Vegetarian Suffragists

Cristen Conger

Long before Carol J. Adams published the her 1990 landmark treatise on the connections between the white patriarchal oppression of women and people of color with that of animals, early feminists were hip to ethical vegetarianism. In late 19th-century America and Britain, many suffragists were heavily involved in the temperance movement and antivivisection activism, and vegetarianism was a dietary extension of that.

Adams writes in The Sexual Politics of Meat:

We can follow the historic alliance of feminism and vegetarianism in Utopian writings and societies, antivivisection activism, the temperance and suffrage movements, and twentieth century pacifism. Hydropathic institutes in the nineteenth century, which featured vegetarian regimens, were frequented by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, and others. At a vegetarian banquet in 1853, the gathered guests lifted their alcohol-free glasses to toast: "Total Abstinence, Women's Rights, and Vegetarianism."

More so than fighting for animal rights, however, vegetarian suffragists were more symbolically motivated. In their eyes, meat was a product of violence, and women as the household cooks being forced to handle the dead flesh represented yet another gender-based coercion. Moreover, choice meat in middle- or lower-class home would've been reserved for the husband first, in order to keep him properly fed to go out and earn the family's income. In 1863, when Dr Edward Smith conducted what's thought to be the first national survey of household diets in England, he concluded "The wife, in very poor families, is probably the worst-fed of the household."

In her paper The awakened instinct: vegetarianism and the women's suffrage movement in Britain, Leah Leneman also explored this suffrage-vegetarianism relationship, noting how not only did leading British suffragists of the day adhere to and preach a vegetarian diet, but also leading vegetarian societies and publications made room for women's voices, although some vegetarians were unsurprisingly nervous that too cozy of an alliance with suffrage would turn away potential meat abstainers.

Meanwhile, the aspect of vegetarianism that initiated more angst among suffragists wasn't so much what they could ethically put on the dinner table, but on their heads.

The cruelty involved in the decoration of Edwardian ladies' hats was another related concern that surfaced in the suffrage press. In February 1909, with regard to the millinery stall at the planned-for Women's Exhibition, a plea was made to the WSPU journal, Votes for Women, that women would "take the opportunity of dissociating themselves from 'Murderous Millinery'," and that the hats and bonnets with "ospreys and the stuffed bodies of birds" would be "conspicuous by their absence."

By the time women's vote was won via the 19th Amendment in 1920 in the United States and the Representation of People Act in Britain eight years later, vegetarianism had been dealt a major blow by the overwhelming forces of technological change. Innovations in transportation and refrigeration made meat more available and affordable to the middle class than ever before. And certainly the influence of two World Wars that demanded meat rationing in order to feed the troops abroad diverted attentions from ethical abstinence until the 1970s when Carol J. Adams and others would reignite the debate over whether eating animals eats away at a gender-equal liberation.