Opinion: Special Feature (1 of 3): Histories

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» Opinion: Special Feature (1 of 3): Histories

In the first of a special three-part series of articles, Researcher Network member, Catherine Oliver discusses her vegan-related research in the area of history, feminism and friendship.

For cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall, an archive begins at the moment  ‘a relatively random collection of works [becomes] something more ordered and considered; an object of reflection and debate’ which ‘represents the end of a certain kind of creative innocence, and the beginning of a new stage of self-consciousness, of self-reflexivity’ (2001, 89). Veganism is, I propose, at a moment of creative construction. We have a significant history in need of critical reflection and multiple writings from different ethical, political and geographical perspectives. History is not singular but imbued with meaning and curation by those who tell it. Vegan histories are not well-known. When interviewing vegans across Britain, I asked if and what people knew about veganism’s histories and for many, the majority of their knowledge was of current conditions for animals, health benefits of eating plants, and the environmental impact of veganism.

Histories of veganism are entangled with wider animal welfare and rights movements, not built out of one another but rather sharing some approaches, events and people. Following feminist accounts, such as those of Carol J. Adams and Laura Wright, the history of veganism I write pays attention to the people and animals not centred in institutional archives. In 2016-17, I worked in the archive of Richard D. Ryder (date-present), an animal activist who named the term speciesism, at the British Library. Based in this archive, I was privy to an archive that documents respectable histories of animal activism. Located in archives is to be located in anthropocentric human spaces. In this archive, a white male history of privilege is stored, that pushes women and animals to the marginalia. Women have been at the forefront of animal activism since its inception in Britain and Ireland. Frances Power Cobbe, a 19th Century anti-vivisectionist activist, pushed back against scientific rationalism, and Mary Wollstonecraft made vital connections between feminism, nature and animals.

In its early years, The Vegan Society was concerned with nature and spiritualism as closely entwined with veganism as a less violent relationship with the world. These sentimental, ‘feminised’ values were, some thirty years later, being written out animal activism with the rise of animal ‘rights’ rhetoric, notably centring around the publication of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975) and Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights. The legitimisation of veganism and caring for animals by white Western masculinised rationality has been foregrounded in the contemporary history of veganism. The extension of human ‘rights-based frameworks’ has, I argue, not succeeded in its goals. The re-centring of the feminist ethics and politics from which contemporary veganism was borne is a cornerstone of my historical vegan research.

Vegan-feminist scholar and activist Carol J. Adams asked, ‘what happens when a group who is supposed to be invisible tries to make animal issues visible? Sexism will effect the dominant culture’s dismissive judgement of them’ (Neither Man nor Beast, 1994). In Britain, the effects of women making visible animal issues was to have their work dismissed as sentimental and co-opted by men’s rational frameworks of rights. Ecofeminists have been linking hierarchical oppressions of misogyny and eating animals since the 19th Century, and Ryder’s claim of theorising speciesism as a ‘Eureka moment’ can be seen differently in the context of these variegated histories. Ruth Harrison’s Animal Machines (1964) and Brigid Brophy’s The Rights of Animals (1965) also predate texts more commonly touted as foundational texts for vegan scholars and activists.

The echoes of attempts to rationalise caring about animals has dominated the writing of a mainstream history and the intellectual foundations of veganism. Elsewhere, I have written about the lost histories of the women of animal activism in Britain and Ireland (notably, Frances Power Cobbe, Lizzie Lind af Hageby, Brigid Brophy and Roslind Godlovitch). These women were, in the archives, pushed to marginalia and footnotes. Their contributions have been recognised by the men we herald as forefathers of veganism, but only as addendums. Arguably, it is not only women’s histories with animals and animal activism that are being hidden, but also the importance of feminist practice, emotions and embodiment within veganism. Because, when we focus upon patriarchal dominance of writing history, it is also always an anthropocentric, of human, dominance of what and who is remembered. Writing a history of veganism is unavoidably rooted in human ways of remembering and storing history, but it is also imbued with beings, things and feelings beyond the human.

This human writing of history was disrupted by breaches of time and history in the archives: the moments where animals were present in the archive disrupted reading to make me feel closer and befriend them. Friendship has been and remains a vital force in veganism: between vegans and other vegans in support and solidarity; between vegans and non-vegans in activism and outreach; and between vegans and animals in rescue and building sanctuary spaces. Friendship works in two ways: the friendships of the powerful in writing history (that centre white, masculine rationality) and friendships of resistance. The former has worked to centre dominant rights-based frameworks for thinking about animals by thinkers (and friends) Peter Singer, Tom Regan and Richard Ryder through particular citational practices and building elite networks. The latter is much more difficult to evidence, because resistance that is distanced from centres of power rarely makes it into human records and archives.

Searching for friendship in the archives, I found less evidence of particular people or events than of a general sense of friendship within historical and contemporary vegan communities. Because the British vegan community is relatively small, although growing, it is likely that vegans who have joined organisations, local meet ups or social media groups know at least some other vegans. This connectedness of vegan networks was not established with the advent of social media, but rather have been central to veganism’s own history. Within organisations and collectives, notably The Vegan Society, the community has had access to not only information and education, but to connecting with other vegans. These friendships have particular characters, centred around an ethical and political shared belief, their intensity and form may vary from other friendships.

The centrality of friendship to veganism is in its network, that connects disparate individuals to and beyond one another, which is always open to new vegans and whose bonds sustain education, information and organisation. This network is made up of individual vegans, organisations and collectives. Through archival research into the histories of veganism in Britain, the historical contours of this networked and activist friendship allow us to more deeply understood how human-human relationships of friendship may inform not only political, legal and social change, but also changes to our human-animal relationships.

The second part of this series will be published next month.

The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.


Catherine Oliver is a social, cultural and political geographer interested in veganism, human-animal relationships, and the politics of friendship. She recently submitted her PhD, Towards a Beyond-human Geography: multispecies worlds and veganism in the past, present and future, at the School of Geography, University of Birmingham. Her work draws together archival research, activist interviews and multispecies ethnography to better understand the trajectory and growth of veganism in Britain.

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