Sexism and Racism in the “Animal Movement”: A Reply to Ruby Hamad

December 20, 2015

Ruby Hamad
Daily Life

Dear Ms. Hamad:

I read your essay about racism and sexism in the “animal movement.” You state:

This is the core of what is wrong with the mainstream vegan community today. So many of its adherents refuse to make the connection between human oppression and the exploitation of animals.

I am in complete agreement with that statement.

I would not agree that the statements about domestic violence from Durian Rider (whose name I had never heard until the domestic violence issue appeared), or the statements in support of violence and misogyny by Gary Yourofsky, represent the “mainstream vegan community.” Any vegan in my acquaintance would find them as reprehensible as I do.

But I agree completely that the modern animal movement as a general matter has failed to see the inextricable connection between human rights and animal rights. It has failed to see that the “otherization” of nonhumans is no different from the “otherization” of humans based on race, sex, class, etc. That has been a core concern of my academic work for decades and, with my colleague, Anna Charlton, I have regularly taught a course at Rutgers University called, “Human Rights and Animal Rights,” for many years.

I think that a good part of the explanation here is that the “animal movement” has, at least until recently, been dominated by corporate charities. These are businesses that seek a large donor pool, so they don’t take human rights positions. Indeed, they have an economic incentive to promote discriminatory positions to bring in donations. One only has to look at the virulently sexist and misogynistic campaigns of PETA that started back around 1989 and that seem to get worse every year. PETA would not be doing that if it did not bring in lots of money. Unfortunately, many animal advocates, including by your own admission, you, have made excuses for PETA. That has had most unfortunate consequences.

But let me say again: I am in complete agreement with you that the “movement” (if that is what you want to call a collection of corporate charities) has missed the mark here. And that is why I have, for about 25 years now, been arguing that animal advocates need to embrace a progressive vision of human rights and need to stop using discrimination as a fundraising tool. I publicly criticized PETA’s sexist campaigns as early as 1991 and haven’t stopped since.

Interestingly, when I sought to get Feminists for Animal Rights involved in protesting PETA’s sexism, I was told that FAR did not want to make any public statements about the matter because Ingrid Newkirk, who headed (and still heads) PETA, was a woman. Indeed, it was not until late 1994—when PETA’s sexist campaigns had fully taken root—that FAR issued a public statement about the matter. I have consistently criticized PETA and other groups for the use of sexist imagery or ideas in their campaigns. I long ago stopped paying attention to all the hate mail I get from people who claimed that I was “betraying the animals” because I criticized PETA’s sexism.

Over the years, I have cautioned animal advocates to be careful in how they expressed the comparison between animal exploitation and race-based slavery given the historical comparisons of Africans to nonhuman animals that were, in fact, made. I publicly criticized a cover of the now-defunct magazine, Animals’ Agenda, which combined a picture of a child of color with a picture of an animal (a cat as I recall) that evoked a critical response from many people of color who argued that the image portrayed people of color as nonhuman.

In my own work on animals as chattel property, I have made clear that the comparison is useful for one and only one reason: to show that the legal regulation of the treatment of sentient beings who are characterized as chattels cannot work and that property owners will almost always prevail irrespective of whether the property is human or nonhuman. I have always taken the position that posters showing lynched slaves juxtaposed with animals hanging in slaughterhouses are offensive because they can too easily be interpreted as crudely analogizing slaves to animals. I have received a fair amount of criticism for these views from animal advocates who think that what I am saying is that animals are not as “important” as humans, which, of course, is not what I am saying in that a central point of my work is that all sentient beings are equal for the purpose of having a right not to be treated exclusively as resources.

In recent years, I have been speaking out against the Islamophobia that is increasingly common among animal advocates. For example, I spoke out against the campaign against halal slaughter that Viva!, a new welfarist group in the UK, launched, and in which Viva! encouraged the public to boycott restaurants that served halal meat. See, e.g., here and here. I wrote, in part:

I find it terribly sad that Viva! chose to characterize this as an issue of a Muslim practice concerning how animals are slaughtered rather than that they are slaughtered at all. Unfortunately, Muslims do not have a monopoly on mistreating animals and Viva!’s comments encourage Islamophobia, which is already rampant in the U.K. and U.S.

I got quite a bit of criticism from that as recently as this past October when, while participating at an event in London, I discussed the problem of Islamophobia in animal campaigns and had a number of angry animal advocates accuse me of supporting halal slaughter. I tried to explain to them that I had done no such thing and that I was, in fact, trying to show them how Islamophobic campaigns harmed both nonhumans and humans by encouraging people to think that Muslims were morally inferior to those who ate meat from animals who had been stunned. But, as is often the case with people who are angry, I am not sure they heard me.

When reactionary “New Atheist” Sam Harris, who is very popular among many animal advocates, promoted the profiling of anyone who looks like a Muslim, I spoke out against it. My general position on the New Atheists—i.e., that I agree with Noam Chomsky that the New Atheists are “religious fanatics” who believe in the “religion of the state”—has drawn a great deal of criticism from animal advocates, some of whom have actually accused me of “discriminating against atheists” when, in fact, I just reject those who call for an almost fascistic obeisance to the state, as the New Atheists do.

I spoke out against the live export campaign of Animals Australia on several grounds, including that it encouraged Islamophobia.

I do not allow Yourofsky to be promoted on my Facebook page because of his statements promoting violence and his racist and otherwise hateful statements about Palestinians.

I have repeatedly spoken out against racist, ethnocentric, and xenophobic aspects of single-issue campaigns focused on the Taiji dolphin slaughter, whaling, and the consumption of dogs and cats in Asia, as well as the racism that attends just about any high-profile cruelty case when the defendant is a person of color.

I could go on and on with examples but I want to say, yet again, that I agree with you completely that the “animal movement” has missed the mark in terms of human rights. And I have been encouraging animal advocates ever since the mid-1990s to form a grassroots movement that promotes abolishing (rather than regulating) animal exploitation, embraces a progressive vision of human rights that rejects all discrimination, and rejects violence.

I was, however, astonished to see you say the following:

I am disenchanted that a movement that is comprised mostly of women nonetheless elevates white men to most leadership positions. Men such as Professor Gary Francione who thinks it is his place to lecture women on whether or not they can call themselves feminists. And I’m dismayed that critiques of prominent vegans are routinely shut down because these men are “doing so much for the animals”.

I have several observations I would like to share with you.

First, I think it is sad—and completely unfair—that, as a general matter, you appear to lump all vegan men in with people who treat domestic violence as some sort of joke, advocate that women who wear fur should be raped, or make racist statements about Palestinians. I recognize that such a characterization helps to get attention for your article in the same way that tabloid headlines do. And I recognize that the media are, as a general matter, hostile to veganism and always on the lookout for reasons to dismiss vegans. But your lumping all men in the same group was irresponsible on your part.

Second, my “lectu[ring]” statement (to which you linked) that you apparently find objectionable is:

If you are a feminist and are not a vegan, you are ignoring the exploitation of female nonhumans and the commodification of their reproductive processes, as well as the destruction of their relationship with their babies.

Do you disagree with the substance of that statement?

Do you not see veganism as a moral obligation, as a basic requirement of fundamental justice, as what we owe to animals? Do you agree that feminists who are not vegans are drawing an arbitrary and indefensible line between human females and nonhuman females? If you don’t agree with the substance of the statement, then we have a fundamental disagreement. But our disagreement would not be about feminism. It would be about what justice for nonhuman animals requires.

If you do agree with the statement but you object to the fact that I, a male, made the statement, then you are expressing essentialism which, in this context, means that only women can take a position on feminism.

Essentialism leads to the view that reactionary people like Margaret Thatcher or Carly Fiorina have more to say about feminism than any male does—however progressive he is. Do you not see that as absurd?

I agree that white people must always be mindful of the privilege they have in a racist society. I also agree that men must be mindful of the privilege that they have in a patriarchal society. I think it is imperative to listen to the lived experiences of women and people of color, which are all too often ignored or reinterpreted—and thereby misinterpreted—by conventional standards of meaning.

But that is very different from saying that only people of color can speak about racism or that only women can speak about feminism and that it is morally acceptable to label as “racist” or “sexist” anyone who does speak out about these issues—irrespective of what they say—just because they are not from the particular group involved. We need to look at the substance of what is being said and evaluate it on its merits, and not dismiss it simply because of the sex or gender or race of the speaker. What is morally right and wrong is not a matter of relativism, at least as far as I am concerned. (And that may well be what is at stake here, as I will discuss further below.)

Essentialism, far from being a progressive doctrine, is a most regressive and reactionary one. It is the enemy of progressive social change, which seeks to build a movement of people who subscribe to ideals about justice—a movement that does not exclude people or take the position that they cannot speak because of who they are. I reiterate: everyone who enjoys any privilege should, of course, be careful to make sure that it is not causing them to promote a position that is unjust rather than just. But progressives should reject the idea that it is the identity of the speaker—and not what the speaker is saying—that is the focus of the debate.

Third, you say that the “movement” has “elevate[d]” me to a “leadership position.”

What is the “movement” to which you refer? It certainly isn’t the “movement” represented by all of the corporate charities. It would be a hyperbolic understatement to say that they don’t like me much at all. Not at all.

Moreover, I do not have my own organization. I am not supported by any organization. I have no “donate” button. I am an academic. I write and I teach. My writing and teaching are certainly informed by the years I spent doing pro bono legal work for the large groups and others, but I am just an academic. I have absolutely no position within the “movement.” In fact, I deliberately emphasize in my work that abolitionist vegan advocacy must be a grassroots movement that does not look to any “leader” and looks only to ideas that reflect sound moral theory.

There are many people, including many women, who read my work and who agree that my positions are sound. For the most part, these women are not involved with the “movement” either in that they aren’t supporters of the large corporate charities. They are part of a grassroots effort. So the people who have, in your words, “elevate[d]” me to the “leadership position” are simply the people who find my arguments to be sound and my approach to address the broad range of ethical concerns that they have. I don’t “lecture” women. I make arguments and many people, including women, find them persuasive. My work provides a theoretical framework on which advocates can base their educational efforts in order to bring about social change effectively. Abolitionist vegan advocates are not only engaging in creative, nonviolent vegan education all over the world, but they are promoting veganism as part of a broad vision of human rights that rejects all discrimination and calls it out whenever it is seen in various animal campaigns.

But these people—these women—apparently don’t count in your view. And why is that?

Do you think they are merely automatons who can’t think critically?

If that is what you are saying, your position is completely dismissive and disrespectful of all of those women, including women of color, who embrace the idea that veganism is a moral baseline and a moral imperative, and who agree with the other aspects of my work, including the human rights-animal rights connection that is far more encompassing and inclusive than are many other supposedly progressive approaches. The Abolitionist Approach focuses on all discrimination.

Interestingly, essentialism does not appear to stop white cisgendered females from making all sorts of pronouncements about racism, transgendered people, etc. But then, I do understand that those who endorse essentialism can’t be bothered with acting in a principled manner.

In any event, the position you appear to be articulating is tantamount to saying that the only women whose opinions count are the ones who agree with you. Such a position is no more acceptable when the person positing it is a woman than it is when the person positing it is a man.

Fourth, I think that what may really be at stake here is that you don’t agree with my view that veganism is a moral imperative. That is, I suspect that you may actually want to promote a position that allows for animal exploitation and then claim that the problem with those who disagree is that they are white males or women who are automatons.

Who are the voices you claim need to be heard over those of the white males who exercise Svengali-like power over the hapless, feeble-minded women who agree with the Abolitionist Approach? You mention Breeze Harper (“Sistah Vegan”) and “ecofeminist pioneer” Carol Adams.

As for Harper, listen to this video starting at about 1 hour, 3 minutes:

Harper says, among other things:

1. “I don’t think any diet is the right diet.”

2. No diet is “universal.” “Your diet and what you need as food changes with the ‘who you are space.'”

3. As an example of the “who you are space,” Harper says that she stopped being vegan when she got pregnant because she “just couldn’t do it” and “ate a few eggs per month.”

4. Being vegan is “difficult” in certain places (and so veganism can’t be a “universal” obligation).

In the Introduction to her book, Sistah Vegan, Harper characterizes promoting veganism as a moral imperative as a matter of “preaching veganism or vegan fundamentalism.” That is exactly the way in which corporate welfarists characterize promoting veganism as a moral baseline.

Putting aside that veganism is more than just a diet, this is nothing more than the “veganism is a sort of an okay default but it is subject to convenience, individual idiosyncrasy, etc.” position. But let’s be clear: it explicitly rejects veganism as a moral baseline and makes veganism a matter of the particular situation—the “who you are space.”

Is veganism a matter of the “who you are space”? It is most certainly not, any more than observing the fundamental rights of humans is a matter of the “who you are space.”

Maintaining that veganism is a moral imperative is not a matter of “preaching veganism or vegan fundamentalism.” It is a matter of fundamental justice.

Are food deserts and places where grain is fed to animals for export rather than to humans a problem? Absolutely. But does that mean that veganism is not a moral imperative such that we have an obligation to increase availability? Of course not.

Bottom line: this version of “intersectional justice” is just speciesism embellished with superficially progressive jargon. It’s anything but inclusive: the animals are left out and are treated as sacrifices to the “‘who you are space.'” The fact that a person of color may articulate that view does not mean that it is not speciesist.

In any event, it seems that what you are saying is that we ought not to accept the idea of veganism as a moral imperative because some white guy promotes it. We should instead promote a speciesist position because a person of color promotes it. Those people of color who would reject Harper’s transparently relativist (or possibly utilitarian) position are just a bunch of automatons that “elevate white men to most positions of leadership” so their views can be ignored.

To call such a position intellectually vacuous would be the nicest thing one could say about it.

As for Carol Adams and ecofeminism, Adams thinks that rights theory is patriarchal and argues that we must reject universalizable moral judgments in favor of an “ethic of care” that calls for consideration of the “particulars of a given situation” rather than the application of a moral rule.

I certainly agree that rights have been used in patriarchal ways as a historical matter but, as a conceptual matter, a right is simply a way of protecting an interest. A right protects an interest in a non-consequential way. There is nothing inherently patriarchal about a right. A stick can be used to harm a woman but there is nothing inherently patriarchal about a stick.

Interestingly, although ecofeminists reject rights, they most certainly and rightly maintain that their interests in, say, their fundamental interests ought to be protected as a matter of moral (and legal) rules and not evaluated in light of the “particulars of a given situation.” I do not know of any ecofeminist who maintains that physical abuse should be evaluated in light of the “particulars of a given situation.” In other words, where the fundamental rights of humans are concerned, ecofeminists support rights concepts irrespective of what they say they are doing. But where animals are concerned, the ethic of care can play out in a very different way.

In 1996, I did a review (published in a journal) of a collection of essays on ecofeminism edited by Adams and Josephine Donovan and I discussed the various sorts of animal exploitation, from consuming animal as food (“contextual moral vegetarianism”) to breeding animals for companionship and to riding horses, that were justified by the various ecofeminist writers contained in that collection. But that sort of speciesism is inevitable when one rejects all universalizable moral rules and adopts a situational framework. Ecofeminists call it an “ethic of care.” Harper calls it the “who you are space.” It’s all pretty much the same thing—a rejection of the idea that we cannot justify any animal use whatsoever (for food or otherwise) and that veganism involves a clear and unequivocal moral obligation that we owe to nonhumans now as a matter of fundamental justice.

I note that although Adams certainly promotes veganism more than she used to, she also describes vegetarianism—and not just veganism—as a normatively desirable position. She uses both “vegetarian” and “vegan.” She says, for example, that “we should view meat eaters as blocked vegans, blocked vegetarians.” It’s rather difficult (if not impossible) to not read that as Adams expressing the idea that veganism and vegetarianism are both normatively desirable positions.

As far as my position is concerned, veganism is a moral baseline and anything short of veganism involves direct and morally unjustifiable participation in animal exploitation. There is no morally coherent distinction between meat and other animal products. Vegetarianism is a morally incoherent position. Being a vegetarian involves engaging in animal exploitation with a more limited range of exploitative choices—nothing more. Vegetarianism is no more normatively desirable than is any other omnivorous consumption of animals. The moral status of animals means that we cannot justify eating any animal products, wearing animals, or using animals as resources in any way.

In any event, if people find Harper’s or Adam’s approaches to be persuasive, that is their prerogative. If they are persuaded by my work, which is very different from that of either Harper or Adams, that is their prerogative. To say that those in the latter group are not critical thinkers but those in the former group are rests on nothing but a very unfair, demeaning, and ultimately indefensible stipulation.

Thank you for your consideration of my views.


Gary L. Francione
Board of Governors Distinguished Professor, Rutgers University


If you are not vegan, please go vegan. Veganism is about nonviolence. First and foremost, it’s about nonviolence to other sentient beings. But it’s also about nonviolence to the earth and nonviolence to yourself.

If animals matter morally, veganism is not an option — it is a necessity. Anything that claims to be an animal rights movement must make clear that veganism is a moral imperative.

The World is Vegan! If you want it.

Learn more about veganism at

©2015 Gary L. Francione

ADDENDUM, December 26, 2015

Although my reply was to Hamad and mentioned Breeze Harper only as an example of Hamad’s problematic analysis, Harper posted this in response to the essay. She tells us about her engaged Buddhist practice but, as far as I can tell, does not address the fact that she rejects veganism as a moral baseline. Actually, she seems to reject the concept of moral baselines as a general matter.

Also, for context, I come from the spiritual practice and training of engaged buddhism, influenced by Zen Buddhism. Ruby Hamad and Gary Francione, I just wanted to let you know that this blog post is the impact both of you have had on my developing practice of engaged Buddhism and Ahimsa; these are ‘central’ to my personal ‘moral baseline’ [that will always be on a continuum]. I appreciate it, because what it has done is allowed me to practice responding to actions and impact and not necessarily ‘take the bait’ or be ‘ensnared’ into trying to defend myself or prove myself all the time; it’s teaching me to understand the difference between responding to an individual vs. understanding actions and their impact.

Here’s a screenshot of that:

ScreenHunter_1410 Dec. 26 16.02

Click to enlarge.

In other words, Harper has expressed the view that veganism is not a moral baseline and that the obligatory nature of veganism is a matter of the “who you are space.” I called her on that (indirectly as my reply was to Hamad). Her response: she isn’t going to “take the bait.” The “bait”? I commented based on her words. She is apparently not responsible for her words.

Perhaps she was not in the right “who you are space” at the time.

In any event, if animals matter morally, veganism is a baseline moral obligation; it is what we are obligated to do. Moral baselines are not a “personal” matter; they are a matter of moral principle.

As discussed above, Harper views promoting veganism as a moral imperative as involving “vegan fundamentalism.” From the Introduction to Sistah Vegan:

ScreenHunter_1453 Dec. 28 13.03

I am aware that certain people who claim to be “abolitionists” promote Harper. It is either the case that they don’t understand abolitionism, or they don’t understand Harper, or they are merely trying to appropriate “abolition” in the way that the new welfarists appropriated “animal rights” in the 1990s and turned it into a meaningless concept to further their own agenda.