In defence of the 'animal lover'

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In our first edition of the blog, Ali Ryland discusses how the feminisation of care has shaped animal rights and liberation discourse to this day.

"'I do love animals', she began... she paused while refreshments were served, took a ham sandwich, and then asked us what pets we had. We told her we didn't own any pets...we didn't 'love' animals. We simply wanted them treated as the independent sentient beings they are, and not as a means to human ends." - Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 1975.

The preface to Peter Singer's seminal text might sound familiar to veteran vegans, because at one time or another we will have been presented with a similar situation: a self-professed animal lover happily participating in what we cannot but view as a crime against non-human animals. We sigh, we groan and we fight the fight another day, or we challenge the person on their beliefs. This often merely results in the clashing of heads, but occasionally the seed of truth is planted. If you care about some species, why can’t you care about others?Pig enjoying Hillside Animal Sanctuary, taken by Katrina Martin

But, is it right that Singer reinforced his point by saying that “the portrayal of those who protest against cruelty to animals as senti-mental, emotional 'animal lovers' [has meant] excluding the entire issue... from serious political and moral discussion”?  Why is empathy not a valid, ‘serious’ reason for acting on our beliefs? Why can’t the ethic of care uttered in the last paragraph act as groundwork for promoting veganism?

This is not to say that the supposed 'serious' political, ethical and philosophical debates surrounding animal liberation and rights have not been and are not important. Singer’s own texts have birthed many, many new vegans. But to suggest that caring for animals or professing emotional attachments to them does not have serious nor political implications is an error. And unfortunately, in a lot of animal rights (AR) communities, this view continues.

Thus on the cusp of Valentine’s Day – a day widely viewed as ‘for women’ due to its associations with romantic love – it seems appropriate to discuss the feminisation of caring and compassion within the AR movement. Dismissing the need for sentiment in pursuit of "true rational inquiry" - as Tom Regan (1) phrases it - is nothing new. Women's writing on animals has similarly been dismissed by the dominant AR community, in spite of the fact that there is a long-concealed tradition of women writers, who reject meat-eating due to their sympathy with animals (2). And yet this is not surprising, considering the fact that the care of individual animals has been traditionally conceptualised as the realm of women. 

Women, in our culture, have found themselves able to identify as 'animal lovers'; something denied to men, who are traditionally required by our binary society to embody rationality. This gender divisive tradition of thought still has resonance, both within public opinion and the AR movement, demonstrated by the fact that between 60 - 80% of animal advocates are estimated to be women (3). This has been consistently the case since animal advocacy first became institutionalised into different organisations. The first animal welfare organisation to be founded was the British RSPCA (originally minus its 'Royal' prefix) in 1824, and women quickly accounted for over 60% of members. Likewise, the majority of anti-vivisection advocates in the Victorian period were women, who recognised the practice as bearing resemblance to the "institutionalised abuse of women" (ibid). Caroline White, founder of the PSPCA

As the animal welfare movement in the U.S quickly followed suit by establishing the PSPCA, a backlash to the emergent movement's "feminisation" had begun. Caroline Earle White co-founded and launched the PSPCA, but was subsequently silenced and denied a leadership role as a result of her gender (4). And let’s not forget that Elsie Shrigley is thought to have played a much bigger role in The Vegan Society’s creation in 1944 than she has previously been credited with. Animal advocacy is still considered 'sentimental' and 'hysterical' partially due to its large proportion of female followers. This is despite the fact that men continue to occupy more significant roles among the upper echelons of AR organisations and have much louder voices within public discourse (5).

This legacy of the 'female animal lover' is something many modern day AR organisations have tried to distance themselves from. These days, outreach from some AR groups deliberately plays down pro-animal rhetoric: instead we are encouraged to talk about how veganism gets us more sex, or perhaps focus on environmental degradation for the hard, rational facts. And of course, you're allowed to bang on about health until the cows come home. 

It is unclear whether this distancing is helpful for the movement, especially considering that The Vegan Society has found that those most likely to stick with veganism do so ‘for the animals’. Moreover, recent results from The Vegan Society’s Pledge demonstrate that a concern for animals is still the main reason for choosing to go vegan, in contrast to a recent study which preferred health.

But the fact remains that many newbie vegans tend to choose health as their main reason: not just because veganism has unfortunately become associated as a healthy buzzword, but because of the feminisation of caring for animals – and the hard questions that follow. Go on a vegan forum and you’re likely to see someone - often a woman - who is getting grief from friends or family, being advised to deflect with: "I'm vegan/going vegan for health reasons." While many do also believe it will be healthier for them, ‘health reasons’ additionally acts as an easy get-out clause to having to admit that you might care about animals. 

This is not to suggest that those who have to shield their beliefs to get by are in the wrong. While many of us are fortunate enough to have a supportive network of friends and family when we first transition to veganism, we must be supportive to those who are not so lucky. However, we still have to challenge not just the fact that society devalues non-human animals, but that our culture devalues caring about them too. Yes, we can still appeal to the ‘rational’ as well as the ‘emotional’ and all the societal baggage those terms carry – another discussion for another day – without distancing ourselves from the role that care for animals has had in shaping an entire movement. And we don’t have to desensitise others with graphic depictions of animal suffering or use language that alienates other groups to do this. We simply have to acknowledge that emotion and empathy play valuable roles when we’re discussing why animals are not ours to use or exploit for food, clothing, or any other purpose. Simply, let's be proud to be animal lovers.

By Ali Ryland


(1) Donovan, Josephine.“Animal Rights and Feminist Theory”. Signs.15.2 (1990): 350-375, 2013.

(2) Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat. New York: Continuum, 2000.

(3) Gaarder, Emily. Women and the Animal Rights Movement. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011, 11.

(4) Beers, Dianne. For the Prevention of Cruelty: The History and Legacy of Animal Rights Activism in the United States. Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2006, 9.

(5) Gaarder, Emily. Women and the Animal Rights Movement. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011, 87-117.


Agreed. Bloody gendered intellectual elitism.

Great point, should be made more often!

I am currently volunteering for an animal charity and I find the people I work with and the people that come into the shop seem to be more caring. They are a vegan charity, and they are very careful about what materials on donations. Leather, Wool, Suede and anything else that is made from animals in person non grata.

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