I ’M STANDING OUTSIDE a slaughterhouse with a chain weighing heavy around my waist. I’ve locked myself in the chute with another activist, a teenager and close friend named Zoe. We are literally the only thing standing between a living cow and the room where she will have her throat slit.
Part of my motivation as an activist is to help the planet, and ultimately, humanity. The animal agriculture industry is polluting our environment on a catastrophic scale. Cows raised for beef in the most sustainable way still result in 12 times more greenhouse gas emissions than plant foods such as peas, pound for pound, in terms of protein production, and require 36 times more land. According to the United Nations, the livestock industry may be the greatest contributor to climate change.
But as much as I care about the environment, my primary motivation for chaining myself to the chute is to help animals. Standard conditions in animal farms subject sentient beings to horrific suffering. Animals are confined in crates or “free range” buildings so crowded they cannot turn around without hitting metal bars or other animals. The air is so toxic with ammonia that it burns their throats and eyes. Many are bred to be so fat they struggle to stand under their own weight. Ultimately, they are slaughtered by gas chamber, throat slitting, or a shot to the head.
So, what can one woman do in the face of the mammoth industry that is animal agriculture? To answer that question, I look to my ancestral mothers.
The parallels between the fight for women’s rights and the fight for animal rights are more plentiful than you might think. In 1820, women were still property in England, owned by their fathers and then their husbands. You could walk into a livestock auction and see wives being sold as property alongside cattle. Here in the United States, it has not even been 100 years since women won the right to vote.
How did women go from property to persons? How did they gain civil rights under the law? Direct action. Pioneers like Alice Paul and Lucy Burns built a grassroots movement of suffrage activists to fight for women’s rights. Under the Wilson administration, 2,000 women launched a campaign called the Silent Sentinels. Six days a week for more than two years, the suffragette women stood outside the White House holding signs demanding political action on women’s right to vote.
Eventually, those women, like animal activists today, were dragged off to jail for speaking up against injustice. While in jail they undertook hunger strikes to draw further attention to women’s liberation. When they became so weak from starvation that the warden feared they might die, medical staff was hired to forcibly feed them. This process sometimes required five nurses to physically restrain one woman while a doctor shoved a tube down her throat and poured raw eggs into her stomach until she vomited. (Foie gras, anyone?) When word of this violent repression broke in the media, the country was outraged. Eighteen months later, Congress ratified the 19th Amendment, giving women full personhood rights including the vote.
I have those women to thank for who I am today: a woman with a master’s degree from an Ivy League college (one that did not admit women until 1972) and a profession that enables me to pay for my own home and food.
Just as these brave women facilitated social change, we too can drive progress for the future of our planet. I offer some solutions to the threat that is animal agriculture. First, vegans and non-vegans alike need to take part in grassroots activism. Direct Action Everywhere offers a platform for regular people like me to stand up for what is right. Second, environmentalists need to make plant-based diets a focus of the movement. And third, citizens must pressure politicians to catalyze the transition from animal to crop agriculture. Topping the list: a vice tax on animal products to force polluting companies to internalize the costs they impose on us, as well as Right to Know legislation mandating transparency within our food system.
While chained in the chute at the slaughterhouse, I thought about how, had I been born in 1787 instead of 1987, I might have been the one with a rope around my neck being sold to a man who would beat, rape, and exploit me. I would have wanted someone to take a stand.
One day I will stand in front of a courthouse with a cow by my side — two females who were once considered property will both be persons under the law.
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