Why Women? My Mother’s Legacy of Empathy, Compassion, and Love

Why Women? My Mother’s Legacy of Empathy, Compassion, and Love

Family photo Marc Bekoff

Family photo provided by Marc Bekoff

I‘m flattered and honored to contribute to Unbound. When I first heard about this collection I was thrilled to learn about it. It struck me that it was about time someone collected a series of essays about the incredible role that numerous women have played, and are continuing to play, in animal advocacy and activism, many of whom are well known and many who have been below the radar. It should come as no surprise that many women have done and continue to do an amazing amount of work for nonhuman animals (animals) both behind the scenes and out there for all to see. This work, of course, is done alongside many other daily commitments. Women have represented around 75% of people actively involved in the animal rights movement, but men have dominated the leadership roles, even in projects founded by women. It’s an understatement of royal proportions to say that Unbound is a very timely and an urgently needed corrective.

When I first became involved in “the animal movement” I was astounded by the large percentage of women who attended a wide variety of meetings. I once made a comment about this and a few women told me something like, “Well I try to get the men I know to come and they think it’s too ‘touch/feely,'” or “My partner wanted to come but his friends laughed at him.” The reasons spanned a number of “excuses,” but in the end many seemed to boil down to the feeling that working for animals and appealing to empathy and compassion were simply “too sentimental” and it made some men feel queasy. This is something I never understood. And I know a number of men didn’t either, but they chose to remain in the background for a variety of reasons.

I often think about my own commitment to working for other animals as a scientist. I was told early on in my studies that science is objective and that there was no room for compassion and sentimentality. The “just the facts” attitude prevailed. However, this seemed really odd and extremely uncomfortable to me as I grew up with a most compassionate and empathic mother, and from the time I was around 3 years old I was always asking my parents what animals were thinking and feeling. I wrote a book called Minding Animals that was published in 2002 and I came to realize that I’ve been minding animals and caring about them for decades. My parents assured me this was so.

I simply could not stand and still cannot tolerate hearing about or watching any form of animal abuse. I literally feel their pain and suffering, and I know it was my mother’s sensitivity, compassion, and empathy and my father’s unbounded optimism that were critical in fostering my own empathy and compassion for the suffering of vulnerable beings, nonhuman and human. I was really upset and disgusted when worms were killed and frogs were heartlessly pithed when I was in junior high school, refused to dissect animals in high school and college, and left a Phd/Md program because I simply didn’t want to engage in dissection and vivisection. While I received some support from a few men when I was in graduate school, most of the women with whom I worked were fully supportive, although some preferred to remain in the background because they didn’t want others to know how they were secretly feeling. After all, most scientists don’t want to come across as being sentimental because they fear being criticized or demeaned by their colleagues or that they will have problems securing funding for their research in a very competitive and unsentimental market.

I’ve had the honor of working with a number of women in the animal protection movement including Jane Goodall, whose mother Vanne accompanied her on her first trip to Tanzania (then called Tanganyika), and I’ve learned much from their deep and passionate commitment to working for other animals and their homes. Their passion was, and remains, contagious, and I’ve surely benefited from working with these strong and motivated women. And, it should be noted that Dr. Goodall was one of three women chosen by Louis Leakey to conduct arduous and dangerous fieldwork when there were extremely few female fieldworkers but many men doing this work. (The other amazing women were the late Diane Fossey and Birutė Galdikas.)

It’s about time that a celebratory project like Unbound was published, and, as I mentioned above, I’m flattered and honored to be part of it. Of course, there are many men who are making substantial contributions to the “animal movement,” but it’s absolutely wonderful and heartening–and long overdue–to see the women highlighted and celebrated for their own incredible accomplishments and leadership. We should all embrace this focus on the amazing women who have tirelessly and selflessly dedicated their lives to helping and caring for the other fascinating animal beings with whom we share our magnificent planet.

My mother was a wonderful teacher and I cannot thank her enough for always being there for me–through thick and thin–supporting me when I was thrown out of high school, and for supporting me when I didn’t want to be responsible for any forms of violence and abuse. The compassionate, empathic, and pacifistic home in which I grew up was central to my coming to work for other animals and humans in need, and central to my lifelong commitment to rewild my heart whenever possible. Thank you mom, and thank you Jo-Anne and Keri for doing all that you’ve done and continue to do. I’m sure Unbound will enjoy a wide and most appreciative audience as did Annie Leibowitz and Susan Sontag’s groundbreaking book called Women.

I’m dedicating this short essay to the finest of memories of my mother, Beatrice Rose, and to Lisa Shapiro. You’ll have to accept that my mother was a most amazing woman whose legacy lives on deep in my heart. I know she would love Unbound. And, those of you who knew Lisa know why, and those who didn’t, please take a moment to read about this unbound and most passionate, selfless, and accomplished activist.

Marc Bekoff is Professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He has won many awards for his scientific research including the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2009 he was presented with the St. Francis of Assisi Award by the New Zealand SPCA. In 1986 Marc became the first American to win his age-class at the Tour du Haut Var bicycle race (also called the Master’s/age-graded Tour de France). Marc has published more than 1000 essays (popular, scientific, and book chapters), 30 books, and has edited three encyclopedias. His books include Ignoring Nature No More: The Case For Compassionate Conservation, Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, and Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence. Marc’s homepage is marcbekoff.com, and, with Jane Goodall, www.ethologicalethics.org.

Visibility, History, and Tennis Shoes

Visibility, History, and Tennis Shoes

The spectral figure of the little old lady in tennis shoes returns periodically to haunt animal rights activism and theory. It was Cleveland Amory, founder of the Fund for Animals (later folded into the Humane Society of the United States), who was known for saying “we aren’t little old ladies in tennis shoes” anymore. After the March for Animals in 1990, young male activists were quoted in the Washington Post proclaiming this same idea.

Let’s consider for a moment this back-handed compliment. One thing that is being said is “before the rest of us discovered the legitimate and important issues about human’s oppression of the other animals, little old ladies had.” Perhaps when they started agitating on behalf of animals they were not little old ladies. Recently, I noticed a thread discussing the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat that said, “well, she’s old.”

What’s “old” anyway? Some cultures might revere their eldest members as sages or crones, the wise old woman in archetypal and pagan terms. I love the tribute book to Jane Goodall (The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall [Trinity University Press]) occasioned by her 80th birthday. And I too have been fortunate that younger writers and artists continue to engage with my work. This week saw the publication of The Art of the Animal: Fourteen Women Artists Explore The Sexual Politics of Meat (Lantern Books).

The crone is part of a mythological trinity of women (the Triune Goddess), reflecting the phases of the moon, that include maiden and then mother (not necessarily literally.)

I had not thought about how this association of the triune feminine figures applied to me until I was in conversation with Jo and Keri about the Unbound project.

Carol Adams 1975

Carol Adams in 1975, the year her first article on feminism and vegetarianism was published in The Lesbian Reader. Photo credit: Muriel S. Adams.

I was 23, a maiden, when I realized a connection existed between feminism and vegetarianism, between meat eating and a patriarchal world. By the time that maiden figured out what she wanted to say and how to say it, fifteen years had passed. When I learned my manuscript won a Women’s Studies award and would be published, I was a mother, literally, having just given birth (the baby was with me at the 1990 March on Washington) and I was also a “Mother” metaphorically, I was in the mid-period of life, a generative, creative period, and my book culminated all the theory I had gestated since 1974.

In 2008, Wayne Pacelle, head of the Humane Society of the United States, was featured in the New York Times Magazine.* “‘We aren’t a bunch of little old ladies in tennis shoes,’ Pacelle says, paraphrasing his mentor Cleveland Amory, an animal rights activist. ‘We have cleats on.’” With that quote and that speaker we find manhood asserted for the animal movement in three ways – the speaker, the negation of (aging) women, and the football or sports association of the shoes. It is all structured by representation and a certain kind of voice.

carol adams washington march

Carol Adams and baby Benjamin at the Washington March for Animals in 1990, with Marti Kheel to her left. If you are in the picture or were at the March, please let us know! Photo credit: Bruce A. Buchanan Now, 25 years after the book was published and 41 years after I first had the idea, here I am, a crone, wiser from those 41 years of living and caring and grieving a world that continues to inflict horrendous suffering on other animals.

The question of “manhood,” enters into the politics of the animal movement at all sorts of levels, and not just in the way the little old lady in tennis shoes is discussed. We could find it in the attempts by philosophers Peter Singer and Tom Regan to articulate theories that reject emotion or sympathy as a legitimate base for the ethical theory about animal treatment. When the working definition of “human” is what manhood is, and rationality is valued as one of the qualities of manhood, then women represent what is not valued—femaleness, and what femaleness is associated with: the body, emotions, and animals. What if part of the resistance to recognizing human exceptionalism (the idea that humans are different from and better than other animals) is the close association between our definitions of humanness and manhood?

Historical memory is fraught and unstable, influenced by stereotypes, including a rigid yet untrue gender binary that privileges men and their words and protects “manhood.” And so, we claim “fathers” but not mothers. The animal activism origin story most frequently told is that Peter Singer is the father of the contemporary movement because of his 1976 book, Animal Liberation. This claim ignores the significant amount of grassroots and analytic work that preceded the appearance of Singer’s book. Well-known animal advocate Kim Stallwood dates the start of the contemporary animal rights movement to Brigid Brophy’s 1965 essay in The Sunday Times, “The Rights of Animals.”  I would put its beginning the year before with the publication of Ruth Harrison’s Animal Machines.

Either way, it is a decade before the publication of Animal Liberation. By dating the modern animal movement from Singer’s book, women (Harrison and Brophy among others) are lost to view. In addition, the early feminist concern for other animals that can be found in writings from 1972-1975 is overlooked.

If we trace the animal liberation movement only as far back as Singer’s book, what is lost is not just the women’s voices but the role of feminism and specifically ecofeminism in creating intersectional theory that recognizes connections among oppression. (Lori Gruen and I provide an alternative history in the chapter “Groundwork” in Ecofeminism: Feminist Intersections with Other Animals and the Earth.)

What happens when a group who is supposed to be invisible tries to make animal issues visible? What happens when little old ladies work to give conceptual place to animals?  What if around the world, we found women activists simultaneously destabilizing the notion of “manhood” and the usability of other animals? What if we asked them their stories? Maybe the idea of the Triune Goddess and her different phases, maiden, mother, and crone, would apply, or maybe there are multiple models for us to draw upon.

Maggie Jones, "The Barnyard Strategist"

* Maggie Jones, “The Barnyard Strategist” The New York Times Magazine, October 24, 2008. Image Credit: Vance Lehmkuhl

When I started being an activist for animals, I wasn’t a little old lady. But, each year I get closer to being one. (And when someone offers to carry my vegan groceries to my car I wonder if I have arrived at that point). Why has the movement been so anxious to supersede little old ladies?  When no one else cared, I can tell you, the little old ladies cared.

We know that the British antivivisection movement of the nineteenth century would have collapsed without women. Women still constitute the majority of animal rights activists. You start working when you are in your late teens or twenties and, before you know it someone is carrying your groceries for you.

It would be nice not to be a little old lady working for the animals but that’s out of my hands. Let’s lace up those tennis shoes and keep moving!

Carol J. Adams is an activist and author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory which will appear in a twenty-fifth anniversary edition this October. Her many other books continue her exploration of the intertwined nature of feminist and animal issues. www.caroljadams.com