Oppressive Liberation: Sexism in Animal Activism
Palgrave/Macmillan, Cham, Switzerland, 2023
433 pp., illus. Trade, $129.99
Oppressive Liberation by Lisa Kemmerer is a hybrid, multivocal text with eye-opening details about sexism and abuse of women in animal activism. The book is meticulously researched and includes survey data, executive profiles, testimonials, and several chapters written by participants of all genders on the front line of male privilege in the animal activist movement. Kemmerer presents a solid work of scholarship that is highly recommended for anyone working or teaching in areas touching on animal ethics or gender studies. A link exists between animal and human violence where men can turn a woman into a “consumable body” (p. 4). This connection between sexism and speciesism is cultural, ingrained into institutions, and so pervasive that many women feel inferior. Like women in some cultures, animals are treated as property and abused according to male desires. Animals and women are often exploited and controlled by men, particularly those in prestige or powerful positions. Sadly, this is socially condoned and practiced even in speech acts. When language refuses to recognize the individual, it objectifies. Kemmerer employs “anymal” rather than nonhuman animal, the latter wrongly indicating humans are not animals perpetuating species to the dualistic category of “other.”
What degree of oppression, which can be violent, is wired into male anatomy or some cultures, Kemmerer asks. Binary distinctions like male/female, human/animal, white/black can be part of the problem, especially when culturally enforced. Not surprisingly, as she has documented, most animal activists are women, which brings her to the book’s thesis: male privilege is dominant in all areas of social justice activism. Not only does the book explore and explain oppression and male privilege in activism, but it also posits remedies in final chapters. Sexism and speciesism are interconnected, as Kemmerer shows with ample evidence from philosophy to science. Ultimately, the book is not simply an accusation of any particular class, “race,” or gender but a means to finding “just ways of being” (p. 31).
Ecofeminism tells us that controlling and exploiting nature is derived from sexism and a dualistic mentality. Self-enforced thinking privileges only what is typically male and status quo, not women or animals. This does not mean that ecofeminists engage in divisive behavior; rather, they tend to point out damaging hierarchies to generate cooperative understanding for productive change. To be a female animal, says Kemmerer, means suffering and mistreatment before slaughter because of reproductive and lactating potential. Liberation cannot be selective, i.e., feminists only for women; instead, liberation must be total, she asserts, and include animals. Kemmerer delves into philosophy and religion. There’s the Hindu principle of nonviolence, the peace of Zen Buddhism, and the interconnectedness of life in the Daoist and Confucian traditions. These are empathic ethical positions that see the suffering of all in one. With indigenous beliefs, she goes on, there’s an understanding of one’s moral relationship to nature and the respectful coexistence of all life forms. Sacred texts make clear that their God wants humans and animals to work together peacefully. This ancient wisdom, she continues, is reflected in modern science, which tells us that molecular particles are in “reference” to each other, not separated (p. 55). Connections across all life demonstrate how one should not advocate only for animal freedom but for complete liberation across social spheres.
Case studies of sexism in environmental and social justice movements are included. This part of the book contains testimonials documenting blatant instances of male privilege. It’s not uncommon for abused women to fall silent since the framework in which they are placed knowingly situates their activist loyalty above the aggressions perpetrated against them. Many activist organizations employ men as leaders, with women at grassroots and support levels. Kemmerer’s point is that men are nearly always more empowered than women and some of them use their position to oppress others knowing victims will stay silent because of devotion to the cause. Kemmerer conducted a large, professional survey of animal activists revealing harassment, discrimination, and violence toward women, from microaggression and bullying to sexual assault and rape. These shocking brutalities are rooted in male-dominated organizations that capitalize on the inside-facing loyalty of women along with the problems of inadequate policies leading to reluctant reporting. There are few to no consequences for perpetrators in a ruling male network.
Results of the online survey are supported by a site collecting anonymous testimonials from aggrieved women suffering from discrimination and harassment in nonprofit organizations. Here, too, we find sexism and a preference for male leaders, whereas historically women organized and founded most animal activist movements. Testimonials point out how male leaders would demean women and withhold them from leadership by erroneously categorizing them as “emotional,” which is strange since animal activism depends on empathy. The testimonials clearly point to the “problematic relations with empowered men” and their entitlement (p. 138). This dire situation includes male donors who, according to the testimonials, equate money with power and a means to force sex from female activists. All of this misery is exacerbated when others lionize perpetrators and shame women who speak out about the immoral behavior.
People and animals harmed by physical or psychological abuses including stress and fear will suffer mentally, emotionally, and physically. Survey results collected by Kemmerer show that abused women struggle with shame, feelings of inferiority, and self-hatred. We also know that traumatized animals, like people, experience despair. The point is that sexism and male privilege in animal activism have created toxic divisions, distrust, and a waste of time and productivity that should have gone to advocating for and saving animals. Kemmerer provides much evidence of sexism and male privilege in the animal activist movement, more than can be shown in this review. What are some remedies and solutions? Many, she explains, but only a few can be included here. Collective action and support across organizations are necessary since the abuses are so pervasive. One obvious solution is to authorize more women in leadership and oversight roles. Empowered women leaders can work not only for animals but also educate youth and organizational staff about the harms of sexism and privilege. In her own experience, Kemmerer notes how power was not uniformly shared, so she envisions an umbrella body with policies, regulations, and responsibilities to work with and provide oversight guidance for animal activist organizations. Feminist connections and involvement will be crucial for animal activist women leaders and staff.
As someone who has worked in animal activism for over 40 years, Kemmerer notes that her book is not an indictment by an outsider but a well-documented, realistic picture from an insider. Her scholarship, survey data, testimonials, profiles of male leaders, and narratives by other animal activists offer a wealth of information and ideas. Kemmerer’s goal is to eliminate sexist oppression and establish an egalitarian and safe environment for dedicated activists, which in total benefits the movement and hence animals. Oppressive Liberation gives voice to women who have dedicated their lives to saving animals and who have been abused by men, what she calls the “filthy laundry” (p. 337) of the movement.