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 The Politics of Gender

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Emily Gaarder: Women and the Animal Rights Movement.


Emily Gaarder and her dog Q
Emily Gaarder with her dog, Quinoa.

Emily Gaarder, an assistant professor in UMD’s Department of Sociology/Anthropology, is interested in topics “where forces intersect.” Animal rights issues inevitably touch on other issues, including gender equality, power, violence, and justice. Gaarder has explored these dynamics in her new book, Women and the Animal Rights Movement.

Gaarder has previously written about women and justice and alternatives to incarceration. She sees animal rights as naturally progressing from these issues. As she describes in her book, part of her decision to become a vegetarian came about when:

“. . . four events occurred simultaneously. In no particular order that I can recall: (1) I visited a local zoo with my young nephew and observed a variety of caged animals; (2) I reread interviews I had conducted of incarcerated girls; (3) I sat down to finally read The Sexual Politics of Meat; and (4) I stood at my kitchen sink as I washed the supper dishes and decided to stop eating animals. None of these events were dramatic. . . . I was already a committed activist for alternatives to incarceration and a moratorium on prisons. Were the cages that confined humans and animals really so different? I was ready to confront those intersections.”

Book - Women & the Animal Rights Movement
Gaarder points out that although women have been a dominant force in the animal rights movement since antivivisection and animal humane movements began in England and the U.S. in the late nineteenth century, they have also, from the beginning, been depicted as being overly emotional and sentimental – not rooted in facts or reality. Even today, those characterizations crop up in the media.

She questions why having an emotional response to an issue is labeled as “feminine and thus illegitimate.” However Gaarder doesn’t preach in her book. While she expresses her reactions to viewpoints, she presents contrasting positions and ultimately allows readers to come to their own conclusions.

Gaarder interviewed numerous women involved in the animal rights movement. She found them “incredibly well-read and political” and anything but one-dimensional caricatures. “I wanted people to see women as political actors. I wanted to bust through stereotypes,” she said. Instead of describing what she thought the women activists were thinking or feeling, Gaarder “decided to let the women speak for themselves, to let them name their own politics and their own motives – rather than having others interpret for them. ”

Their motives for joining the movement were as diverse as their experiences. While some became active because they loved animals, a number had witnessed animal cruelty or suffered their own abuse. For some, Gaarder points out, “Animal rights are part of a larger social movement – consideration of others – racial inequality, class inequality, the environment. How we interact with animals is just part of it.”

One intersection of forces that Gaarder explores in her book is the ethics of using sex to sell animal rights. “PETA's sexualized advertising campaigns are probably the most startling clash in the movement,” she said. On one hand, some in the movement have expressed the opinion that “whatever it takes” to raise awareness of animal issues is acceptable. Others, however, question whether women are being victimized in the pursuit of liberating animals from victimization.

While women are encouraged to be nurturing and caring, Gaarder points out that some in society are still “decidedly uncomfortable with women who are political about it.” She hopes that her book will help readers better understand the contributions that women have made to the animal rights movement and that this will invite dialogue among activists and non-activists alike.

Written by Kathleen McQuillan-Hofmann, kmcquill@d.umn.edu

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