By Dr Justine Butler, Senior Health Researcher & Writer, Viva!
Do you know what goes on behind the closed doors of the modern intensive dairy farm? If only dairy cows could say “Me too” you might agree – milk is a feminist issue.
Feminism combines a range of ideas that share a common goal of supporting the rights and equality of women.
A key issue is a woman’s right to control her own sexuality and reproductive system, including access to contraceptives and abortion. It wasn’t until 1991 that rape within marriage became a crime. Before this, the law suggested that marriage implied consent to sex and once married, a woman may be regarded as being the property of her husband!
Over the last hundred years, women have fought hard for the right to control what happens to our own bodies. We are outraged at stories of rape, enforced pregnancy and adoption in humans yet these are all standard practise in modern dairy farming. These things are done to cows over and over again, on an industrial scale. Cows have no choice.
Feminism occurred in waves, suffragettes being the first. The second occurred in the 1960s with ‘women’s lib’. A third wave appeared in the 1980s with the emergence of ecofeminism which identified with the oppression of farmed animals. In the 1990s, the links between animal abuse and women’s oppression were downgraded and a postmodern feminism emerged, focusing primarily on humans, with little concern for animals or the environment.
Human-centred feminism came to dominate feminist thinking in the early 2000s. In 2018, we are going through a fourth wave, with feminists asking why it’s okay for humans to violently control an animal’s reproductive system while fundamentally opposing similar treatment of women.
Should there be such a profound divide between social justice, feminist and animal rights movements?
The reproductive freedom of women and animals are both linked to patriarchy, capitalism and other forms of oppression. So why pick and choose which form of oppression we oppose?
This type of distinction is called ‘speciesism’. It involves the assignment of different moral values or rights to individuals on the basis of what species they belong to.
“I am a vegan-feminist because I am one animal among many and I don’t wish to impose a hierarchy of consumption upon this relationship,”said American writer, feminist, activist and animal rights advocate, Carol J. Adams.
Analogies are often made between livestock farming, racism and slavery. American author and activist Alice Walker says: “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.”
The assumption that farm animals don’t suffer when kept in conditions that would not be tolerated for humans is largely based on the idea that they are less intelligent than humans and have no sense of self. Research shows this is untrue.
John Webster, Emeritus Professor in Animal Husbandry at Bristol University says: “People have assumed that intelligence is linked to the ability to suffer and that because animals have smaller brains they suffer less than humans. That is a pathetic piece of logic”.
It’s a misconception that cows are docile and stupid. Research shows that they nurture friendships, bear grudges and are excited by intellectual challenges. Cows are capable of feeling strong emotions such as pain, fear and anxiety, but can also feel great joy. We all enjoy the sun on our back! Similar traits have been found in pigs, goats, chickens and other animals.
Scientists suggest that such animals may be so emotionally similar to humans that welfare laws need to be rethought. Christine Nicol, Professor of Animal Welfare at Bristol University, says: “Remarkable cognitive abilities and cultural innovations have been revealed”.
The bucolic image of a cow and her calf in a pastoral setting is a myth. Cows do not constantly produce milk and like us, only do so after a nine-month pregnancy and birth. A modern dairy cow will be confined and forcibly impregnated shortly after her first birthday, using restraining apparatus called a ‘rape rack’.
Once she has given birth, her offspring will be taken from her so that humans can have her milk. She would naturally suckle her calf for nine months to a year but in dairy farming, calves are removed within a day or two, leaving the mother bereft, bellowing for her missing offspring.
Male calves are unwanted by-products and every year in the UK 95,000 or more are shot, others being sold for veal production.
The modern dairy cow produces over 20 litres of milk each day, much more than her calf would naturally drink. To keep up production, she will be re-impregnated soon after giving birth.
Intensive dairy farming employs a highly regulated regime of pregnancy and lactation concurrently, meaning that cows are both pregnant and being milked at the same time for most of the year. The immense physical demand leads to infertility and severe infections (mastitis and laminitis), cutting short her economic and productive life. These painful ailments are a direct result of her exploitation.
Her hind legs may be shackled if she has suffered muscle damage during calving and cannot stand unaided. Physically ravaged from the abuse, she is eventually killed for cheap meat products such as pies, pasties and baby food! The average lifespan of a modern dairy cow is about six years, she could naturally live for 20 to 30 years.
Milk is the product of exploitation of the reproductive capacities of a female body.
Milk is the product of rape, kidnapping, torture and murder. Acts of sexual violence or humans’ forced sexual activity with animals disgusts most people. So why do we turn a blind eye to this treatment of dairy cows? Milk is the product of exploitation of the reproductive capacities of a female body. To consider this a feminist issue is not radical but an entirely defensible political position. Cows share with us the basic brain architecture responsible for emotion. Mother cows feel extremely distressed when their offspring are taken from them – they cry and bellow. They are still grieving as the milking machine sucks milk from their udders. A torturous cycle of physical and emotional torment is enforced upon them until they break.
Milk comes from a grieving mother and is a feminist issue.