FES Dean Joni Seager highlights connections between animal rights and feminism

Dean Joni Seager of York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) provided a room full of students with unique insights into the connections between animal rights and feminism on Jan. 24. Held in the Student Centre at York’s Keele campus, the event was hosted by the recently founded York Animal Rights Group (YARG), a student group dedicated to animal rights education and advocacy.

Right: Joni Seager

Internationally acclaimed for her work in feminist environmentalism, Seager is a consultant to the United Nations Environment Program on issues such as the gendered dimensions of environmental change and has also published articles on animal rights. It was one of those articles that inspired YARG to ask her to speak so they could learn more about her research and also call the campus community’s attention to animal rights issues.

Seager’s discussion focused on how feminist ways of thinking can provide new understandings of under-represented research fields such as animal rights. Although not immediately apparent, there are significant and revealing overlaps between animal rights and feminism. In contemporary Western thinking, she said, a key aspect of that connection is contained in the notion that animals and humans differ in profound ways, and that animals are considered less than humans.

“The idea of beings that are ‘lesser’ and ‘different’ sounds familiar to feminists and to racialized peoples,” said Seager. “What we hear today about the reasons why our society deems it acceptable to treat animals as horrendously as we do, in factory farms, fur farms etc., is eerily similar to the so-called ‘scientific’ reasons once used to justify the exploitation of women or black people, or their exclusion from full participation in civil society.”

Tracing the history of such justifications, Seager highlighted past arguments that women lacked the physical or cognitive skills necessary to drive cars, take on higher education or understand politics. Once those claims were proven to be baseless, however, other arguments about supposedly innate capacities emerged to validate oppressive behaviours and systems. Similar patterns have been observed in racist structures of oppression. 

Rationales related to animal exploitation have also changed over time. “Not so long ago, it was considered a scientific certainty that animals did not feel pain,” Seager pointed out. “That’s no longer a valid claim, so the focus now centres around their supposed limitations in terms of consciousness, emotions and cognition. The rationales for oppression constantly shift.”

Slowly, science is beginning to recognize what Seager describes as a “spectrum of similitude” between humans and animals. Recent research on whales, dolphins and elephants suggests that many animals do possess a complex emotional matrix very similar to humans. This research has begun to challenge contemporary understandings of animals, building on well established evidence related to the self-awareness of chimpanzees and the problem-solving cognitive skills of cephalopods such as octopi.

“The foundations upon which systems of animal exploitation are based are being shaken and will continually be challenged as we gain a clearer picture of the inaccurate assumptions that support these systems,” Seager told the group. “There is a rich field of research waiting in animal rights, and I encourage you all to take up the issues that are meaningful to you and to help create positive change in our society.”

Seager’s talk was enthusiastically received by the audience, said YARG media consultant Nicole Dente, a first-year student in the Faculty of Arts. “The talk was extremely educational and enlightening. It was an honour having her speak and wonderful to hear that she supports our efforts to raise awareness on animal rights at York. We hope that as our presence grows on campus, students and staff members will use us to find information, support and resources to help them with their own activism."

For more information about YARG and animal rights issues, visit www.yorkanimalrights.org.