Book Review | Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice

Kemmerer, Lisa, ed.  Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice.  Foreword by Carol J. Adams.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011.  xiii, 190 pages.  Illustrations.

By Genevieve Cottraux

One of the terms often encountered in social justice literature and activism is intersectionality, which hails from feminist theory and refers to the overlapping categories of difference within the women’s movement—race, gender, class, sexual orientation.  It is used in feminist discussions of inclusiveness and to bring diversity to the movement.  It also indicates that as individuals, we have concurrent social identities through which we experience the world, including systemic oppression and discrimination.

Intersectionality has typically been used to refer to the human experience of discrimination, but feminist scholars in particular have linked the oppression of animals with the oppression of humans.  Feminist scholar Carol J. Adams’s landmark work, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (Bloomsbury Publishing, 1990) explores the associations of race, gender, and species.

Adams laid the groundwork for subsequent scholars to explore these associations between the “isms”: racism, sexism, speciesism, classism, ageism, etc.  In Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice editor Lisa Kemmerer brings together essays by 14 women who work as animal advocates.  Kemmerer dedicates the anthology,

. . . to those who work across the intersections of violence—who put their lived (though perhaps untheorized) knowledge of interlocking oppressions into practice to bring deep-seated change:  vegans staffing rape crisis lines, feminists engaged in open rescue, those tending little home sanctuaries while working day jobs to heal battered children, those who speak out against racism while tending shelters for the homeless, and any number of other determined activists who are helping to end oppression on more than one front.

Adams contributed the foreword to the book, addressing the importance of bringing together these women’s stories as a way for the reader to discover their own stories of awareness and engagement.  In her introduction, animal ethicist Kemmerer calls women the “heart and soul of the animal advocacy movement.”

In the field of biology, “sister species” refers to pairs of species in which each is the other’s closest relative.  The relevance of using sister species in the title of the book is made clear by the cover art, which juxtaposes the image of a human female body against a plucked chicken carcass.  The eerie similarity between the images is disturbing and thought-provoking.sister species book cover

Key ideas presented through the stories of the 14 writers include empathy, silence, trauma, and voice.  In discussing the authors and essays featured in the anthology, Kemmerer concludes that the essays are “first and foremost, about learning by listening to the understanding of others” (p. 32).

Essayists include People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) president Ingrid E. Newkirk.  PETA itself has often been criticized for using sexist marketing techniques and images that exploit women.  Newkirk’s essay “Are you waving at me?” is an argument for rejecting classification and compartmentalization, which is somewhat ironic given the controversy caused by PETA ads, such as one in 2015 featuring model and actress Pamela Anderson in a bikini, entitled All Animals Have the Same Parts, which was banned in Montreal as it was deemed sexist.

A more moving and to-the-point essay is Miyun Park’s “Other” about her experiences as a Korean American and how they led her to understand the concept of “other,” which she extends to animals through awareness of the suffering of farmed animals and their voicelessness.

Animal law attorney Christine L. Garcia writes on “human narcissistic entitlement” and concludes with the key concept that we are all equally capable of and responsible for change.  “When the mindless actions of one person infringe on the lives of others, it’s not okay even if those ‘others’ are not our species” (p. 151).

Kemmerer ends the book with an appendix, “Factory Farming and Females,” that looks in-depth species by species at how females are exploited on factory farms for meat, eggs, and milk, and subjected to chronic deprivation, pain, and forced impregnation.  She also points to the so-called humane lie behind the use of the terms free-range, cruelty-free, and organic that lull consumers into thinking they are being compassionate in choosing these essentially meaningless and misleading product labels.

While not every essay will resonate with every reader, the anthology does accomplish its stated purpose to remind us to think about how we view others, how we affect animals with our daily choices, and how we can all contribute to bringing about change.