Home Columns Women need to take the lead in animal rights, for animals and...

An inspiring conversation with a local animal activist, and dear friend, here in Seattle has had me visualizing the future.  We have so many great organizations for the protection of animals in the US and worldwide, yet we have such a long way to go, as humans still abuse and kill animals by the 100’s of billions per year.  The fight for rights of minorities or the voiceless (as humans are not the minority in numbers compared to animals on this planet), has and always will be an uphill battle, so nothing new there.  But Hillary Clinton’s loss as the first female presidential candidate, brought on in part by the 53% of white women who voted for Trump, (not to mention the 90 million eligible voters who didn’t vote at all), has me thinking a lot about women, participation, and leadership, particularly with respect to the animal rights movement.

When it comes to the fight for animal rights and freedom, we have too little participation and far too little leadership, particularly among women.  My dear Seattle friend recently told me how she was being encouraged, by new advocates spurred to action by Trump, to participate in inter-sectional feminist, anti-racism, and anti-homophobia movements, as if my friend had not spent decades advocating with every breath in her lungs for the protection and freedom of animals  — a cause just as worthy, and frankly more demanding, than these inter-sectional causes.  Further, my friend is a seasoned advocate for the rights of minorities as well.

Yet I had the same experience as my friend.  After the election, even people quite close to me, who knew that I co-run a political action committee, write for my local paper, participate in the National Women’s Political Caucus, and volunteer for the Humane Society of the United States, actually said to me, “Well, it looks like we are going to have to step up!”, as if to ignore that I had spent every night and weekend for the last 10 years “stepping up” for equality, against discrimination, and for animal protection.

So what’s missing? Why did people in our own tribe think we were falling down on the job?  Why didn’t my friend’s colleagues recognize her as the seasoned advocate that she is, and pretended that they had to educate her about getting involved?

I realize that many people, in and out of our tribe, found themselves in a state of shock on November 9th at 3:00 AM, when my text messages where flying and I was suffering physically from emotional seizures in disbelief from what was about to be a very different world.  I agree with many opinion columnists that Hillary Clinton’s loss was due to women not stepping up and stepping out for a women leader, so I’m glad women are stepping up now…but there is still something missing as evidenced by my experience of being told to ‘step up’ and my friends experience being told to ‘get involved.’

Women, at all levels of political and social advocacy from novice to veteran, are confusing ‘concern’ with ‘participation’, and confusing ‘participation’ with ‘leadership’, and leadership is a position largely left vacant.  I can think of nothing more dangerous for an animal rights movement then a vacancy of leadership. Especially since leadership for animals comes in many forms from speaking up in a group to personally taking responsibility for a part of our larger movement.

So, for what I recommend next, I must credit to Gloria Feldt, an extraordinary leader in the women’s health movement, and one of the few women on this planet who actually knows how powerful women can be, and why our world must be equally co-led by women.  I highly recommend Feldt’s book, No Excuses:  Nine Ways Women Can Change How We Think about Power.  Read it right away.

To start, everyone should participate in the fight for animal protection. Simply shop without cruelty (like cosmetics not tested on animals, avoiding animal products, and never buying animals, and adopt instead), and you’ve flexed an incredible amount of power to help animals without even taking on an extra task.  I would expect we all try to give at least this same level of participation to other causes as well, as I also avoid buying anything made with child labor, in sweat shops, or that require me to cross union picket lines.  So this is the baseline of our work.  Concern is not enough, and I must participate in the good options and avoid participation in the bad options for people, for animals, and the environment… at the very least.

But what I think a lot of newly minted activist are finding is that the move from being a concerned citizen to being a participatory citizen can feel, at times, quite uncomfortable, and even aimless…as if there are so many issues, it’s hard to know how to be on the right side of history and learn how to advocate, speak up and be involved all in the two months since the tragic election.  Gloria Feldt has some great thoughts on this as well.  In my view, there is a lack of leadership and a lack of visibility of seasoned advocates who can help guide and support new advocates.

So this brings me back to my point about what’s missing, that being, the confusion between participation and leadership.    Whether you care about animals and are participating for the first time in advocacy or you are a longtime advocate, it is time for you, right now, to think about your role in leadership in the animal rights movement.  What can you do today to be a leader, in addition to a participant, in our movement?  Here’s a few ideas that I have (again, thanks to Gloria Feldt).

1)  Speak up in every occasion! Use every moment to share your vision of the world with the group of people you are with.  Share with them options for spay/neuter clinics. Share your favorite meat-free recipes (or in my case that stack of Vegetarian Times from 1994-2004 now collecting dust!)  Share your story of adopting that dog or cat that changed your perspective on animals.  Be a leader in the discussion around animals at the dinner table or at city council meetings.

2)  Make the first move on behalf of animals!  Call your legislator and tell them what you think about animal protection, and why it’s important.  Tell them, without apology, about the suffering of animals and how they could avoid it by passing laws to protect animals.  Sign up to stay informed. Start by signing up for action alerts from Care2, a petition site for environmental, human, and animal causes, as well as from the  Humane Society of the United States, PETA, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and the White Coat Waste Project.

3)  Show up for animals as a team Whether you volunteer for a shelter, donate your money, table at an event, just make sure you are involved and make sure you find a place you feel like you can stay involved.  Participation is about doing what needs to be done, the baseline (shopping without cruelty, etc), but you need to find a place in this movement that works for you long term.  Leadership is taking responsibility for finding that niche.  If that niche is stuffing envelopes, then AMEN sister!  But let’s get involved and STAY involved where it works for us individually, and not leave our movement without our much-needed presence.

4)  Take responsibility for something hard that makes a difference for animals.  It might be big, it might be small… but responsibility is the difference between participation and leadership.  For example, I have another dear friend who has taken it upon herself to personally grow the political ranks of animal activism in Washington State.  She is my go-to-friend for all things social-media and political animal advocacy, and I applaud her courage to take on something hard, that she knew little about to begin with (i.e. social media), and she ran with it.  Now, thanks to her, the Humane Voters of Washington is a social media presence to be reckoned with, at over 800 people strong!  If each of us found and took on a responsibility for our movement, the mountain of 100 billion animals/year to save would not be as steep.  How will you take responsibility for our movement today?

5)  Take credit for your advocacy.  It may seem like boasting to tell people you are participating and/or are taking responsibility for your movement, but actually you have the additional responsibility to be a role model for others to follow in your footsteps and grow the movement.  People need to know that they have the power to make a difference, but they won’t know that unless they see it in others (or happen to find it on their own, which I applaud as well.)  Gloria Feldt writes about the re-framing of power from a ‘power-over ‘ dominating others (like Trump is doing now) to learning to view power as ‘power-to’ accomplish great and good outcomes.  We must model being powerful for others by showing them that we have the ‘power to help animals’ lest we have a movement of simply concerned citizens.

So with all that, I want to share my vision that my advocate friend inspired in me.  In a world where women want and need change, somehow 53% of white women believed that they would get that change from a pathological, oppressive, sexist, abusive, would-be dictator.  In my opinion, Trump offered these women the opportunity to do nothing, and he hoped they would take him up on that offer, and many of them did.  Trump offered women the chance to blame others for their problems, all the while viewing themselves as ‘concerned citizens’ without ever having to participate or take responsibility… what a rosy thing to offer, if you don’t mind losing your health care, your freedom, your right to free speech, your right to taxpayer information, and your right to choose your own life. It’s the nice, easy option of a scam artist and crook to say life will be easy if you just make this one simple choice.

But Gloria Feldt wrote that, “The more we practice risking to leap, the more proficient we become, the more our fears melt away, and the more we grow ever stronger.”

By taking ourselves from concerned citizen to participant and from participant to leader, women like us are taking leaps.  We can practice and succeed by advocating for any intersectional issue, and we should do that, but the animal rights movement presents a unique challenge and opportunity for speaking up as women, because the animal rights movement needs to pass through some of the same barriers that the women’s rights movement has already moved through.  Our feminist history (and sadly our present state in some parts of the world) is full of examples where it was okay, normal, regular, natural, and part of our economy to use and abuse women, in much the same ways we use and abuse animals today.  The parallels of the animal rights movement with women’s rights and civil rights is obvious, which means that learning from our history, we know that women already have the tools to bring about animal liberation.

Women’s leadership does not mean you need to be a leader in a women’s advocacy group, although you should definitely sign up to be involved. It means you need to be a leader for the greater good in any discipline.  Animal rights, by definition, includes rising the tides for all beings in all sexes, races, creeds, backgrounds, disability status, and species!  Hence, I clearly see the animal rights movement as a means to women’s equality as one of the prime opportunities in our world to learn and perform leadership, display leadership, and shape a world where all beings have rights, and women have leadership parity.  As Ms. Feldt so aptly titled her book, there really are “no excuses” to not take part in leadership.  Women have a responsibility, for their own sake, for their daughters’ sake, and for 100 billion voiceless animals, to be powerful and use their ‘power-to’ bring about the change women and animals need, and not allow a vacuum of leadership be filled by any more people like Trump.

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