Sexism, Male Privilege, and Violence in the Anymal Liberation Movement. Interview with Lisa Kemmerer


Lisa Kemmerer is a philosopher-activists and professor of philosophy and religions at Montana State University Billings. Her work and activism include anymals, the environment, and disempowered human beings. To date, “Dr. K” has written and edited nine books and is tirelessly working on a series of projects, while teaching full time.

In this interview, she talks about her way to activism, the value of verbal activism, how sexism and male privilege still prevail in the movement, her survey on harassment and discrimination in nonprofit organizations, and her studies in religion. She further discusses her new work on the role of violence in the anymal rights and liberation movement, and the ways in which it has shaped both our activism and activists.

Q: How did you first become involved in animal rights or animal liberation activism?

Tom Reagan writes in one of his books that there are three ways of coming into activism and one of them is that you are just born that way. I think I was just born that way, but it was fostered by my parents.

That sensitivity to nature and anymals was in my parents. It was just a matter of time until everything aligned to push me straight into the movement.

Q: Do you feel that your activism focus has shifted over the years?

It has shifted so much! I would say that I grew up more firmly in the environmental camp, and there was also some pretty strong feminism in my mum and my sister. And with my father as well. My sister sent me a flyer on downed cows. That was what pushed me toward a change of diet and a clearer focus on anymals.

That flyer pushed me towards anymal activism, but it was many, many years until I started to look back and recognize that environment and feminism needed to be incorporated. I ultimately recognized that they were very much part of animal activism, that they were overlapping, and needed to be addressed together.

As a white person racism was a harder journey, a longer journey, and it took more work to understand. Being open and caring isn’t enough. There is a lot of learning that has to happen, and a lot of struggling inside, to recognize white privilege. Seeing my privilege has really helped me to understand what many men seem to go through with feminism, and what many people seem to go through with speciesism.

So this struggle is a good thing. As humans, we are all in this together—speciesism, that is—and there is really not an anymal activist out there who hasn’t had to go through this same process in some ways, with regard to human privilege.

Photo credit: Lisa Kemmerer.

[Image description: Lisa kneeling on the ground, carfully hugging a white chicken at Woodstock Farm Sanctuary U.S.

Lisa has her head tilted and her cheek is lightly touching the chicken's head.

The chicken is standing upright with her eyes half closed as seems to enjoy the affection.]

Q: Did you begin to look into the interconnections of oppressions before you started your PhD?

What pushed me off to get my doctorate was sexism I experienced in Anchorage, Alaska, where I was working. This made me really want to explore oppression, but inside, what mattered to me wasn’t the fact that I was oppressed as a woman, but the oppression that I saw in anymals. Yet in the end I have finally come to see that any form of oppression supports all forms of oppression.

Q: Speaking of anymals – a term that you coined – which role do you think does language play in advocating for others?

I introduce my students to the term anymal, even on the 100 level. This term encourages them to ponder how we use “animal” and why we don’t include ourselves. We all know that we are animals, but we speak about animals as if we weren’t. It is so much a part of the speciesism, and the exploitation, and “othering.” So, I think language is very important.

I came up with the term anymal when I was a kid. This term was part of language activism in my life before my teenage years. I guess I understood the power of language and its importance even prior to high-school.

My sister and I were reforming our language in ways that empowered women when we were young. I remember we used the term “WOW” for “women of the world.” Looking back, it seems we were trying to empower ourselves in a world that we knew disempowered us.

Photo credit: Lisa Kemmerer.

[Image description: Powerpoint slide that describes the term "anymal". It reads: "Anymal: Animals from every species other than the species of the speaker/author. If a chimpanzee signs "anymal", humans are included but chimpanzees are not. Anymal avoids using "animals" as if human beings were not animals, avoids dualistic, alienating terms (like "non" and "other"), and avoids cumbersome terms (like nonhuman animals and other-than-human-animals)]

Q: In terms of empowering women and distributions of power, do you feel like things have changed over the years? For instance, in “Speaking up for Animals” you wrote that although most attendees at the first animal rights conference you went to were women, most speakers were male. How does this compare to the last conference you went to?

There are more women in more positions of power, but sexism has not changed. So while I see more women in more leadership positions, there is also more sexism. I think the mechanism of that is that, in my lifetime, I have watched anymal activism go from a real side-line, marginalized, hardly-anyone-knows-about-it sort of a movement to one that even here in Montana people know about. It has become a very well-known form of activism. I think that is the main shift.

What I found in my studies is that women almost always begin social justice movements. When you look back through time, you can clearly see that it was women who formed the backbone of pretty much every social justice movement at its beginnings. And then, as movements become more powerful, money comes onto the table, and paying jobs, and then men often step forward to take these paid and empowering positions.

Women have even encouraged this in the past because they understood that in a sexist world, men’s voices carry legitimacy. There was a time in the 80s when women in the movement specifically tried to draw men into the movement and put them in positions of power. In such a sexist culture, without men at the helm, we would have been dismissed as a bunch of weird, whacked-out women caring about chickens and bunnies. Male voices gave the movement legitimacy in our sexist culture.

I think there is another important factor at hand that I would mention: men are taught from their earliest years to be providers, that it is their job to earn money and to support others. One of the reasons that females have been the activists is that working for free and doing services has always been a woman’s responsibility, whereas it has been the men’s responsibility to earn money, to have a job, and to provide for others. So in many ways, each is fulfilling the roles that our culture has provided.

Of course sexism is not necessarily the fault of contemporary men. As with racism, it is not my fault that racism exists - but as a privileged white person, I am responsible for helping to bring change. We all need to work together to bring these changes. No one group, whether males or white people, can make these changes. We have to work together, and we are all responsible for doing our part. Men in particular need to work on sexism; whites need to work on racism; all people need to work on speciesism.

Q: Do you feel like growing the movement and moving from grassroots activism towards big animal rights organizations has reinforced the dominant culture and with it encouraged sexism in the movement?

We’ve become mainstream. And we’ve wanted to become mainstream. Obviously it is important to draw in more people. Social justice activists must appeal to the larger population. If they don’t, they are not going to attract activists. But with the larger culture comes sexism and racism and heterosexism and transphobia...

To appeal to the mainstream, most social justice groups foster sexism. As I write in the book I am working on: What man is going to join an organization that he feels emasculated in, when there are other groups at hand? As a movement, we want to be more mainstream, we want more people, but we don’t want the sexism, the racism, the ageism, the ableism, the heterosexism, the transphobia, or any other form of oppression. So we have to be aware of what is happening, why it happens, and we have to consciously fight these isms.

Q: What would be your approach to fight sexism and other forms of oppression in the movement? How can we address these issues as individual activists or in a group?

The first thing is awareness - education. We need to read, listen, watch videos, attend conferences, and have these topics on the agenda for activist meetings - and apply what we learn. We can also ask those further along the path what they would recommend for reading. Then we have to apply what we learn. We can also talk to others instead of reading, but we have to be careful not to exhaust people. I mean, it is not the responsibility of women to educate men about sexism any more than it is the responsibility of people of color to educate white people about racism. I am usually fine with talking to people, if they are truly interested. It drives me crazy when people ask me questions and it is clear that they are not open to what I have to say - they just want to defend their point of view. I have no time for this. It is exhausting and it’s a dead-end.

It is important to make sure that women have safe spaces in organizations, that people of color have safe spaces - spaces where people can meet without privileged people to talk about what is going on in the movement (and much more).

Organizations need clear policies on oppression, publicly posted. Solving the problems at hand is a very active process. First, education; second, implementation.

Photo credit: Lisa Kemmerer.