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Factory Farming is a Feminist Issue (Part I)

July 21, 2021
Time to read: 4 minutes

It seems there is a link between the desensitization to violence toward nonhuman animals in factory farms and the perpetuation of violence against women at home.

About a year ago, I heard the phrase, “Why factory farming is a feminist issue,” in a Women’s and Gender Studies class. That seemed like a stretch to me. Are we supposed to be fighting for non-human as well as human females on top of all this other work we have to do?

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Well, yes, but the issue is a little more complicated than that.

Most obviously, we can turn to workers’ rights. It’s no secret that women workers around the world are exploited for their labor. This is no different in the agriculture industry in the US.

But there is another problem that has long gone unnoticed. Studies have shown that areas in which there are factory farms in the U.S. tend to have higher violent crime rates. But what’s interesting from the feminist perspective is that there is a higher rate of domestic abuse in the locations surrounding factory farms as well. According to these studies, it seems there is a link between the desensitization to violence toward nonhuman animals in factory farms and the perpetuation of violence against women at home.

We see another form of violence against women in the meat industry: the sexualization of meat. This issue takes on multiple forms, but the primary culprits are the masculinization of meat consumption and the sexualization of women and animals in meat advertisements.

How many times has an ad that told you to “Eat like a man,” or some form of that sentiment, in a deep “manly” voice while a dad-type flips burgers and hotdogs on a grill? How many times have you heard that men need to eat meat to be strong and powerful? This is no coincidence; meat is marketed as food for men. These advertisements link masculinity with the consumption of animal flesh and the rejection of “chick food.” They are intended to make men feel as though they need to consume meat in order to be attractive and masculine while simultaneously putting down plant foods (associated with women and non-human animals) and tofu (associated with Asian men, who tend to be feminized in Western culture).

Another avenue meat advertisements take is the sexualization of women and animals to sell their products. Advertisements flaunt scantily-clad women and even cartoon non-human animals drawn with human female characteristics that are meant to allure the heterosexual male gaze. Often, these cartoons are asking to be eaten (think: “asking for it”). These sorts of advertisements link human females and non-human animals as objects for heterosexual male consumption and have clear misogynistic themes.

Next, let’s consider the non-human animals involved in our food systems.

The current feminist movement places great emphasis on women’s bodily autonomy, especially in regards to reproduction. Most feminism posits that women—and all people—cannot be completely liberated if they aren’t even able to choose what happens to their own bodies.

With this in mind, let’s consider the cows of the dairy industry.

Female cows, like human women and all other mammals, must have recently given birth to produce milk. And, like humans, they carry their babies for nine months before giving birth. So, in order to extract cows’ milk, farmers artificially inseminate female cows about once a year for roughly half a decade so they can produce milk for human consumption. Once they’ve given birth, their baby is immediately taken from them in order to maximize profit from the food that was intended for that baby. The mother never sees her baby again, is impregnated again, carries another calf for nine months, gives birth, has her baby and milk taken again—and the cycle continues until she can no longer produce milk for profit and is slaughtered for low-grade meat.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s start with the artificial insemination of these beings. There are plenty of guides and diagrams online on how to do so successfully, all with similar techniques. In this guide the farmer is instructed to ensure that the cow is properly restrained, so she cannot resist. The farmer then reaches a gloved arm through the cow’s anus to manipulate the cervix so the vagina opens up and her uterus is easily accessible. With the other hand, or another farmer, the farmworker inserts the artificial insemination “gun” into the cow’s vagina and deposits the semen into her uterus.

From a feminist point of view it seems difficult to justify fighting for human women’s rights while supporting the reproductive subjugation (as well as the years of suffering ending in the slaughter) of other female bodies.

The intricacies of the connections between social issues and factory farming go far beyond the scope of this post. The hope here is not to provide a complete list but an introduction to some of the connections between misogyny and the factory farming industry. The current feminist movement often misses this key component in fighting injustice: the consumption and exploitation of nonhuman animals.

For a more thorough feminist analysis of animal agriculture, see Carol Adams’s The Sexual Politics of Meat.

Sarah Parent is a summer college intern at FFAC and studies English, Spanish, and Women’s and Gender Studies at Santa Clara University.

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