Women and Vegetarianism

It’s a fairly well known phenomenon that the majority of vegetarians and vegans today are women. In fact, according to this article in the Vegetarian Times, women vegetarians outnumber men 2 to 1. Why? It’s an enormously complicated issue, and there are probably boatloads of interrelated causes. A quick search of “vegetarian women” brings up 1,160,000 hits. Yikes. Regardless, I’ve got a few ideas about what these reasons could be–none of them particularly unique–but a few ideas nonetheless. And I’m going to come back to this later. It’s a huge topic, and I can do it no justice in one quick post. Today I aspire only to get this ball rolling.

Eight memes:

1. Men are hunters, women are home makers. Admittedly, we associate men with hunting for pretty decent reasons. I get this. I don’t like it, but I get it. Hunting is truly a badass activity, and it’s a damn shame, if a tolerable one, that women have rarely been able to own the same badass and lithe image. What is definitely not okay, however, is that this makes meat a manly food, and leaves little but alfalfa to the women folk. Moreover, the association of men with meat throughout history might also have developed out of the imbalanced gender dynamic. Men are on top, and men get served the richest food, which happens to be meat. Think about Beowulf, Roland, and Arthurian courts. Them royalty ate nothing but elk and pheasants. I’d be willing to bet that even with the advent of chivalry a few hundred years later, if food were sparse, men got the hearty stuff and women the light. Typical. Lame. Unfortunate lasting effects.

2. Women have an ascetic history with food. For a brilliant text on the origins of this phenomenon, check out historian Caroline Bynum’s seminal work Holy Feast Holy Fast, a revolutionary analysis of medieval women and the ways in which they wrung spirituality from their depressingly bland lives. Fasting was a way in which women could connect with Jesus Christ. They could not partake in many of the Patriarchy’s rituals, but they could always internalize their spirituality. This manifested increasingly in attempts to mimic and to experience intimately the suffering of Christ. And in the later middle ages, experiencing intimately the suffering of Christ was all the rage. Thus, women became uniquely associated with fasting. This is doubly fascinating because up until this time, bodies and food were heartily appreciated in European society. And the lower classes continued to feel this way. But it was with the increased interest in Christ, spirituality, chivalry, and courtly manners, and with the decreased agency of women, that women began undertaking asceticism as a form of definition, and as one of their only means of power and control. Eating was one thing you could never be forced to do.

3. Women today maintain an ascetic relationship with food. This makes me sick. Ugh. Literally. Every single ad for food marketed to women (never meat, by the way, but dainty foods such as fruits and cereals and sweets) is about indulgences, healthfulness, being slim, and taking care of that nasty appetite. Our society perpetuates the female burden of having cravings you shouldn’t (or couldn’t) ever satisfy, and I believe that this goes along with vegetarianism. My vegetarianism, personally, was often marked by a “if you can’t do it, you’re too weak for vegetarianism” type attitude. I remember very clearly the day my best friend converted* to vegetarianism. When she complained of never being satisfied, I told her she either wasn’t doing it right or that she just needed to deal. She had to pick which option it was. I feel so, so sorry for that. And I always will.

(* Religious language.)

4. Come to think of it, women have an ascetic relationship with everything. Think 1950s. Think corsets. Think douches. Women need to be perfect, need to be dainty, and need to dampen their corruptive carnal influence. Women need to hide their personal needs and imperfections in order to be perfect and catch a man. Thankfully this shit is OUT. THE. WINDOW. But vestiges of it remain and permeate our attitudes. This isn’t to say that men don’t face equally heavy pressures, both from themselves and from external forces. But they are different, and I’ll treat you 180 percent fairly in another post, promise.

5. Meat is lustful and impure, and suspected throughout history of causing lustful thoughts: women need to be light and pure. European Monks have historically eschewed meat for this reason. Related to items 3 and 4.

6. Now here’s an interesting thought.  What if female vegetarianism is not driven primarily by ascetic ideals, but instead by feelings of empathy and love? Is it more common for a girl rather than a boy to melt upon learning that Bessie is on her way to the slaughterhouse? Perhaps. But even if it is, we have to wonder if this is a natural phenomenon or a culturally conditioned phenomenon. Maybe empathetic connectivity is genetically wired into my brain more strongly than the brains of the boys who I witnessed drop-kicking frogs at band camp. This would explain a few things. Yet again, maybe we raise boys to be macho and girls instead to practice motherhood on worms in jars. Regardless, I think we can all agree that women tend towards the more communicative and the more empathetic. I’d guess that this phenomena accounts for a decent portion of animal rights vegetarians.

7. Women are more assiduous about their health. Studies by Men’s Health show that women go to the doctor approximately 35 percent more often than men (4.5 times per year versus 6.2). And according to theveggietable.com, the most popularly cited reason for vegetarianism is health. Huh. This is a neat little correlation.

So far as environmental vegetarianism goes, I’ve been dong a fair bit of googling and google-scholaring to see if I can dig up some data about male and female vegetarianism in the sustainability movement. I was off of a hunch hypothesizing that this is perhaps the one motivation for vegetarianism in which men and women are fairly even. But this was just a feeling. I don’t really have any idea. It’s possible that female empathy compels women more often than men to give up meat for the sake of sustainability, just like women more often give up meat for the sake of the cows, but it is–in my wildly inexpert opinion–true that men are equally as capable and driven to make sacrifices for the sake of the greater good. I’d in fact be rather indignant if people were unfoundedly claiming otherwise. In any case, I would really love to learn about this, if you have any resources or ideas.

8. And a final thought: what if women have been taking up vegetarianism as a part of contemporary female empowerment and norms? I have this amateur theory that women populate and excel so much over men in universities today precisely because they are told their whole lives that they are facing an uphill challenge and therefore adopt a more serious Go Get ‘Em attitude. This makes women… more driven? More focused? More disciplined? I don’t know. Moreover, there is a negative flipside to this ambition. Young women today feel not only pressure to perform, but also pressured to be “perfect without trying. ” This is extensively discussed in gender theory and feminist circles these days. (Check out Feministing) I witnessed this every day at Dartmouth, and I lived that way myself. Often it was manifested in spending hours on having perfectly disheveled bedhead hair, going to the gym for two hours a day but not telling anybody, or doing extra studying in secret. My vegetarianism was another way of building that perfection. A “difficult” lifestyle, a way to distinguish myself, and a way to come off as an even more moral and put-together individual, vegetarianism was an ideal way to… well, be perfect. I did what I could. It was misguided, but what do we do in life that isn’t misguided?

(Forgive me for conflating ‘women’ with ‘female’ a few times. Perhaps female was actually the correct term to use throughout much of this post. What do you think?)

Thoughts? Comments? Concerns? Did I fuck something up royally? Miss a really big idea? Let me know! Make me smart!

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  1. 1

    “Once agriculture evolved, it became practical for the physically strongest members of society to go out in search of food while the rest stayed at home to tend to the fields. …. What is definitely not okay, however, is that this makes meat a manly food, and leaves little but alfalfa to the women folk.”

    I don’t think it was necessarily necessary for the men to have gone out in search of food if the domestication of animals had been a part of agricultural life. Besides, men seem more physically apt to have been able to have worked on the fields all day.

    But forget agriculture – it’s not important. In almost all tribal cultures, hunting is a man’s job. Men are able to think more spatially than women, and they are better suited to have the physical endurance to go hunting for hours or days on end, chasing pray and carrying the catch back home. There are also too many things to be taken care of back in the village, that it would make no sense for the women to go out hunting. They need to cook, they need to tend to all of the children, they need to tend to their crops (if the tribe has this knowledge), they need to keep the fires going as well as chop wood, and they need to go into the woods/jungle in order to gather various fruits and vegetables and other edibles. If the women were to go hunting (which would also mean needing to leave the children behind) and the men were to sit at home taking care of children and picking berries, this would be a complete waste of physical prowess and resources. Tribal life is about being efficient – and men are the most efficient at hunting. Of course, there are slight cultural differences amongst the various tribes throughout the world, but this is the general break-down.

    However, ‘meat’ isn’t generally seen as a manly food outside of western cultures. In tribal cultures, after men bring the meat back, the entire village partakes in the preparation and cooking of food. Men will generally slice the meat and women will prepare the fire and leaves that the meat is wrapped in, and everyone enjoys themselves as the meat cooks. After it is finished, everyone grabs happily for their share. It is only on long expeditions that hunters will eat meat for themselves.

  2. pepper #

    That’s a good point re: the advent of agriculture. I think my brain was focusing a bit more on the ways in which men remained mobile–still going out to hunt game, perhaps, or to handle the domesticated animals–while women became more limited to single properties, so I exaggerated the link between the advent of agriculture and gender norms. Regardless, this served, I think, to divide the sexes. This meant, perhaps, that society could more easily allocate different virtues to men and to women. Does that make sense? Regardless, you’re one hundred percent correct. Lots of variety across the board, and I couldn’t ever confidently (or happily) generalize the state of any culture.

    I think I’ve read about women and small game, before, but I can’t remember where. Will have to do some searching.

    • 3

      It’s completely understandable why western cultures have generally allocated different ‘virtues’ to both men and women, and, in fact, all cultures do this. And the simple answer is that men and women both biologically have different roles. Of course, one must keep in mind that the typical ‘men like meat more than women’ isn’t a sound statement, but something is to be said about men being able to hunt better (and women are also able to gather better, no joke), and it’s generally accepted that women can’t handle the sight/feel of raw meat as well as men can. With that being said, I believe women also *should* eat meat. However, men might eat more meat due to the fact that they tend to burn more calories, and they might have other cravings for this reason. (Please keep in mind that all my references to humans are generalizations. For example, an active woman can be more fit in a western culture than a lazy man, even though we say men are stronger than women. However, when humans are living in their natural condition, men indeed are stronger.)

      I’ve heard about women and small game as well (more like gathering foods and coming across some insects and maybe small animals). I know for sure that there are small female children that will hunt small game in some cultures. Whether this is prevalent, I don’t know.

      • pepper #

        “And it’s generally accepted that women can’t handle the sight/feel of raw meat as well as men can.”

        Is it? By whom? And if it is: how can one possibly assert that it’s a biologically mandated phenomena?

  3. 5

    Sorry, I don’t think it’s a biologically mandated phenomena, I think it’s cultural related.

  4. Kim #

    hey steph! awesome blog! isn’t it fun to be out of the states?!!

    I think more women are vegetarian because the violence toward animals can be part of the violence against women. I’m vegan for lots of reasons but one of them is feminism. Most of dairy to me is the product of rape since cows are forced to be pregnant all the time. The bones of a dairy cow are too weak to hold the weight of a bull so farmers stick their hands into the cow with semen. ew

    Meat eating is also why the western world is dominated by patriarchy. I think I read this in some book on tantra, but women were actually the first agriculturists. These societies like the Indus Valley became matriarchal, worshipped the Mother Goddess and were more peaceful. In the colder north people had to hunt to survive and raise cattle. So the men were valued more. Even male animals were valued over the females since one male could impregnate 50 females.

    Maybe it’s because I’m vegan, but I hate the stereotypes of meat eating as being manly. Maybe it’s manly if you have to eat meat to survive, but if not it seems like needless violence.

    yes and women should also be vegetarians or not for their own inner reasons, not just to show how perfect we are!


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