply can’t separate the social justice movements as neatly as labels lead us to believe. And the ecofeminist movement recognises that!!

3597859I am kind of feeling out of my league here with these all great high-profile activist women! But I think that is not because I haven’t been battling away as an activist for years like they have, but that as an animal rights activist I am further marginalised by my cause.

I guess animal rights has a bit of a misanthropic reputation. But in reality it is not so: in my seven years in AR, I have seen the mainstay of the movement as a core of dedicated and compassionate women (and smaller numbers of men) who have often been involved in human rights issues too. I myself have been involved in feminism, environmentalism, anarchism and the peace and refugee movements. (I curse the fact I couldn’t afford to go to woomera!) I am now into culture jamming and independent media as well! Whatever the psycho-social reasons, the animal rights movement is filled with people like me: women, queers, social workers, sociologists, nurses, teachers and students. Yes, we’re all bleeding-hearts to the mainstream, but as Ecofeminists I think we realise this is not a bad thing!

As ecofeminists we recognise there is considerable crossover between groups with alternative visions of society, we have common goals. We want to see an end to the unjustifiable domination of human over human, men over women, humans over non-human begins, capitalist society over men, women and nature alike.

Such is the problem of labels – I like to think of myself as an advocate for all oppressed groups and I recognise all suffering as a wrong to be righted.

So – what have AR activists have been up to in the 22 years since Christine Townend established the first Animal Liberation group? This has not been well documented (in fact I think there might be a phd in it for me!!). The animal rights movement began much earlier from the anti-vivisection movements of the Europe, and the animal welfare movement which in turn sprung from the societies for the ‘prevention of cruelty’, established in the late 1800s. The original RSPCA had a mandate that included prevention of cruelty to children and protection of orphans. Strangely enough, the movement has come full circle in this respect – to recognise the close link between animal abuse and domestic violence. That is why Debbie Morris and myself decided to establish Australian Feminists for Animal Rights. Social workers have long recognised animal abuse as an indicator of domestic violence and we aim to make the state recognise that too. In the UK and some US states, law enforcement agencies are now required to investigate the families of animal abuse cases for possible domestic violence. A survey in the US indicates that as many as 88% of women in shelters have had a pet abused or killed by their abusing partner. So that is one direction in which the AR movement in Australia is just beginning to go.

The other, and one that has been slow to take off, is direct action. Perhaps because of our roots in animal welfare agencies, we have eschewed direct action largely in favour of lobbying and protection. I think also it is because we have not yet the broad base of support that AR in the UK has, perhaps because of our unjustified reputation as misanthropists. None the less, the infamous Patty Mark, president of ALVIC, at the age of 60 continues to get herself arrested in the name of exposing the routine cruelty hidden in our country’s factory farms. She is a real icon to the AR movement in my opinion.

We have only just begun to do our own investigations of cruelty cases in Queensland, and though it is all covert, (unlike much direct action), it can lead to evidence for prosecution.

However, it has also led to the realisation for me at least, that sometimes evidence is not enough, that lobbying can only take you so far and that you can’t put your faith in government agencies to do the right thing, even when the law would seem to require that they do. The RSPCA and the state have an abysmal record of prosecutions for cruelty.

(see also: The Ethics of Monkeywrenching)

So now we must turn, as all movements do, to exposing the inadequacies of the law by breaking them. In accord with Australia’s long history of peaceful direct action, the Australian AR movement has not become like the ecotage movement in the US, embracing property destruction as a means of achieving their ends. Still, we are often tarred by the same brush as the Animal Liberation Front, yet after 30 years of lobbying and actions to expose the battery egg system we have not yet resorted to property destruction. However, our covert style of direct action still makes us type 3 terrorists according to the CIA! I don’t condemn the ethics of monkey-wrenching myself, though I don’t think it will achieve my ends. It is easy to see how it can seem a legitimate means of protest when life is consistently made property and inanimate objects like machinery are given greater legal value than living beings, sentient or not.

This is the history too of indigenous peoples who were dispossessed and made property as slaves, of women who long have been property of their husbands and still are thought of as so in many places, and of animals still named as property under law. Last year, in a revolutionary move, Switzerland renamed animals as persons under their law. As more human beings come to recognise that animals ARE people, just as women and indigenous people have always been despite the law, we can expect to see their rights to life and freedom from oppression realised.

For me, animal rights is part of a continuum of granting rights to the oppressed and exploited members of our society. The fine-tuning lies in the definitions of who is considered a rights-bearer, but also who is to be considered worthy of our caring.

It is my personal theory that the sheer number of women involved in the movement has a lot to do with the non-violent, caring ethic of AR in Australia. I conducted a bit of an impromptu survey of 30 or so of my female friends and acquaintances all over Australia to come up with some interesting results. Many women in the movement perceive the men involved as both gentler and more compassionate than their non-ar contemporaries, but within the movement there is a tendency for men to be more ‘ego-oriented’ in their behaviour. It is strange that the movement, named after the book by philosopher Peter Singer, should worldwide have mainly men as its mouthpieces, while, like the environment movement, women do most of the work. We need to get bigger egos!!!

In addition, the relative absence of men from the movement tends to reinforce the ‘irrational hysterical female’ stereotype that critics try to diffuse our power with. The fact is, I am proud to be the ‘bleeding heart’ – it is precisely detachment from the perfectly valid feelings of guilt, anger and grief that allows cruelty and environmental destruction to be perpetrated in the systemic way and on the monumental scale that it is. To lose touch with those feelings is to live only half a life!

My hope for the future of AR in Australia is that we succeed in making closer ties with environmentalists, largely by becoming environmentalists! The environment movement in Australia is also full of powerful and passionate women. Many of the most famous early peace and anti-vivisection activists like Frances Power Cobbe, Annie Besant, and and Charlotte Despard were vegetarians – connecting meat eating not only with the cultural construct of maleness, but with the culture of domination that leads to war. No doubt many of use here today make the same connections.

We do identify human domination of nature as the source of environmental destruction, male domination of women as a source of social injustice. So too it is with animal rights. So long as we continue to condone domination as a means of achieving our ends, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of our oppressors.

Kim Stewart

March 2002


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