Change happens: thanks, feminism!
Over at unrepentantoldhippie, JJ has again neatly made the point that even though you don’t want feminists to speak for you as a woman, that’s OK, because it’s not about you, as an outstanding and outspoken individual, it’s about the historical fact that women once did not have the same political and social rights as men did, but that through the continuing struggle, rising, falling and rising again, of feminism over several decades and at least a few centuries, things have changed. Even though that’s apparently too complex a history for some people, it’s undeniable that feminism has had one of the most profound impacts on Western society – for good or for evil, depending on your point of view. But please, let’s be consistent, and honest with history. If you think feminism is so awful, and you don’t accept the fact that it has made momentuous and positive contributions to women’s lives, it would be really neat if you would forgo those changes and acquired rights, and live as women did 50, 70, 100, 200 years ago. But alas, you cannot. Short of dropping out of society, you can’t return to that golden age of oppression. Feminism was not a “natural” evolution of human society; it was a struggle, all the way along.
I’m reading the third edition (2002) of Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation. One of the cool things about this book is that the prefaces for the 1975 and 1990 editions are included. Singer expresses his humble amazement at some of the rapid developments in the animal rights movement over the past 30+ years, and how it has influenced practice – particularly in the European Union, where changes have greatly outpaced North America in terms of animal welfare laws and changes in husbandry practices (notably for chickens and pigs). For example, by 2012, European egg producers will have to provide 750 cm2 (120 sq in) per bird; in Canada the current recommendation is 450 cm2, and only 350 cm2 (52 sq in) in the United States. The changes proposed for Canada and the United States are already seen as outmoded and inacceptable by European farmers – who are starting to consider that maybe hens need a system that does without cages altogether…
In the first chapter of Singer’s book, he discusses the reaction to proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecroft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. In a move reminiscent of bloggerdom, a satirical work appeared soon after: A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes (i.e. animals). The author was anonymous at the time (hmm) but it is now known that it was Thomas Taylor, a distinguished Cambridge philosopher. His satire pointed out that if Wollstonecraft’s arguments held for women and children then what if we extended them to dogs, cats, and horses? (Yeah, what if we had to stop beating them to an inch of their lives for disobedience, or rounding them up off the streets and cutting them up into pieces while they still lived and breathed…) Of course, as satire, it was surely a hilarious read for literate men of the day. But still, a century later, things hadn’t changed that much for women. They still didn’t have the right to vote or own property, and they were not considered persons under the law; in addition to a thousand other humiliating details. By the 1920s, when women were finally allowed to vote in England, Canada, the US, and Australia – they still weren’t paid equal wages for similar work, or allowed equal educational and professional opportunities.
Progress continued slowly, until the incredibly rapid changes in laws and customs that occurred just before I was born, and continued at a whirlwind pace as I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s. Feminism has been influential to the point where even the very conservative religious culture I grew up in (evangelical Christianity) has become nearly unrecognisable in some of its aspects – the emergence of Sarah Palin would be Exhibit A, and though I really don’t wish to elaborate on her, except to mention that back in the 1980s, mainstream evangelical church leaders thought that the day they let women have political or religious authority over men meant that there were no men fit to lead and we were all heading for hell in a handbasket anyways. (Exhibit B would be pastors telling their members to have (hetero)sexual intercourse every day…. As I check this link, I realise that I attended this church briefly, about 20 years ago. They didn’t display cheesy-sexy beds anywhere near pulpits in those days.)
But of course Palin’s not exceptional. She’s simply part of a culture that has changed to the point where you are more likely than not to have a woman as your doctor or veterinarian. When I graduated from vet school as a large animal practitioner almost a decade ago, it was the turning point, when the balance tipped to a female majority of graduating vets. Yes, we had and continue to have our struggles, to obtain reasonable mat leave and time off to nurse babies and be with our young kids and return to our jobs – but I am pleased to note that in Canada at least, women (and men) vets are increasingly willing to sub in for each other in temporary locums, as women take time off to have children and then return to work on a part-time basis, until their kids are older.
But back to animals à la fin. Even though the seemingly intractable problems of humans, animals and the environment can drain us of energy and create cynicism, negativism is no help at all, and it suffocates hope. Changes in thinking about animal welfare and rights have made a difference, and continue to do so. Change doesn’t happen overnight – but sometimes it can happen with breathtaking rapidity.