by Kelly Garbato

Published June 10, 2009 @ 06:36AM PT

This look at the way oppressions intersect is Kelly's first guest post here (and is part 1 of a two-parter) on the Animal Rights blog--and it's thoughtful, important, and terribly smart. Welcome her! For related discussions on this blog, see the "Oppression Connections" category of posts. -S. Ernst

No one is free while others are oppressed.

A young, single African American mother of four asks her doctor to remove the Norplant device he previously inserted into her arm. Since first receiving the implant, she's experienced a number of troubling side effects, including severe headaches, weight gain and depression. Because the woman is receiving government assistance in the form of Medicaid, however, the doctor refuses her request.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a young, white, middle-class, married woman visits her doctor in order to request a tubal ligation. The doctor refuses, citing perhaps the woman's young age and childlessness, her husband's lack of input, the availability of other, less permanent methods of birth control, his religious beliefs - or all of the above. The woman leaves his office, not with a future appointment for the desired surgery, but with a prescription for The Pill.

Taken together, the above scenarios illustrate how sex, race and class converge to create two unique instances of oppression, both involving male/state/patriarchal control over the reproductive decisions - and systems (i.e., bodies) - of women. Women of color, who are more likely to live in poverty, may be coerced (or even forced) to use birth control or undergo sterilization so that they will not bear any more "undesirable" children, while white, affluent women and couples are encouraged to produce more offspring as part of their "patriotic duty."

This confluence of "isms" is called intersectionality:

Intersectionality is a theory which seeks to examine the ways in which various socially and culturally constructed categories interact on multiple levels to manifest themselves as inequality in society. Intersectionality holds that the classical models of oppression within society, such as those based on race/ethnicity, gender, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, class, species or disability do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate creating a system of oppression that reflects the "intersection" of multiple forms of discrimination. . . .

Intersectionality holds that knowing a woman lives in a sexist society is insufficient information to describe her experience; instead, it is also necessary to know her race, her sexual orientation, her class, etc. The theory of intersectionality also suggests that discrete forms, and expressions, of oppression actually shape, and are shaped by, one another.

While Western social justice movements are gradually recognizing the importance of intersectionality - for example, by integrating issues of race and racism into feminist theory - the form of discrimination known as speciesism is usually overlooked, if not openly denigrated.

However, the marginalization of non-human animals (and environmental degradation) is intimately intertwined with the oppression of non-human animals. Indeed, the mechanisms of domination, violence and control are often similar, if not the same.

Take, for example, modern industrial animal agriculture - factory farming. While all animals (both human and non-) suffer under this system, the females of the species usually experience the most egregious and prolonged abuses: "Laying hens" are imprisoned in tiny cages just 16" wide, with three or more of their sisters, and are forced to expel egg after egg - and after a year, their bodies "spent," all are shipped off to slaughter; "dairy cows" are kept perpetually pregnant, so that their babies (whom they carry in utero for nine long months, much like human mothers) and their babies' milk can be stolen from them, the cycle of forced pregnancy and birth and theft and grief continuing until the cow's body can give no more; female pigs are impregnated with tomorrow's "pork" dinner, who upon birth they may nurse for three to four weeks - from the confines of gestation crates; and so on and so forth. In all of these instances, the animals' membership in two marginalized groups - non-human and female - intersect, with tragic results.

Likewise, the fate of the mothers' male babies demonstrates what happens when species membership, sex, age and industry converge: "veal" calves are tortured for sixteen weeks, and then slaughtered, while male chicks born in egg operations are simply disposed of (in the garbage, perhaps, or a wood chipper), a "by product" with little monetary value.

I began this discussion with examples of intersectionality in humans because I think it's easier for people - especially those not actively engaged in animal advocacy - to visualize the process when it's played out on the human body. However, the exploitation of non-human animals oftentimes mirrors and even collides with that of humans.

Some of the best-known - and most controversial - examples of parallel oppressions center around human genocide: the legal property status of non-human animals is compared to that of African slaves in the antebellum U.S. south, while industrialized animal agriculture, with its cold and calculated efficiency, is likened to the Holocaust. Specific instances of reproductive control over women can also reflect the reproductive exploitation of non-human animals (for example, both humans and equines may be exploited as "wet nurses").

In terms of intersecting oppressions, one need look no further than vernacular in order to find examples of this. Some of the most prevalent slurs aimed at women attack their physical appearance and involve non-human animals: Pig. Cow. Dog. Horse. Wildebeest. In addition to denigrating individual women - and reinforcing the idea that a woman's primary purpose in life is to please the male gaze - these insults marginalize entire species of non-human animals as well. In various contexts, pigs, cows, dogs, horses and wildebeests are considered dirty, unclean, ugly, unlovable, unworthy creatures - stereotypes that excuse and encourage their exploitation.

Think about it: the giant panda and the Bulmer's fruit bat - which is more likely to inspire popular conservation efforts, and why?

See part 2: Intersectionality and Animal Advocacy.
Photo courtesy Igualdad Animal/Animal Equality