International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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1847-1981 :

A thesis presented to the London School of Economics, University of London,
for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, by Julia Twigg
©AUTUMN 1981 - Thesis Index

The author is now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website. The ownership and copyright remain hers and no part of this thesis may be used elsewhere without her express permission.


[Numerical links are to the author's footnotes, use your back button to return to the same point in the text. Text links are to relevant items on the IVU website, all open in new windows]


Two movements strongly influenced by the counter culture were gay liberation and the women’s moment,  both of which emerged in Britain in the early seventies, and both of which had vegetarian links. Vegetarianism is a relatively common phenomenon among feminists; (1) Sisterbite, the restaurant at the Women's Resources Centre, for example, is vegetarian; certain vegetarian restaurants such as the Action Space Cafe, are committed to sexual politics with notice boards that carry information about events, courses etc, of a feminist or gay nature. In 1978 Gay Vegetarians was founded to express the felt link between the two movements. (2)

The association is an old one, dating back to the time of Carpenter and his circle; though it largely dies out after the early 1920s. The link tends to be less with homosexuality itself, than with those periods and groups who have perceived their sexual orientation as raising larger political and social issues. Thus the predominantly conservative homosexual milieu of the 1950s had no serious vegetarian dimension. The feminist link, which again was strong in the late-nineteenth century and up to the First World War, faded, as indeed did the feminist movement itself, in the interwar period and after, only to re-emerge in the late sixties. During the seventies, the two movements were loosely associated largely through a shared concept of sexual politics and a shared perception of oppression; however, the association always tended to be more in the nature of an ideological commitment by some than an organic solidarity, and the social division between male homosexuals and feminist and homosexual women was considerable. In the late seventies, the association became weaker, eroded perhaps by feminism's own fragmentation arid by the move in the male homosexual world towards a more 'macho' style.

The connections with vegetarianism are probably stronger here on the female side, and I shall concentrate on the nature of those, though they are relevant to those homosexual men who share the feminist critique of society and its sexual attitudes. Among male homosexuals there is more of a link through health foods and their relationship to the body beautiful (there is a strong 'California' tone in their cult of the healthy, ageless body, that is in contrast to the style of feminist vegetarianism).

The most fundamental connection derives from a sense of shared oppression; animals too are used and possessed by men, kept subordinate, their interests denied. Meat eating makes them into commodities for consumption as women are commodities. (3) Thus, it is argued, there should be solidarity with animals as fellow victims in a male-oriented world. (4) But this sense of the connections, and of the moral unity between the causes, exists at more than just the abstract level of ethics, and among many feminists, today as in the past, there is also a deeper psychic identification of the self with the suffering animal.

The second connection with feminism derives from the sense that there are male and female approaches to the world, and that vegetarianism, in some deeper sense, enshrines the female. The masculine approach is seen here as one of domination and aggression; it is the spirit that aims to master and subjugate the world, that relates to nature by hunting its inhabitants and exploiting its resources. By contrast, the feminine approach is seen to be co-operative and gentle, seeking harmony with nature and drawing on images of earth motherhood. This is sometimes given an anthropological interpretation whereby the arrival of hunting, and thus of meat-eating, gave male aggressivity its evolutionary advantage, and thus brought to an end the co-operative, nurturing, matriarchal society, believed by some feminists to have preceded patriarchy. Many involved in these matriarchal ideas believe that this primal society was vegetarian.

An opposition is also set up against a slightly different set of masculine attributes. Here masculine qualities, that are highly praised in modern society, are shown in their negative forms, and the rational, analytic, detached approach is presented as fragmented, superficial, cold and ultimately cruel. It is the approach that is able to cut off the self from the sentience of animals, and thus eat them, use them in experiments, cage and exploit them in modern farming. By contrast, a female approach is seen here as intuitive, gentle, emotionally open and concerned with the whole. (5)

Thirdly, connections exist at the level of the symbolism of food. The symbolism of red meat is ambiguous here. In part its meaning is sexuality itself, and this is clearly an aspect in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century connections with feminism; but at the same time, it has the more distinct meaning of male sexuality in particular (the symbolism has always been asymmetrical here) and it is this second aspect that becomes more relevant in the modern period, for one of the important differences between late-nineteenth-century and modern feminism has been in attitudes to female sexuality and its expression.

There are important differences in how this male/female symbolism is interpreted. Sometimes it underwrites a lesbian separatism and an hostility to men. Thus in contemporary lesbian writing a direct association has sometimes been made - one found also in popular slang - between meat and men: 'I gave up men and meat at the same time', recalled Gillian Love Taylor. (6) Some make a direct connection between treat-eating, and the male approach arguing that meat stimulates the male aggressivity that underlies not just violence and war within society, but also the oppression of women and ruthless competitive individualism. Laurel Holliday in her The Violent Sex: Male Psychobiology and the Evolution of Consciousness makes a directly physiological claim that: 'A male’s testosterone production increases if he eats red meat regularly and decreases if he becomes a vegetarian', and she presents vegetarianism as a way to produce a better society. (7)

More commonly - certainly in feminist writing - what happens is that the meaning of meat shifts from male sexuality as such, to a particular expression of it, or rather here, what is seen as a distortion of it. Thus meat is seen to represent a false, 'macho' stereotype of masculinity. Once again the approach has roots in earlier writings, for example those of Carpenter and Salt and their criticism of the brutalised stereotype of the public school man, or during the twenties and thirties, in the pacifist exploration of the psychic bases of war.

At another level, the concern is with the interrelated question of sexual stereotyping that has confined these qualities to women and denied them in men. Some of the association with male homosexuality relates to this issue of stereotyped masculinity, though as noted earlier, concern over being able to express the female side of personality is much less marked today, and Is really more relevant to heterosexual males influenced by the counter culture, whose 'feminising' character has often been remarked upon. Here there is both the high valuation put upon the 'female' characteristics of love, peace, intuition etc, and also the attempt to expand the area of what is acceptable for men to include activities like child-rearing and bread-making, and emotions like tenderness and weakness.

Finally this male/female symbolism can be taken up at a more general cultural level, and one that is largely disengaged from issues of the relationships of men and women in society or of sexuality. Here maleness and femaleness are psychic archetypes, or very generalised cultural images, and as such they appear in some of the ecological, spiritual or psychological writings found within the vegetarian milieu. Jon Wynne Tyson, 'for example, agrees with the attack on our society for being '"tied to the masculine drives of competition, materialism and Faustian conquest"' and writes with approval of the current 'revaluation of the feminine'. (8)

Macrobiotics use the imagery of balancing the male and female principles; and female symbolism often recurs in the vegetarian religious connections, though the older feminist link with such spiritual movements is now largely dead, and feminists today tend to express these themes more through the mythology of matriarchy.

  1. 78. See letter, New Vegetarian, Sept 1977, p7.
  2. 79. The aim of Gay Vegetarians is both to give social support for homosexual vegetarians and to spread its influence in gay circles - the group has marched in gay pride demonstrations carrying a banner. They are associated with Sequel, a lesbian magazine, which carries animal rights references, and with its offshoot, Lair, a feminist animal-rights magazine. The group is strongly committed to animal rights, and many members are supporters of Animal Aid. The more established, vegetarian societies are not keen to endorse the association or to give the group publicity - the Vegan refused to carry their adverts - fearing any such association would be detrimental to the public image of vegetarianism.
    I am indebted to Louise Mills and Elsa Beckett for information concerning Gay Vegetarians. See also pamphlet Who are Gay Vegetarians? published by the society.
  3. 80. Elsa Beckett, a feminist and lesbian, wrote explaining the connections between the movements: 'The subtle similarities between the ways women and animals are treated in our culture must make us sympathies with them - an obvious one is women selling themselves and products on the media by appearing seductive; so also we have food animals in ads selling themselves on to our plates, the coy charm of the Buxted chicken... The treating of animals as things is reflected in the treatment of humans similarly.., it looks to me as if the way many pregnant women are treated, as if on a production line with disregard for their feelings, has its counterpart in the chaining of pregnant cows to the floor so that they cannot even turn round. Women cannot but feel the horror of this'.
  4. 81. At a less serious level, see attack on beauty contests and parallels with animal exploitation, New Vegetarian, March 1977, p11.
  5. 82. For a representative gathering of these themes, see Gillian Love Taylor's account of the links between vegetarianism and feminism. 'I am more into - now - the kind of spiritual side of it that I ever was - the kind of mystical side of seeing life as a whole; and the reason I think it links with feminism is because I think that women are more humane and able to see these connections than men are, and that particularly now, women are the sort of last repositories of any humanity that remains in humans - and you know - we've been forced into a nurturing role and into looking after people rather than things...things - you know, nations, armies, structures, multinational companies, or petrol pumps... I think that men or the great patriarchal society has fragmented and broken everything up into separate compartments in a way that women are not so likely to do - so that now we can alienate ourselves from animals and so we can kill them and eat them - we can alienate ourselves from other people and put them to work in factories or we can alienate ourselves from our wives and mothers and make them work for us in the home or whatever' . She refers also to the effects of 'consuming violence' through meat. We're Here: Conversations with Lesbians, A. Stewart-Park and J. Cassidy, 1977, p84-5.
  6. 83. We're Here, p82.
  7. 84. Guerneville, California, 1978, p40
  8. 85. Alive, Sept 1978, p40. Review.

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