Rebecca Jones is a feminist animal studies researcher, advocate and activist based at the University of Strathclyde. Her PhD, Consuming Men: Masculinity, Meat and Myth in Literary Fictions from Mary Shelley to Ursula Le Guin, applies theoretical frameworks taken from eco/veg*n feminism and from across animal studies to interrogate how literary fictions since the publication of Frankenstein (1818) reflect and inform socio-political attitudes to gender and species, specifically by utilising and retelling the classical myth of Prometheus. Rebecca is also a Development Worker on the National Lifelong Learning Project at Glasgow Women’s Library, where she supports the delivery of GWL activities and programming across Scotland. She has an MA (Hons) and an MLitt in classics from the University of Glasgow and an MLitt in gender studies from the University of Stirling.
Tell us a bit about your work and what inspired you to focus your studies around such specific subjects?
Animals have been my companions and family members since I was born and, looking back, my attitudes were always very feminist, too, so it doesn’t feel especially odd that my research has taken the direction it has! But it did take me quite a while to develop the confidence to make the links between the two.
Reading The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J. Adams was really just an epiphanic moment for me. I suddenly felt like I had a language to describe what I was feeling – what I’d always felt – about the links between gender oppression and the oppression of animals. More than that, Carol’s work gave me much-needed reassurance that this wasn’t all in my head; that there were connections there and that it was OK, even necessary, to address sexism and speciesism at the same time – because they are connected by the same structure of oppression, so to overlook one is to assist in the legitimisation of the other.
I’d also credit a wonderful tutor at the University of Stirling, Kirsty Alexander, who taught us on the MLitt at the University of Stirling about ecofeminist theorists like Vandana Shiva, Rosi Braidotti’s work on zoe-centred posthumanism, and the feminist economics of Marilyn Waring. Kirsty also supervised my research project on animal rights within the structure of oppression and within feminist practice, and generally just made reading recommendations and fostered my confidence in a way that helped to get me to where I am now. I’m also indebted to Chiara Bernardi who supervised my thesis on feminist animal rights in online spaces, which is also both a fraught and a fascinating subject! I received the Dee Amy-Chinn Award for my MLitt in gender studies, and I believe I was only able to achieve that because I had tutors who took the time to encourage me to challenge normativity and presumed truths, to run with ideas and to reassure me that it was OK to let my passion for the subject drive me.
Over time I’ve discovered feminist animal studies and veg*n theorists like Josephine Donovan, Lori Gruen, Joan Dunayer and Amy Breeze-Harper who have really helped to develop my own theoretical approaches and strengthened my belief that animal rights discourse desperately needs an intersectional feminist approach, and that feminism needs to consider the nonhuman animal if it is to be truly disruptive of oppression as a linked structure of co-dependent prejudices.
My research has enabled me to combine my passions and academic interests – feminism, animals, gender in ancient myth and literature – to ask questions about how we find meaning (and, often, justification for our behaviour) in mythical stories, how we repeat these stories for our own purposes, and how this is borne out in the ever-evolving dialogue between literature and the societies that inspire and are inspired by it.
Your research has covered all sorts of topics, including the way in which charities use the female figure to propel campaigns. What have been your most interesting/concerning finds?
There is a an absolute mess of troubling examples of charities, and particularly animal rights charities, utilising gender and race issues in cynical, decontextualised ways to propel campaigns.
The sexualisation of human women in animal rights campaigns is one of these phenomena. It really entrenches sexism further into the mainstream consciousness rather than deconstructing it as we need to be doing. Campaigns like this implicitly agree to play by the rules of patriarchy; to use the language, stereotypes and codes of patriarchy in the name of promoting the cause of animal rights. Not only does this do a very obvious and pervasive disservice to human women, it also empowers those who have a vested interest in keeping animals oppressed – this kind of campaign makes it so much easier to dismiss animal rights activists as a bunch of white, middle-class, sexist, racist, heteronormative, ableist troublemakers with questionable priorities.
Recently I’ve noticed a lot of vegan activist discourse is aimed at men, but utilises really toxic gender-normative language and symbols, which basically reassure them that they can still be ‘proper men’ in spite of their veganism and/or ethical concerns about animal welfare or the environment.
As a fat vegan woman from a working class background with a long-term health condition, I have to say I very rarely recognise myself in mainstream vegan campaigning and yes, I do think that’s a problem. I‘ve also read a huge volume of work by women of colour in the vegan and/or animal rights movements which reflects that they feel the same; that the movement has a huge problem with gender, but also with race, class, disability . . .
These people are the heart of the movement and yet, too often, they are not given the opportunity to be visible within it or as representatives of it, both silencing and discouraging them and misrepresenting the lived reality of the movement as a whole. Any movement is, after all, more than whoever happens to be its ‘poster person’.
It really is striking how much sexist and fatphobic language I experience first-hand from vegan activists and non-vegans alike, who maintain that I can’t possibly be a ‘proper’ vegan because of my size. I’d like to say, for the record, it is perfectly possible to be a fat vegan – we’ve got cake and everything!
How does the topic of feminism interact or relate to non-human animal studies?
There are still significant challenges, even friction between the two ‘movements’. A huge part of the problem is the lack of inclusion and diversity I’ve been talking about so far.
‘Mainstream’ animal rights and vegan movements really need to take an intersectional approach, top down and ground up, to be as effective as they can possibly be. The most robust movements really do seem to be those that take care of the people who drive them.
Equally, though, there is considerable resistance within feminism to including the nonhuman animal in understandings of equality, and examinations of how patriarchal oppression works at a structural, practical and even linguistic level. I can understand this. It’s never pleasant to think that we might be responsible for the oppression of sentient others while at the same time being oppressed ourselves, and it can be a really difficult conversation to have, and can meet with considerable resistance.
What my research has shown me is that all oppression is built on shaky arguments about rationalism, emotion, what has ‘always been’ (myths, really!), biological essentialism and, always looming there in the corner, the idea that ‘might is right’ – that power confers the right to oppress.
I’d really recommend all of Carol Adams’ work, but also the Sistah Vegan collection edited by Amy Breeze-Harper and the Sister Species collection edited by Lisa Kemmerer. These all bring together diverse women’s voices on this subject, and that’s really vitally important to a proper understanding of the topic. Before anyone dismisses the links between sexism and speciesism, they really ought to read what these women have to say.
What online tools/forums have you found to be the perfect place for people looking to learn more about these subjects?
The British Animal Studies Network, led by Erica Fudge (who I’m very lucky to have as my PhD supervisor!), has a growing online bibliography of work that looks at the intersections between gender and species.
It’s also brilliant that the ecofeminist/veg*n feminist/feminist animal studies section of the library collection at GWL is growing all the time, and our library catalogue is searchable online.
I’ve also recently signed up to the online Vegan Bill of Consistent Anti-Oppression a commitment to vegan and animal rights activism which is truly intersectional, not just in theory but in practice.
These aren’t the only resources, of course. There are a lot of charities and third sector organisations doing excellent work bringing academic and practice-based research together and using it to drive positive change. Having said that, I do think there’s a real need for more online resources on animal rights from a feminist perspective that reveal the real nature of day-by-day, ‘grass-roots’ feminist vegan and animal rights activism, and provide a space for sharing ideas and research.
What are the main goals for your studies?
I want to continue to do work that demonstrates the importance of addressing the welfare and rights of sentient nonhuman animals, that this absolutely is a feminist issue, and that we cannot allow our activism and the empathy that drives it to become some sort of zero sum game. I’ve been very fortunate to discover an area of research that embraces not only my passionate belief in feminist and animal rights principles but also my academic skillset and my love of fiction, and I’m very lucky. My main goals at the moment are positive change, blissful immersion and enjoyment!
Rebecca’s views are her own and do not necessarily represent those of the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow Women’s Library or other organisations
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Sarah Mackenzie is travel writer and marketing professional based in Edinburgh, Scotland. With 39 countries under her belt, her personal work focuses on vegan budget travel, alongside eco and women’s awareness topics. She also writes for online interview magazine 5minuteswith.