Why Milk is a Feminist Issue

Why Milk is a Feminist Issue

October 6, 2018 0 By Justine Butler
As a feminist, I wonder how other non-vegan feminists feel about consuming cow’s milk – do they know how milk is produced? Do they care? Would they carry on drinking milk if they knew what goes on behind the closed doors of the modern dairy farm?

We are shocked and outraged at stories of violence against women – stories of rape, forced pregnancy and forced adoption yet these are all a routine part of modern dairy farming. We fight for and value the right to choose, to control what happens to our own bodies – cows have no choice, these things are done to them over and over again, on an industrial scale. The uncomfortable truth is, milk comes from grieving mothers.


Feminism combines a range of ideas that share a common goal supporting the rights and equality of women. Some feminists understand the term ‘woman’ not as a sex term but as a gender term that depends on social and cultural factors.

Transgender people (who identify with a gender other than the sex they were ‘assigned at birth’) are coming forward to fight for an equal place in society. This offers the potential for feminist politics to be more inclusive. In addition, some feminists believe that men’s identification with the movement can also help further feminist causes.

Of course, this is controversial but most people agree that women – including transgender people who identify as women – should have an equal place in society.


A key issue in feminist politics is a woman’s right to control her own sexuality and reproductive system, including access to contraceptives and abortion. It is well-documented how sexual violence is used as a means of control and how it is linked to patriarchy, capitalism and other forms of oppression.


For example, it wasn’t until 1991 that rape within marriage became a crime and it wasn’t until 2003 that the Sexual Offences Act gave ‘consent’ a legal definition in England and Wales. Before this, exemption from prosecution for raping their wives was based on the notion that marriage implied consent to sex and when married, a woman became the property of her husband. These relatively recent changes were vigorously campaigned for since the second wave of feminism in the 1960s – suffragettes being the first wave.


In the 1980s a third wave of feminism emerged linking women with nature, combining feminism with ecology. It was called ‘ecofeminism’. Feminist protestors at the Greenham Common women’s peace camp used their identity as mothers and concern for their children and future generations to legitimise their protest against nuclear weapons. Vegetarian ecofeminism became popular with those who identified with the oppression of farmed animals.


However, ecofeminism was associated with some ideas that alienated other feminists: all pornography is bad, all sex workers are victims (whether they know it or not) and having surgery and hormonal treatment to transform your sex or gender is unnatural.


In the 1990s, ecofeminism became unfashionable. Critics said it was misguided linking women to some mystified notion of nature and that it was not a liberating ideology but regressive. Ecofeminists were labelled as ethnocentric, anti-academic, irrational goddess-worshipers and ecofeminism lost favour.


The links between animal abuse and women’s oppression were dismissed as a postmodern feminism focused primarily on humans, with little concern for animals or the environment. Human-centred (anthropocentric) feminism came to dominate feminist thinking of the early 2000’s.


In 2015, we are apparently going through the fourth wave of feminism. Some feminists are asking why it’s okay for humans to violently control an animal’s reproductive rights while we fundamentally oppose such treatment of women.

Can there be a divide between social justice, feminist and animal rights movements?

It could be argued that the connections between the reproductive freedom of women and animals are both intrinsically linked to patriarchy, capitalism and other forms of oppression so why pick and choose which form of oppression we oppose? This type of thinking is referred to as speciesism. It involves the assignment of different moral values, rights or special consideration to individuals on the basis of what species they belong to.


Some people argue that speciesism is a prejudice similar to racism. Analogies are often made between livestock farming and slavery. In her book The Dreaded Comparison: Animal Slavery and Human Slavery, Marjorie Spiegel says: “Both humans and animals share the ability to suffer from restricted freedom of movement, from the loss of social freedom and to experience pain at the loss of a loved one.

Both groups suffer or suffered from their common capacity to be terrified, by being hunted, tormented or injured. Both have been objectified, treated as property rather than as feeling, self-directed individuals…”
Interestingly, in the foreword to this book, 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.”
Cows share with us the basic brain architecture responsible for emotion. Mother cows feel very distressed when their offspring are taken from them, they cry and bellow. They are still grieving as the milking machines suck the milk from their udders.
But why should we feel empathy for non-human animals? The assumption that farm animals don’t suffer when kept in conditions that would be considered intolerable for humans is largely based on the idea that they are less intelligent than humans and have no sense of self.

Increasingly, however, research is revealing this to be 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 cows nurture friendships, bear grudges and become excited over intellectual challenges. Cows are capable of feeling strong emotions such as pain, fear and anxiety. They worry about the future, but can also feel great happiness.

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”.


Another misconception is that it is natural for cows to constantly produce milk. Just like us, a cow only produces milk after a nine-month pregnancy and birth.


The bucolic image of a cow and her calf in a pastoral setting is a myth. A modern dairy cow will be confined and forcibly impregnated shortly after her first birthday, using restraining apparatus commonly 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. Male calves are unwanted by-products and every year in the UK 100,000 or more are shot, others being sold for veal production.


She will yield 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. Modern 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. Shackles are sometimes used on her hind legs if she has suffered muscle or nerve damage during calving and cannot stand unaided.


This intensive physical demand puts a tremendous strain on the dairy cow and while still young is likely to suffer from infertility and severe infections such as mastitis and laminitis, cutting short her economic and productive life. These painful ailments are a direct result of her exploitation. Physically ravaged from the abuse she has experienced, she is eventually killed to be eaten in cheap products such as pies and pasties – and baby food! The average lifespan of a modern dairy cow is about five years and three or four lactations, when she could naturally live for 20 to 30 years.


Photo: ©Veronika Powell – Viva!

Milk is the product of rape, kidnapping, torture and murder

Acts of sexual violence or forced sexual activity performed with animals disgust most people. Why is it we turn a blind eye to this treatment of dairy cows? Milk is the product of exploitation of the reproductive capacities of female bodies – for profit.

To consider this a feminist issue is an entirely defensible political position.American writer, feminist, activist and animal rights advocate, Carol J. Adams, says: “I would like to see reproductive freedom for all female animals, not just human females”.


She was just 23 when she realised a connection existed between feminism and vegetarianism, between meat-eating and a patriarchal world. In her ground-breaking book, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, she examines the links between different forms of violence used against human and non-human animals.


Cows share with us the basic brain architecture responsible for emotion. Mother cows feel very distressed when their offspring are taken from them, they cry and bellow. They are still grieving as the milking machines suck the milk from their udders.


Is milk a feminist issue? I would argue that of course it is and that the sexual and reproductive choices we enjoy are denied cows. A torturous cycle of physical and emotional torment is enforced upon them until they break. Milk comes from a grieving mother.

Justine Butler

Justine Butler

Dr Justine Butler is the Senior Health Researcher & Writer at the charity Viva! Justine holds a PhD in Molecular Biology, BSc Biochemistry and Diploma in Nutrition. Armed with peer-reviewed science, Justine has written a series of scientific reports, guides and factsheets for Viva!Health (the health branch of Viva!) including: Fish-Free for Life, One in Nine (breast cancer and diet) and White Lies the substantial report on the detrimental health effects of consuming dairy which accompanied Viva!’s report The Dark Side of Dairy which spelt out the inherent cruelty of dairy farming.
Justine Butler

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