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To Uphold My Feminist Values, I Went Vegan

chopped tomatoes and red onions on a wooden cutting board

I never thought I’d go vegan. But I realized it’s one of the most feminist things I’ve ever done.

CW: Mention of rape

A few years ago, a friend told me to start “living up to all the feminist shit” that I write about. We were drinking vodka martinis in a hotel bar in downtown Chicago—bracing for a chilly night out—when she started begging me to dump my then-boyfriend. She didn’t even know that he enjoyed hurting me during sex or that I couldn’t even brush my teeth before running errands without arousing suspicions of infidelity. She just knew I wasn’t happy and that she didn’t like the guy. Two months later, after saving up thousands of dollars and asking my folks if I could crash with them for a while, I broke up with him.  

Much to the chagrin of my physically and emotionally abusive ex, I’ve always been outspoken when it comes to the rights of women and girls. Even when I didn’t feel like I could stand up for myself, I advocated for other women and non-binary people through my writing, my social media platforms, and my conversations with friends and family. But since leaving my ex, I’ve made up for lost time when it comes to “living up to all the feminist shit.” I quit my job and pursued writing full time, writing about things like college sexual assault and how Western feminists can help non-Western feminists without fetishizing them. I marched to protect Planned Parenthood. I drove across the country by myself—twice. I helped my sister deliver her youngest daughter, and I moved to Los Angeles with less than $400 to my name. Hell, just last week I even yelled back at a street harasser.

But of all the “feminist shit” I’ve done in the past three years, going vegan takes the cruelty-free cake. Nothing else has empowered me to set healthy boundaries and call out sexist bullshit like extending my circle of compassion to farmed animals.

Hear me out.

I know that a white woman making this kind of statement, perhaps especially in Trump’s America, might be upsetting—and I get that. Historically, the feminism of white women has been far from intersectional. Many white women voted for Trump, and reportedly less than half of white women voters in the U.S. believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh. It’s also true that, although I started switching to veganism while living in a remote pocket of southeast Missouri, I now live in southern California, where affordable vegan food is widely accessible. But I think it’s a valid point that needs to be made, and women of color have been expressing similar sentiments for decades. In fact, vegan feminists like Angela Davis and Audre Lorde inspired me to stop eating meat back in 2016.

Nothing else has empowered me to set healthy boundaries and call out sexist bullshit like extending my circle of compassion to farmed animals. Click To Tweet

As a lesbian woman of color, author, poet, womanist, and vegan, Audre Lorde knew better than perhaps anyone that intersectional feminism extends beyond the scope of human female rights. In her own words, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.” And while liberation icon Angela Davis hasn’t always spoken out on her vegan lifestyle, that’s changing more and more these days. As Davis reportedly said a few years ago during the 27th Annual Empowering Women of Color Conference, “I think it’s the right time to talk about it because it is a part of a revolutionary perspective—how can we not only discover more compassionate relations with human beings, but how can we develop compassionate relations with the other creatures with whom we share this planet.”

While going vegetarian, and for nearly a year afterwards, I thought being vegetarian was enough. But after learning about the many ways female farmed animals are brutalized just so humans can eat cheese pizza and omelets, I ditched dairy and eggs too. As someone who was raped quietly by their partner in a bed—who was pushed, pinned, and choked but never punched, kicked, or cut—I realized I could no longer participate in a system that enables consumers to absolve their guilt by minimizing someone else’s suffering. Pain is pain, and there is no acceptable way to hurt, forcibly dominate, or exploit someone.  

The idea that exploiting some animals for their milk, meat, and eggs is acceptable, while other animals are meant to be pets or to live in the wild, is the same sort of logic that sexism, misogyny, classism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, xenophobia, islamophobia, racism, ableism, and every other form of discrimination are based on. “Dominance functions best in a culture of disconnections and fragmentations,” as Carol Adams put it in The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Vegetarian Feminist Critical Theory. “Feminism recognizes connections.” Factory farming is not just harming animals; it is destroying the planet, exploiting the poor and communities of color, creating a public health crisis through the negative effects of animal-based foods, and quite literally feeding a worldwide culture of toxic masculinity.

Around the world, societies feminize compassion and masculinize eating meat. As Adams explained in The Sexual Politics of Meat, “Meat becomes a symbol for what is not seen but is always there—patriarchal control of animals and of language.” Indeed, during the 2016 election cycle, Donald Trump was criticized in headline after headline for treating women “like pieces of meat.” But well-intentioned or not, this sort of language only further promotes the idea that some bodies deserve to experience violence while others don’t. As Adams told Bustle back in 2016, “By challenging oppression on both sides of the species line, by saying that animals matter, too, and so we won’t eat them, we are also saying anyone who is compared to an animal matters and is due equal treatment.”

There’s also an undeniable link between animal abuse and violence against women. A survey of women in domestic violence shelters found that 71 percent had partners who had abused or threatened to abuse companion animals, and recent studies show that slaughterhouse work can lead to domestic violence, social withdrawal, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, and PTSD. A 2009 study by criminologist Amy Fitzgerald found that, in comparison with other industries, slaughterhouse employment increased total arrest rates, including arrests for rape and other violent crimes. According to PTSD Journal, “These employees are hired to kill animals, such as pigs and cows, that are largely gentle creatures. Carrying out this action requires workers to disconnect from what they are doing and from the creature standing before them.” That desensitization makes it easier for them to be desensitized to other forms of violence, such as domestic abuse.

Like every group of humans that has ever been labeled “other” or “less than,” farmed animals are used, bullied, and killed simply because society has deemed them undeserving of our love or concern, their bodily autonomy and desire for a happy life somehow “different.” It’s exactly why I feel like feminists have a special responsibility to stand up for all animals—we should be able to empathize with victims of violence our society silences.

Around the world, societies feminize compassion and masculinize eating meat. Click To Tweet

The meat, dairy, and egg industries profit off female reproductive systems, and billions of baby animals are separated from their mothers each year so we can drink their mothers’ milk instead. Starting at around 12 months of age, cows living at dairy factory farms are forcibly impregnated through artificial insemination, over and over again until the cows are too exhausted to go on, at which point they’re sent to slaughter. And when cows living at dairy factory farms give birth to male calves, those babies are taken from their mothers–who visibly grieve–and sold for veal.

Sadly, the egg industry isn’t any better, even if you stick with “free-range” eggs. “Free-range” hens are still debeaked, crammed into sheds, and pushed to lay up to 500 eggs annually. Just like caged hens, “free-range” chickens will never see their mothers or play in a pasture.

I never anticipated that “living up to all the feminist shit” would include going vegan, but eschewing animal products is one of the most feminist things I’ve ever done. It doesn’t undo all the times that family members, co-workers, “friends,” or boyfriends did things to my body that I didn’t want them to do. And it doesn’t change the fact that I spent years in an abusive relationship. But it is incredibly empowering to know that I’m not contributing to an industry that profits from abusing innocent bodies and exploiting the female reproductive system. No matter what kind of day I’m having, I know that I’m making a difference.

Being vegan has been easier than I expected. I’ve found that it’s completely possible to eat vegan for a week with only $20, and all my favorite recipes can be veganized. Plus, vegan options are common at most restaurants these days, and I still get to frequent some of my favorite fast-food chains, like Taco Bell, Subway, and White Castle. And most food banks offer a variety of plant-based staples, like rice, beans, soy milk, pasta, and canned veggies. But simply cutting back on animal products also helps animals, the environment, and human health.

Perhaps most importantly, going vegan has taught me a vital lesson about self-love: When you extend your circle of compassion to every single sentient being on Earth, it becomes easier and easier to stand up for yourself. It’s impossible to foster the belief that farmed animals deserve to live happy lives, free of deprivation, abuse, and harassment, without also acknowledging that you deserve the same. Rejecting the concept that some animals deserve peace, while others deserve pain, pushes you to value and protect your own well-being—whether that means leaving an unhealthy relationship, prioritizing self-care, or telling a street harasser to piss off.