A few months ago, I wrote something about an unpleasant exchange I had with a stranger on the internet. What occurred to me is that vegetarians, like women, are expected to let go of their firmly held beliefs because we are told that someday we’ll change our minds. For example:
- “Someday, you will decide to eat meat, and you will realize that being a vegetarian was stupid all along. You’re just being stubborn. Being a vegetarian isn’t changing anything. You’re missing out!”
- “Oh, you don’t know that you don’t want children! Someday you’ll meet a man who will change your mind about marriage and children–he will want those things, and you will realize that he is right.”
The idea here is that people are vegetarians on a silly whim, not because of firmly held beliefs; that women who say they don’t want children don’t have reasons, that they haven’t thought it through, that someday a man, whose opinion is more valuable than a woman’s, will convince her that she has been wrong all along.
I want to take this a little further. I’ve been a vegetarian for my entire life. With the exception of some ill-advised Chicken McNuggets, eaten out of a desire for Happy Meal toys, I have never eaten meat. I’m also a life-long atheist (I tend to call myself a “secular humanist,” because it holds a meaning of its own, rather than simply negating the existence of god(s), but the point is that I don’t believe in God, and I never have). (These two things, combined with my feminism, make me real popular at family events–popular like the punching bag at your local boxing gym!)
Vegetarianism and atheism each come with a huge assortment of stereotypes–vegetarians are new-agey, they’re way into yoga, they’re members of PETA, they hate everyone who wears fur or leather, and they call their pets “companion animals”; atheists are mean, they hate and ridicule religious people, they want to eliminate all religion and teach children that God isn’t real, they worship Charles Darwin/Richard Dawkins/Sam Harris/Christopher Hitchens, they burn crosses and religious texts, etc. As it happens, none of these things apply to me. In fact, I’m hardly involved with vegetarian/animal rights groups (PETA makes me mad) or the New Atheist movement. Vegetarianism and atheism are simply facts about me, alongside my hair color, shoe size, gender, and relationship status.
But vegetarianism and atheism were my way into feminism.
It began years ago when, as a young teenager, an aunt (who knew I was a vegetarian) expressed surprise that I was uninterested in learning how to cook meat. Her reaction followed a pattern I think many feminists (and even many women who do not identify as feminists) will recognize: “But what about your husband? What if he eats meat? Won’t you cook meat for him?”
In response, I said something like, “If I decide to get married someday, and my husband does eat meat, he’ll just have to know how to cook it for himself.”
My aunt then said something to me that I’ve heard countless times since: “Oh, you’ll see! You’ll change your mind when it comes down to it.”
The underlying idea here is that, because I’m a woman and domestic work is generally assumed to be my duty, I will someday give in to a man’s will. He will expect me to cook for him. He will expect that I will sacrifice my firmly held ethical belief against eating or dealing with meat, and his expectation will be sufficient to convince me that my beliefs don’t matter. A man has needs, and meat is one of those needs. If I can’t fulfill it, I will simply not be marriage material (and that is where my value lies–in my marriageability).
Within a few months of that initial conversation, I had another, eerily similar one with another aunt, at a baby shower. My aunt looked at me (visibly bored out of my mind) and said, “I guess you’ll be next!”
I was horrified–I’d be the next one to have a baby? I was fifteen, at most, and I’d never had a boyfriend. I explained to her, with a fully red face, “I’m much too young for that. Besides, I’m not sure I’ll ever get married or have children.”
She looked concerned and said, “Of course you will. And if you don’t think you want to now, you’ll change your mind when you meet a man who does want to get married and have children. Even if you don’t want it for yourself, you’ll want it for him.”
As I wrote above, the essential point here is that women’s own opinions and decisions about their lives carry very little weight. They are subject to veto by the men in their lives, and women don’t have the wherewithal to a) stand up for what they want (because they didn’t want it that badly in the first place, because they knew deep down that their opinions weren’t “reasonable” or “solid,” and that men are the deciders) or b) decide not to be with a men who coerces them into marriage or children (because ultimately all women want to get married, because an unmarried woman must be desperate and lonely–and she would be crazy to turn down a man who wants to marry her).
The first time I told my parents I was an atheist, I was four years old and in the car with my mom. We were on the way home from church (Catholic, though neither of my parents is a real believer, and neither has practiced for years), and I told my mom that God didn’t make any sense. I’m not sure how seriously my mom took me, but she has always had an incredible level of respect for my intelligence, so I assume she believed me. I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain my beliefs yet, and I didn’t gain it until I was fourteen and I heard the word “atheist” for the first time, and realized it applied to me. The second time I told my parents I was an atheist, my mom was indifferent, and my dad told me I was too young to know that for sure. Of course, the implication there is that, because I was “too young,” I was saying things I didn’t mean, things I would later come to regret.
It’s been eight or so years since then, and I’ve never doubted my atheism (in fact, I haven’t doubted it since I was four, after the first time paid attention to what the priest was saying in church). But the questions continue. A friend in high school asked whether, when I get married, I would bend to the religious beliefs of my spouse when deciding how our children would be raised. To me, the practice of religious indoctrination of children is utterly unacceptable–so, no, I will not sacrifice that belief in order to please my spouse. The implication, again, is that as an atheist (i.e. person with non-standard/socially unacceptable religious beliefs) female (you know where this is going), my intentions for my children (if I choose to have them) will be of less value/weight than the intentions of my husband/spouse (if I choose to have one).
The point this is coming around to is that vegetarians and atheists, like women more broadly, are expected to forgo their sincere, firmly held personal/ethical/religious beliefs or preferences in favor of others (read: people who eat meat, people with religion, men). Eating meat, believing in God, getting married, and having children are cultural expectations. If you say that you won’t do one or all of those things, especially if you happen to be a woman, you are opened up to immensely personal questions, speculations, and assumptions.
I arrived at feminism because I tired of the slew of expectations that were thrust upon me because of my gender. I tired of being asked questions with the same basic root: “But what about your poor, poor future hubby?”
But what about me? It’s not selfish to know what you believe in (or don’t believe in), to know what you want (or don’t want) out of your life. I might not want to get married, and I will not be coerced into marriage because it is a cultural expectation. I might not want children, and if I do want children, I refuse to allow them to be indoctrinated into a religion. I do not eat meat, and I will never eat meat, and I will never touch–nevermind cook!–meat, and anyone I’m with will just have to deal with it. I will not be coerced out of my beliefs. No one should be.