Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory

By Carol J. Adams

Continuum. 256 pp. $22.95

George Bush's renunciation of broccoli -- the boldest deed of his presidency to date -- was good for a passing chortle. He won a follow-up laugh with his pledge to keep on chomping pork rinds. Meat is man-food, by George. Behind the yuks was the un-gleeful playing out of what Carol J. Adams, a feminist and ethical vegetarian, calls "the patriarchal nature of our meat-eating culture."

Until now, no major examination has been attempted on how vegetarianism relates to masculinity or femininity. Plutarch's "Essay on Flesh Eating," or some of Isaac Bashevis Singer's stories on butchers and kosher slaughterers, look glancingly at the issue but only on the way to making other points. Adams, who has a master's degree in divinity from Yale and an angel's touch with language, belongs to a rare species: a clearheaded scholar who joins the ideas of two movements -- vegetarianism and feminism -- and turns them into a single coherent and moral theory. Her argument -- rational and persuasive -- is that oppression of women and domination of animals overlap, both caused and perpetuated by male-inspired violence.

Adams's "The Sexual Politics of Meat" is not to be devoured quickly. It should be savored. In at least a dozen contexts, she explores the linkage between vegetarians and feminists. "Questions of definition often predominate," she writes. While "feminists were parlaying questions that trivialized feminism such as 'Are you one of those bra burners?,' vegetarians must define themselves against the trivializations of 'Are you one of those health nuts?' or 'Are you one of those animal lovers?' While feminists encountered the response that 'Men need liberation, too,' vegetarians are greeted by the postulate that 'Plants have life too.' ... The attempt to create defensiveness through trivialization is the first conversational gambit which greets threatening reforms."

Defensiveness is in the air. Among those applauding Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan's recent exercise in bombast that animal rights activists are "terrorists" on "the wrong side of morality" were the leaders of the animal corpse industry: the American Meat Institute, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Turkey Federation and others in the audience for that June 7 speech. The thinking of Adams threatens economic ruin to the meat industry. Protesters moving down the street from closed fur stores can change their picket signs from "If you love animals, don't wear them" to "If you love animals, don't eat them."

Adams is doubly threatening to the meat industry because her appeal is to the large feminist constituency, not merely the smaller vegetarian one. "Images of butchering suffuse patriarchal culture," she writes. "A steakhouse in New Jersey was called 'Adam's Rib.' Who do they think they were eating? The Hustler, prior to its incarnation as a pornographic magazine, was a Cleveland restaurant whose menu presented a women's buttocks on the cover and proclaimed, 'We serve the best meat in town!' Who? A woman is shown being ground up in a meat grinder as Hustler magazine proclaims: 'Last All Meat Issue.' ... When asked about their sexual fantasies, many men describe 'pornographic scenes of disembodied, faceless, impersonal body parts: breasts, legs, vaginas, buttocks.' Meat for the average consumer has been reduced to exactly that: faceless body parts, breasts, legs, udders, buttocks. Frank Perdue plays with images of sexual butchering in a poster encouraging chicken consumption: 'Are you a breast man or a leg man?' "

This is aggressive writing, expressed as conviction, not theory. Both vegetarianism and feminism are ideas that go beyond mere choosing of ideological sides. Adherents act on their beliefs, in ways that people who align themselves on other issues -- for or against German unification, the clean air bill -- don't. Adams lets the reader know that she is not a dabbler in theories. Instead of a dedication page, she has a memorial page for animals slain for food: "In memory of six billion each year, 16 million each day, 700,000 each hour, 11,500 each minute."

The dietary nonviolent choices that follow a conversion to the vegetarian way are similar to the political choices made by feminists. Adams, whose text is exhaustively footnoted, writes: "the numerous individual feminists who became vegetarians -- from the Grimke sisters to Frances Willard, Clara Barton, Annie Besant, Matilda Joslyn Gage, May Wright Sewall, and Mary Walker -- evidence a pattern of challenging patriarchal culture not only because it rendered women absent but because it rendered animals absent. As women defined their own subjectivity, their autonomy, animals were released from the object category in which patriarchal culture had placed them."

Little research is available on the number of women who see vegetarianism as a way of rejecting male domination. But it is hard to imagine that it is only coincidence that a society that has a high rate of spouse abuse is also one that sanctions violence against animals. For one example, the predatory viciousness that motivates male hunters to take to the woods on weekends to kill deer isn't much different from the meanness that prompts males to be spouse-abusers or wife-beaters. Picking on the weak is the lust in both sports.

New ground -- whole acres of it -- is broken by Adams. Large numbers of feminists and vegetarians have yet to see their connectedness with each other. They can now. Larger numbers of flesh-eaters have yet to reflect fully on the consequences of their habit. If they are open-minded, Adams can guide them.

The reviewer is a syndicated columnist and staff writer for The Washington Post.