Do I Feel Like a Cow? – Thoughts about Non-human Female Mammals

I’m going to be out of town (and possibly without internet access) until the middle of next week. I probably should be hurrying up and clearing my desk of work…. But instead, I’m using my breaks to write this happy little post.

A happy little post inspired by, you guessed it, another comment on Feministe. I found the whole thread pretty problematic – it’s chock full of people mocking animal ethicists in what is, ultimately, self-parody. Orwell wrote that one of the greatest indictators of an intelligent mind is the ability to wholly believe two contradictory ideas at the same time; if Orwell was alive today, he would no doubt be a fun-fem.

Sophia: I’m a feminist vegetarian who USED to be an avid reader of Feministe. Now I’ve seen your true colors. As a feminist, I stand against ALL systems that cause harm. How on earth can you, as advocates of the rights of females, ignore the suffering of female dogs in puppy mills who are repeatedly raped and have their pups taken from them? Or cows who are stuffed full of hormones and have their udders hooked up to machines?

Esti: Because a lot of feminists are not advocates for the rights of “females”. They’re advocates for the rights of HUMAN BEINGS.

I’ve posited in other contexts that the idea of ownership over female reproduction probably originated in the domestication of “livestock.” Historically, there has been very little difference in how we’ve been treated in most patriarchal societies and how society conceived of non-human female mammals. Though there’s a lot of emphasis in modern feminism on our use as sex objects, I’m not by any stretch convinced that has the universal significance it has sometimes been given (Spartan and Western Puebloan societies come to mind as societies which downplay females as sex objects, though I’m not an anthropologist and my reading in this area is pretty limited). However, male control of reproduction, either directly or indirectly – which means control of females – does appear universal.

In a sense, if you believe that humans can direct other animals’ reproduction for our convenience, then it’s not a far leap of logic to suggest human female reproduction can also be “managed.” People have spent thousands of years and countless reams of paper trying to tease out why we’re “different” than other mammals, but at the end of the day the reasons are pretty much, “Because we say/think we are.” I’ve heard mother cows cry for their calves when the calves are taken away (as occurs both in meat and dairy farming) – they cry for days. As a child, I felt a great deal of empathy for them, and during those times would occasionally dream I, too, had been taken away from my mother. If we accept that we can impregnate, breed, and slaughter cattle at will, then what is the rationale for excluding humans (or at least “other” humans, and we’re all “other” to somebody, and many groups of women have been that “other”)? Is there one? We are taught in schools since we are young children that humans are different from other animals, but that smacks of an attempt to hide the man behind the curtain.

Is it a coincidence that many of the terms used in English to refer to females – whether positively or negatively – are other mammals who are domesticated or live with/around human habitation? “I feel like a cow today,” “You ugly sow,” “Bitch!”, “Hey, foxy lady,” “Ugh, what a heifer,” “Horse-face,” and so on and so forth. I also don’t think it’s any coincidence that the tactics commenters in the Feministe thread were using to mock the animal ethicists were, in large part, the exact same tactics used to attack feminism and women in general.

I’m by no means the first woman to posit any of this. Much of the premise of eco-feminism is that females will always be associated with other animals and “the natural world” because of our capacity for reproduction, and that our attitudes towards other creatures are strongly tied up with patriarchal control over women. I haven’t read Carol Adam’s The Sexual Politics of Meat yet (it’s on my list), so I can’t speak to it, but from what I’ve read she seems to explore this idea more in her book.

In short, advocating for “females” in general is advocating for the rights of female human beings. What that means for feminism – whether we should advocate vegetarianism or veganism, what that means about the futures of “domesticated” species, how that should inform things like whether to spay your cat – are more complicated questions for which I don’t claim to have an answer. But are they valid and important topics for discussion? Absolutely.

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One Response to Do I Feel Like a Cow? – Thoughts about Non-human Female Mammals

  1. Lisa says:

    Loved this post! Very insightful. Just goes to show how we sometimes miss the larger context of the movement – and as a result, end up being an active part of the systems we rally against.

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