*Disclaimer: For the sake of the argument, I speak of gender in very binary terms in this blogpost. However, I fully recognize all other forms of gender (expressions) that exist on the gender spectrum.
This week, the parliamentary elections took place in the Netherlands. With the general shift further to the right, the third re-election of Mark Rutte as prime minister and the defeat of the green left, one cannot speak of a ‘win’ for the environment. However, small win was made by the ‘Party for the Animals’ (Partij voor de Dieren or PvdD), the party with the most radical standpoints on the climate crisis in the Dutch parliament, which landed its own record number of six parliamentary seats during this week’s elections. This party stands out from the others for its strong emphasis on animal wellbeing, environmental conservation and its campaign against livestock farming. Yet, it is also an exception to the rule for the fact that, for many years, this party has been the only party with a female leader and with a majorly female constituency (which it both still has).
Although I find it remarkable that the FvdD mostly attracts female voters, it also does not surprise me. Even within my own ‘progressive bubble’ I can observe a similar ‘pattern’. It is most obvious in the fact that, in this bubble, most environmentally conscious vegetarians and vegans I know are female. This ‘disparity’ between female and male vegans and vegetarians is found studies in the Netherlands, where 5.9 percent of all women eats vegetarian compared to 1.8 percent of all men, and in the United States where a study showed that 79 percent of all vegans are female.
The question that naturally rises here is: Why is this the case? Are more women vegetarian or vegan because there is something ‘feminine’ about environmental consciousness or does it work the other way around?
The logic of dualisms
The questions above can be approached by using ecofeminist critiques on the logic of dualism. According to these critiques, the logic of dualism has an effect on the construction of what is ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ as well as on the relationship between humans and nature. An important figure in this context is Val Plumwood, who has argued that, in western culture, humans exist in a dualistic relationship with nature. Or in other words this means that, in western culture, humans and nature are seen as separate from each other. According to Plumwood, this dualism, in which humans exist outside of nature, has resulted in the damage humans are causing to the environment.
Plumwood, and other (eco)feminists with her, recognize a similar dualism between the female and male relationship, which also relates to the human (or culture)/ nature dualism. They argue that the logic of dualisms is used as a mean for the patriarchal oppression of both women and nature. In the female/ male dualism, women are constructed as being closer to nature and ascribed the characteristics that belong to nature, such as being caring and nurturing. Men, on the other hand are constructed as relating more to culture and are ascribed characteristics that are outside of nature, such as being rational. The nature/ human or the nature/ culture and the female/ male dualism mutually reinforce each other and produce a hierarchy in which men and culture are superior to women and nature.
Ecofeminists have pointed to the importance of language in this context and criticize how, through language, several aspects of nature are ‘feminized’. This is, for example evident in the expressions of ‘mother earth’ or ‘mother nature’, but also words like ‘chick’ or ‘bitch’ that ‘animalise’ women.
Real man vs #soyboy
According to (eco)feminists, the logic of dualisms thus constructs a binary opposition of what is ‘feminine’ and what is ‘masculine’. It produces truth about specific behaviours to belong to masculinity and femininity. These assumptions of truth in the female/ male binary are very much present in society, for example in patterns of consumption. This is also a result of the fact that capitalist marketing strategies have instrumentalized the logic of these dualisms. In particular the assumption that ‘real men eat meat’ –that has a prominent place in mainstream media and marketing– represents accurately the interplay between the human/ nature and female/ male dualisms, because it connects masculinity (real men) to the domination of nature (eating meat). On the other hand, dietary products such as vegetables or meat substitutes are constructed to relate to femininity or non-masculinity in this dualism. This is for example evident in the insult ‘#soyboy’ that, according to the urban dictionary, refers to “A male who lacks any masculinity whatsoever”.
Individual or systemic change?
The difference between the number of female and male vegans and/ or vegetarians is often related to these (eco)feminist critiques on dualisms and binary gender opposition. A plant-based diet after all implies a certain connection with nature that, in the logic of dualism, relates to femininity. I also think that, to some extent, the predominantly female support for the ideals of Dutch ‘Party for the Animals’, can be explained by the use of these ecofeminist arguments.
This has made me think of the question of individual versus systemic change. I believe that only through systemic change, such as the transformation of governments industries, real differences can be made. Yet, ecofeminist critique shows that differences are not only made through the adaptation of certain practices, but also about the unlearning of certain ideas. Therefore, I am convinced that individual change is crucial for breaking through existing stigmas around meat consumption in particular and around environmental activism in general, that stand in the way of the making of large-scale change.