Bloomsbury Food Library - Feminized Protein: Meaning, Representations, and Implications
Making Milk
Making Milk

Mathilde Cohen

Mathilde Cohen is Professor of Law and the Robert D. Glass Research Scholar at the University of Connecticut, USA. Cohen is a Research Fellow at the CNRS, France. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Yoriko Otomo

Yoriko Otomo is Senior Lecturer in Law at SOAS, University of London, UK. She was recently a Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Global History, University of Oxford, UK and a Visiting Fellow at the University of New South Wales, Australia. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2017


Content type:

Book chapter



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Feminized Protein: Meaning, Representations, and Implications[*]


Carol J. Adams

Carol J. Adams is an activist and author of The Pornography of Meat, Living Among Meat Eaters, and many other books challenging a sexist, meat-eating world. She is a sought-after speaker throughout North America and Europe, and has been invited to more than 100 campuses to show "The Sexual Politics of Meat Slide Show," which is always being updated to include contemporary cultural representations. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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DOI: 10.5040/
Page Range: 19–40

like Botticelli’s Venus, such a cliché for beauty,

you don’t notice the sorrow right away

Amy Newman

On this Day in Poetry History[1]

Prologue: Venus in captivity

A California billboard advertisement for a Greek yogurt product called “Clover” appeared in 2016. It depicts what we assume to be a cow (she has hooves instead of hands and feet), with flowing reddish-auburn hair, some of which covers her genital area. She is standing on a shell, containers of Clover yogurt on either side, as waves of milk lap against the containers. The caption announces “Greek Moothology.” In what some would say is a clever borrowing from Western art, the advertisement imitates Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. The imitation echoes the structuring of Botticelli’s painting: the yogurt container on the left of the central figure is a substitute for the Western wind “caressing” the female figure, and the one on the right substitutes for a handmaiden offering to “dress her shy body.”[2] But one major difference exists between the archetypal image of Western female beauty and the advertisement image (besides the obvious one of the substitution of bovine for human): Botticelli’s Venus has breasts; the cow figure has none. No mammary glands, breasts, udders—nothing conveys the very reproductive organ from which the advertised yogurt is derived. While the cow’s function is thus rendered absent, what is made present by this image is human femaleness, or at least a hybrid femaleness echoing human femaleness, without breasts.

Making present human femaleness to illustrate the exploitation of cows has been a project of the animal rights and vegan movement for many years. This has led to a proliferation of exploitative images of women strapped to milking machines and other images that I see as retrograde that recapitulate oppressive representations rather than offering something liberating. In these cases, women’s breasts become the focus of attention; often shown being milked, or in a form of bondage.[3] Through a close analysis of art and advertisements relating to cows exploited for their milk, this chapter shows how these anti-milk advertisements mirror rather than challenge the exploitation of female bodies. The chapter also reminds us of what a feminist ethics of care for animals looks like, and proposes key tenets of a vegan ethics of care: attention, activism, acceptance of grief, and acknowledging interdependence.

Figure 2.1. Greek Moothology, California, March 2016. Photograph courtesy of Mark Hawthorne.

Vegans and animal rights activists who wish us to recognize the cow as a source of mother’s milk do so by making women’s sexual oppression disappear; women’s bodies become vehicles for conveying the oppression of cows, rather than being illustrative of interconnected oppressions. Unless, that is, they gravitate to the image because of the fantasy of receiving milk from a mother, a woman, in which case the image is functioning at both a conscious/activist level and at a sublimated level. Like the Venus cow in the image, maybe they want to be awash with milk.


For me, the arrival of the Cow-Venus echoes the first “Venus” I encountered in my work as I was excavating and interpreting patriarchal attitudes toward animals. The image that opens Chapter 2 of The Sexual Politics of Meat is Ursula Hamdress, a pig (either dead or drugged) who was posed like another Venus: Titian’s Venus d’Urbino. As with Botticelli’s Venus, and the Cow-Venus, Titian’s Venus, and her pig counterpart, use an appendage to cover their private parts. This act has a formal term in art: Venus pudica. Its etymological basis is the Latin pudendus that refers either to external genitalia or shame (or both). And the question arose for me with Ursula, as it does with our two art Venuses, are they covering themselves or calling attention to what is being covered?

Figure 2.2. AZ Quality Meat, Quality Meats Store Front, Brooklyn, N.Y., 2013. Photograph courtesy of Anne Zaccardelli of New York City.

Last year, someone sent me an image in which the Venus d’Urbino was conflated with a cow. It is a billboard, and Titian’s Venus lies there, hand still leading toward her private parts, but instead of a woman’s head, a cow’s head glances toward us. “Quality Italian Steakhouse” the billboard announces.

The vertical and horizontal lines of the paintings (and images) end up meeting right at those secret parts, covered by hand or hoof or trotter. As I described in my article “Why a Pig?”, Michael Harris’ Colored Pictures: Race and Visual Representation identifies several patriarchal structures that obtain in the visual representations of the female nude: the assumption of a white male perspective as universal and an appropriation of female bodies for male prerogatives (Harris 2003: 126). These are present in anthropornography, a neologism coined on my behalf by Amie Hamlin to denote the furthering of oppressive attitudes by the feminizing and sexualizing of animals and the animalizing of women (Adams [2003] 2015). Animals in bondage, particularly farmed animals, are shown “free,” free in the way that women are seen to be “free”—posed as sexually available as though their only desire is for the viewer to want their bodies. Anthropornography makes animals’ degradation and suffering fun by making animals’ degradation sexy. Simultaneously, it makes women’s degradation fun because to be effective the advertisement requires the implicit reference to women’s sexualized status as subordinate.

Harris identifies compositional strategies that emphasize the visual availability of the woman being depicted, specifically a vertical line that thrusts downward to the vaginal area. Harris points out that this vertical line highlights the genital area of the nude woman. In fact, the composition of Titian’s painting also includes a horizontal line made by the arm of the woman. That line, too, moves toward the pubic area. (See my discussion of “Ursula Hamdress” and Harris’ ideas in Adams 2014: 208–24.)

Titian’s Venus recalls an earlier Venus, Giorgione’s “Sleeping Venus,” or the “Dresden Venus.” Before painting his version, Titian helped to finish Giorgione’s painting. Mathilde Cohen pointed out to me that in the earlier version, “Venus is surrounded by a realistic landscape, which includes a farm house on a hill, connecting (perhaps unconsciously) female humans/animals. Art historians argue that Venus’ curves mimic the hilly landscape around her. In Titian’s version, this rural background is replaced by an aristocratic interior, though he may have been the one to paint the farm building in Giorgione’s version.” A sleeping woman, outside, amidst a pastoral setting is replaced by a wide-awake woman, in a bedroom. In industrial farming, cows too have been moved inside.

With the yogurt and steakhouse ads, Venus becomes both mother cow (source of milk) and dead-sex-object cow. The images do not sublimate or postpone her sexual attractiveness as much as sublimate and celebrate her implicit captivity (and death). The sexualization of dead cows isn’t restricted to the United States: an Italian restaurant ad featured a man in bed cuddling with a woman-cow hybrid; like the Quality Italian Steakhouse, she has a cow’s head and a woman’s body. Notably, when feminists objected to the image it was removed, something that rarely happens in the United States.


Another image, the “American Venus” (Berressem 2015): Marilyn Monroe poses above a sidewalk grate circulating air that causes her white dress to lift up. It is another vertical pose, with her arms, like Botticelli’s Venus’s, placed above her private parts not to cover with her hair but to keep her skirt from exposing these parts. The advertisement that imitates this pose is for Fairlife Milk, “Milk with Flair.” Somehow (photoshop?), a blonde woman is dressed in cow’s milk that reproduces the flaring skirt of Monroe’s pose. Her left hand, too, seems to protect her private parts.

In The Sexual Politics of Meat I coined the term feminized protein to call attention to the problematic use by humans of milk from cows and goats, and eggs from chickens. It echoed the term animalized protein that had been introduced by vegetarians in the United States in the nineteenth century to refer to products consumed from dead animals’ bodies. The point, in both cases, was to remind people that the protein pre-exists the transformation through the body of an animal; it exists as plant protein, and the transformation (meat through animals’ bodies, milk and eggs through female animal bodies) should be acknowledged. The term “feminized protein” sought to call attention to the use of female animals’ reproductive cycles to produce food. Their labor is both reproduction and production.

Though my book was subtitled A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, in terms of my understanding of feminized protein, and its use and abuse of female bodies, it could have been A Feminist-Vegan Critical Theory. In conventional attitudes, these female animals disappear from concern; partly because they are alive and partly because they are female, and partly because so much of what they experience requires both visibility and empathy. In a letter to Sally Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor described a dairyman who, she wrote “calls all the cows he: he ain’t give but two gallons, he ain’t come in yet . . . I reckon he doesn’t like to feel surrounded by females or something” (Fitzgerald 1988: 27). As with O’Connor’s farmer, the experiences of females who produce feminized protein have disappeared. Indeed, their experience must be absent, like those signs of a lactating female from the Moothology billboard. Many advertisements for milk and other dairy products reconceptualize the relationship of milk production as being between the cow and us, not the cow and her calf.

Feminized protein from other species that is sold to humans arises from a destroyed relationship between mother and child and signals our broken relationships with other animals. Advertisements for milk try to reconceptualize the relationship as not only as being between the cow and us, but, like the American Venus clothed in milk, between us and milk. Like her calves who are removed so that the milk can become a product, the experience of the cow must be hidden. Venus’s generative power—so influential in the history of the creativity of male artists—must be subdued. Just as the male artists enacted figurative control of women’s bodies through their art (Shaw 2000: 92), the industry that trafficks in cows and extracts milk from them literally controls the bodies of others.


Today’s cows used in the dairy industry produce 61 percent more milk than cows from only twenty-five years ago, due to genetic engineering, feed rations, and growth hormones (Carter 2012). Their udders must carry an extra fifty-eight pounds of milk. The cow’s bloated udders may force her hind legs apart, causing lameness. She will be restrained and forcibly impregnated several times during her brief life. During the first seven months of her pregnancy, machines continue to take her milk from her. Élise Desaulniers’s Cash Cow: Ten Myths about the Dairy Industry reports that this effort is equivalent to jogging six or more hours a day (Desaulniers 2016). After studying systems of female reproductive servitude and visiting “milking parlors,” exhibitions, and auctions where females are sold into captivity, Dr. Kathryn Gillespie of the University of Washington found relentless “sexually violent commodification of the female body” (Gillespie 2013, 2016). Gillespie described to me a cow she saw at an auction so lame that she collapsed, her legs splayed out behind her. Unable to stand, her huge udders were crushed beneath the weight of her body. She was leaking blood and milk. For hours, she lay there. Her back legs were tied together to see if she could stand up. But she could not and at the end of the day, she would be shot.


Camille Brunel saw a postcard in Normandy and photographed it for me. It adheres to the trope of reconceptualizing the feminized protein relationship as being between the cow and us, or between milk and us. In the original image from the Second World War, Rosie the Riveter announced “We Can Do It!”; her noun and verb referred to the collective work efforts of women. With the “You Can Drink It!” postcard, the cow’s work at producing milk disappears, and the relationship is between the consumer and the product.

Figure 2.3. “You Can Drink It!” France, 2016. Photograph courtesy of Camille Brunel.

Cows are always working. Bovi-Shield Gold, a pharmaceutical company, crafted an advertisement campaign, “If she can’t stay pregnant, what else will she do?” offering the ludicrous answer: a cow depicted as a dog fetching a dead duck for a hunter. Bovi-Gold suggests that the cow’s life would become unanchored, unembodied, imitative of other animals, not herself. In smaller print, it advises farmers: “Keep your cows pregnant and on the job.” Cows who are not pregnant are on the job—they are producing milk and it is being taken from them, two or three times a day. What is elided in the Bovi-Gold statement is that the pregnancy is needed because her milk is drying up. Decades ago, a cow’s pregnancy was one thing: a pregnancy. It was not also a time when her milk was taken. But production expectations mean that for 7/12ths of the year she is pregnant and lactating. For the cow the sphere of production and the sphere of reproduction are the same.

In March 2016, a large grocery store chain located in the Northeast United States carried, in its weekly flyer, the “Benefit Package of a Dairy Cow” next to some of its discounted items. An introduction frames what is to follow as humor:

Full disclosure: This is a light-hearted column about the benefits of being a cow. Our milk supplier, Upstate Niagara Cooperative, presented it at one of our store training sessions, and I tucked it away for sharing fun and giggles with our customers at some point. Well, that time is here.

We are reminded, again, that this is humorous. “Here’s the benefit package, tongue in cheek.”

To start with, the cows receive full-time pay for part-time work. The work (of being milked) takes about 20–30 minutes per day. The employer provides paid medical coverage, with a doctor (veterinarian) on call 24/7, 365 days per year. Meals are prepared by a nutritionist, with room service and clean up every time. There is a full-time housekeeper who even cleans the bathrooms.

A paid team of experts is always available for these bovine beauties; hair dresser, pedicurist and spa facilities are provided. There is 24-hour surveillance. No need for online dating . . . there is mate selection provided through a directory of selective traits, and could be a different mate each year. All transportation is provided free of charge for a lifetime.

So much is wrong with this description. Lost to their calculations is the work of producing the milk by the cow. A cow does not get to choose whether she has a mate or not; that is not negotiable, though the use of the term “mate” to refer to artificial insemination seems a stretch. Also elided is that when she is done “producing,” she doesn’t get a retirement package. She is killed. That’s where her transportation is taking her. Her “lifetime” lasts a grand total of two to five years.

Twenty years ago, I used an ecofeminist analysis to discuss mad cow disease and drew on the work of Barbara Noske:

While for the male home and work are separate, and for the female work is in the home as well, animal “workers” cannot “go home” at all. The modern animal industry does not allow them to “go home”—they are exploited 24 hours a day. In the case of animals the “home” itself has been brought under factory control . . . Indeed, it is often the sphere of reproduction (mating, breeding, the laying of eggs), which the capitalist seeks to exploit.

 --Noske 1989: 17

I have previously suggested that “without the life span of the ‘working’ cow in Great Britain, the infectious agent would not have an opportunity to manifest itself. The average terminal animal does not live long enough to manifest the symptoms of the disease. It is only because dairy cows [sic] have a functional purpose when alive that they live long enough to manifest the symptoms” (Adams 2016b: 201). I no longer would use the term “dairy cows” because it accepts the dairy industry’s characterization of cows without acknowledging the injury that is their lives.

Noske applied the Marxist analysis of the worker being alienated from the fragmented product to animals whose bodies are used for animalized protein and feminized protein:

  1. Workers are “alienated from their product which embodies their own labour and of which they are dispossessed” (Noske 1989: 13). What further alienation from a product can there be than becoming the product itself? Animals forced to specialize in becoming “meat” are alienated from their totality.

  2. Workers are alienated from their own productive activity, which does not belong to them. “The term productivity pertains to one particular capacity in isolation (for example, milk production), whereas an animal’s well-being concerns the whole animal” (Noske 1989: 17). For instance, the cow has been forced to specialize in the labor of milk production. When she no longer can labor, her “productive life” is over. In Cattle Today (Terrell 2015), I found this chilling statement: “If a cow is not going to produce a calf every year, she’s simply a freeloader.”

  3. Workers are alienated from species life. Noske (1989: 19) saw this operating in the isolation of humans from their integral relationship with nature, and with society. For animals, “capitalist industrial production has either removed the animals from their own societies or has grossly distorted these societies by crowding the animals in great numbers.” (We’ll return to this when discussing the mother–child relationship.)

  4. Workers are alienated from surrounding nature. As Noske (1989: 19) observed, “The animal’s relationship to that part of nature which is to be its food clearly shows the extent of its alienation. Factory food is to a large extent alien and not suited to the animal’s digestive system.” A practice developed in which cows were fed other cows through rendered protein products became a dramatic example of this (Adams [1997] 2016a).


Greek mythology often causes the mother to disappear, as with Athena, born from the head of Zeus, after he swallowed Metis. Venus is said to have sprung from no woman’s womb but from the heavens themselves.

Pregnancy and delivery are painful, demanding, and messy biological processes. Better to think of goddesses who simply appear from the sea (the primordial female water, the uterine water) or the father’s head. When one rises from the sea, one doesn’t have a past, or a biography. A cow’s milk production is prompted by pregnancy and delivery, but any calf who drinks the mother’s milk prevents the product from reaching the market. The lacunae in the narrative about cows and milk (like the one authored by the Upstate Niagara Cooperative Dairy) is the wrenching experience of separation of the cows and their babies.

In October 2013, residents of a New England town called the sheriff to report hearing strange noises. The headline for this story announced, “Strange noises turn out to be cows missing their calves” (Rogers 2013). The story explained:

Strange noises coming from High Road near Sunshine Dairy Farm Monday night and into yesterday morning prompted local police to alert residents that there’s nothing spooky or scary going on.

According to Newbury police Sgt. Patty Fisher, the noises are coming from mother cows who are lamenting the separation from their calves. The separation of mother cows from their calves is a yearly occurrence and is a normal function of a working dairy farm, Fisher said.

“It happens every year at the same time,” she said.

The tension in the article: separation happens, the dairy farm needs it to happen, but there are these laments. The cows are disagreeing with the human-oriented narrative, interrupting the words and the sleep of humans. The article continues:

Residents in the area of Sunshine Dairy Farm may notice loud noises coming from the dairy cows at all hours of the day and night. We’ve been informed that the cows are not in distress and that the noises are a normal part of farming practices.

Note: The laments are not one-time interruptions, continuing “all hours of the day and night.” The laments are downgraded to “noises,” because those who cause the distress are allowed to police themselves. The reassurance that these are normal farming practices contests with the lines of the first paragraph in which, counter to most newspapers’ practices, cows are referred to as “who’s” rather than “that’s” and the sheriff uses the anthropomorphic term “lamenting.”

Robert Frost’s poetic career could be said to have started with his famous poem “The Pasture,” which appeared in the first pages of his first American collection, North of Boston. He often began his readings with this poem. One discussion of this poem (Holman and Snyder) argues that “Frost himself often chose it to lead off his readings, using the poem as a way of introducing himself and inviting the audience to come along on his journey—a purpose for which the poem is perfectly suited, because that’s what it is, a friendly, intimate invitation.”

Figure 2.4. “Dairy cows who have had their babies removed from them, so that we can drink their milk, watch the new mother bond with her calf.” Photograph courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals.

The Pasture
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long. —You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long. —You come too.

“You come too” takes on a different meaning when we comprehend he is describing something that is wrenching and truly awful (Hollis 2012). The mother with her licking tongue, taking care of her calf, must be transformed into a milk-producing animal, whose role as mother of a specific baby is ruptured. A poem that describes the undesired task of snatching a child from his mother—a child so young that he still totters as he stands next to her, as she licks him—has entered the poetry pantheon as a poem inviting us readers into the experience of poetry. Frost shows us the forced alienation of the worker from species and family life.

Figure 2.5. “As the calf takes her first steps, the cows watch the humans warily.” Photograph courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals.

Millions of Frost’s readers have missed this point. They think they are merely following him into a pasture; he was asking them to follow him to this unspeakable moment when a man takes away the calf from her mother.


In her response to this essay when it was presented in May 2016 as part of the “Making Milk” workshop, Élise Desaulniers found a connection between the denial of the mother’s speech and another myth. She wrote:

We silence cows the same way we force women and minorities into silence. In a recent article called “The Public Voice of Women” (2014) published in the London Review of Books, Mary Beard says that, “An integral part of growing up as a man is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species.” This has happened throughout history. Beard gives dozens of examples of women being silenced throughout history. The most striking might be in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This mythological epic about people changing shape is considered one of the most influential works of literature on Western art after the Bible. In this text, the idea of silencing women is often used in the process of their transformation. Io is turned into a cow by Jupiter, so she cannot talk about his infidelity.

Cows are clearly telling us they are mourning their babies and they disagree with the situation but we turn away . . .

Cows have a voice. An active voice. But we choose not to listen to it. If we think that cows and other animals are simply submissive victims it’s just because we force them to be silent and we don’t listen to them. We erase them the same way Io’s story was erased by Jupiter and the way so many women’s voices have been silenced. Women are told to shut up. Cows are told to shut up. Not only do we not listen to cows, we also replace their story with one we feel comfortable with: cows want to give us their milk, they want to get pregnant and give us their calf.

Besides “The Greek Moothology” image, Desaulniers points to the La vache qui rit or The Laughing Cow, a brand of cheese, so happy to be exploited she’s laughing.


More than twenty years ago, a T-shirt was created for a vet school fundraiser for the graduating seniors. It showed a man (presumably) with his right arm stuck up to his shoulder into the cow’s rectum. He is forcibly impregnating a cow through artificial insemination.

The website “wikiHow,” which prides itself on creating how-to instructions to enable everyone in the world to learn how to do anything, provides an explanation of how to artificially inseminate “the Female Bovine.”[4] It begins with these first steps:

  1. Move the tail so it’s on top of your left forearm or tie it up so it will not interfere with the AI process. Raise the tail with one hand (preferably the right) and with the other (which should be gloved and lubricated), gently reach inside the cow to clean out any feces that may interfere with the process of feeling for and inserting the AI gun into the cow’s vagina.

  2. Clean the vulva with a clean paper towel or rag to remove excess manure and debris.

    Figure 2.6. “Hardest Part is Getting In!” Photograph of a veterinary school senior class fundraising T-shirt, 1995. Courtesy of Carol J. Adams.

  3. Take the [AI] gun out of your jacket or overalls, unwrap it, then insert it at a 30 degree angle into the cow’s vulva. This is so that you avoid going into the urethral opening into the bladder.

  4. With your left hand in the rectum of the cow (which should have been there to begin with), feel with your finger tips through the wall of the rectum and vagina the location of the end of the AI gun until you reach the cervix.

Until the newest edition of The Sexual Politics of Meat, I included a discussion of the “rape rack.”[5] I wrote:

Rape, too, is implemental violence in which the penis is the implement of violation. You are held down by a male body as the fork holds a piece of meat so that the knife may cut into it. In addition, just as the slaughterhouse treats animals and its workers as inert, unthinking, unfeeling objects, so too in rape are women treated as inert objects, with no attention paid to their feelings or needs. Consequently they feel like pieces of meat. Correspondingly, we learn of “rape racks” that enable the insemination of animals against their will. To feel like a piece of meat is to be treated like an inert object when one is (or was) in fact a living, feeling being.

The meat metaphors rape victims choose to describe their experience and the use of the “rape rack” suggest that rape is parallel and related to consumption, consumption both of images of women and of literal, animal flesh. Rape victims’ repeated use of the word “hamburger” to describe the result of penetration, violation, being prepared for market, implies not only how unpleasurable being a piece of meat is, but also that animals can be victims of rape. They have been penetrated, violated, prepared for market against their will. Yet, overlapping cultural metaphors structure these experiences as though they were willed by women and animals.

 --Adams [1990] 2010: 82

In 2009, I researched the “rape rack” more thoroughly and reached out to animal activists who had been in the trenches for decades. The fact was, none of us could find other references. One longtime activist in a national organization wrote to me, “Never heard anyone in the dairy industry use this term, though I’ve certainly seen it in our movement’s literature. I presume it’s either not real, or it may have been used in the industry many decades ago.” In 2016, I interviewed pattrice jones for an article on the sexual exploitation of cows and she suggested that it was a term that was used informally among some dairy workers (we can imagine those doing this job coming up with a phrase like that), but when the animal rights movement began, we all started to watch for language like this and it disappeared. jones says, “Whatever word you use for this, it’s forced penetration by a foreign object of an immobilized female, and at least part of the purpose is an expression of power and control” (Adams 2016b: 3).

In addition, jones pointed out to me “If a male cow mounts her and she doesn’t want to be mounted, all she has to do is walk forward, and he falls down. If she does want to be mounted, she positions herself to make it easier” (Adams 2016b: 2). Cows cannot walk away from their imprisonment in the animal agriculture industry.

At the 2016 “Making Milk” workshop, Desaulniers explained that “I myself have never heard anybody in the industry referring to the insemination as rape. However, the word ‘rape’ is still very often used by vegan activists when describing the insemination of dairy cows. I’ve struggled a lot on the topic and chose not to use it in Cash Cow.” jones and Desaulniers, like many advocates, do not want the debate about what to call forced impregnation to cause us to lose perspective on the totality of the experience we impose on a cow: not just the sexual violence, but the reproductive slavery, the ongoing grief for each calf, the depletion of the cow’s body by being pregnant and lactating, the rough treatment that often accompanies her last days. My task became to update the most recent edition of my book (the 25th/Bloomsbury Revelations edition). I changed one of the sentences to read: “Correspondingly, female animals are forcibly impregnated, a reproductive slavery that is required to insure plentiful supplies of meat and cow’s milk” and removed the reference to the “rape rack” (Adams [1990] 2015: 35).


Back to Botticelli’s Venus: the vulva, art historians tell us, is represented by the seashell upon which she stands. In the discussion of how to artificially inseminate a cow, you can’t get very far without discussing the vulva. The vulva is there and not there. Represented but hidden by Venus’s hand; available to the gloved hand that reaches into the rectum, real but hidden, one aspect of availability. With dominance, what is in plain view through symbolism, the shell as vulva, is not unavailable at all, if one is a bovine.


Most of us do not realize it, but a conversation about female sexual availability has been going on for years, unobserved by the average person. This conversation features others making decisions for females about their reproductive power and is found in the pages of animal industry magazines; the leaders in this field are the drug companies pushing their products. A chicken thrusts her leg out like a stripper: it is an ad for a drug. A buxom cartoon pig with stockings, heels, garters, and lipstick fondling the medicine that is being advertised with the promise, “Lisa gives you one more pig per year.” Another drug.

Cows, too, according to the narrative of the pharmaceutical companies advertising, need to be pregnant (remember the Bovi-Shield Gold advertisement). As reproductive rights for women are being rolled back, advertisements like these seem to be discussing the reproductive expectations for both cows and women. Bovi-Shield Gold issued another ad in its series that asks the question, “If she can’t stay pregnant, what else will she do?” This one showed a cow sitting in the front seat of a fire truck. The unstated answer: She might be taking your job. In such representations, stereotypes about women’s reproductive functions and constructed sexual availability are framed through representations of cows. Such images provide permission to use and eat the cow while also contributing to encroachments on reproductive choice for women.

Issues of women’s uncontrollable bodies resound as well: A burger restaurant in Manchester, England features a sexually desiring, “Filthy Cow.” A cow in a necklace, stockings, and heels (again with the stockings and heels), inviting through the image, “Come upstairs and eat me.” Their website shows a cow from the rear end, with fish net stockings and high heels. (If not nude, like Venus, there must be high heels.) A gif shows her opening and closing those back legs.[6]

In Italy, the drawing of the back end of a stockinged-high-heeled cow was used to advertise a restaurant. In Hawaii, a pink-hatted cow presents her backside to us. The cows are burdened by sexist cultural representation: they want to be made pregnant, they want to “give” their milk, they want to feed us, they want to be consumed.

Figure 2.7. “Porca Vaca,” Italy, 2014. Photograph courtesy of Evalisa Negro.

Figure 2.8. “Cow at Hawaii State Fair,” Hawaii, mid-1990s. Photograph courtesy of Cathy Goeggel.

Do these attitudes create a climate in which women’s control of our own bodies is not seen as a legitimate right? What else would she be doing if she weren’t pregnant? The representations that have appeared to reinforce this message carry variations on the same theme: women sexualized, men as authorities, women as animals.


Over the past ten years, I have seen the arguments for veganism change. Feminist insights into the overlapping status of female animals and women (among other intersections) seem to have been reduced to harangues toward feminists, arguing that cows are raped too, and therefore feminists should be vegan. I understand that Internet memes are not nuanced, but issues concerning interconnected oppressions are. One of the egregious examples arising from vegan campaigns (and which feminist-vegans rightly warn is triggering, so please take note) is an image showing a gloved arm forced into a milk carton turned on its side. In red ink on the milk carton are the words, “Got rape?” As one critic explains, “The repetitive performance of violence against women’s bodies is unhelpful, to say the least, in challenging the very real threats which women today face all over the world” (Jadalizadeh 2015). The critic continues, “Wholly ignorant and disrespectful to human survivors of sexual violence, 269’s poster designs reify violence against women, with rhetoric indistinguishable from Men’s Rights Activists. Their sheer disregard for the triggering aspects of their tactics and the violences they contribute to demonstrates [sic] either their overwhelming privilege, their ignorance, or a combination of both” (Jadalizadeh 2015).

One trope found now in vegan activism: a woman on all fours with a milking machine attached to her breasts. Of course, this fits into a pre-existing narrative about women, the pornographic fetishizing of women in submissive positions. Sexualized domination had already gone there, showing women on all fours, and a fascination with the milk-producing function of the breast.

As I worked on this essay, a new meme appeared, called “Tables Turned” reposted from the Facebook page for “Vegan Humor.”[7] Women are shown, not on all fours, but languidly laying back on chairs as though they were getting manicures. Two are smoking. Each woman has milking machine nozzles attached to her breasts. Bipedal cows in blue jackets (having masculine attributes) are shown drinking milk.

All of the women’s breasts conform to stereotypic pornographic fantasies about size and fullness. All are white and the three cows are Holsteins, which Mathilde Cohen has suggested might be a depiction of “dominant”/Euro races. Bikini panties do the work that the hands and hair and hoofs in the Venus depictions do. The artist has gone out of their way to sexualize these women: the cows could have been clothed in jeans, they could even have been clothed in tops: ask any nursing mother—we do not have to strip off our tops for a baby to breastfeed. Yet by sexualizing the function of women producing milk, they re-inscribe what ostensibly they were resisting.

If this meme were attempting to capture Noske’s description of the alienation of the worker from her own body that is dairy milk production, this is one epic fail. The experience of the cow, standing on concrete, not being able to move, separated from her baby, and later bound for slaughter, is transformed to women sitting around smoking and talking. It does not depict harm. Within three days, it had garnered over 1,200 reposts.


A grid I developed in 2009 may help to explain the problems with animal rights activists using sexist graphic imagery and metaphors to raise awareness about the lives of cows. I thought about it in response to Cary Wolfe’s proposal that within the dominant Western metaphysical tradition we need to think in more complicated terms than the human/animal dualism. He identified four terms: humanized human, animalized human, humanized animal, animalized animal (Wolfe 2003: 101). Wolfe suggested that the humanized human and the animalized animal were ideological fictions. But, as I argue in the new afterword to The Sexual Politics of Meat, “I see his grid—when nudged—functioning to illuminate the sexual politics of meat. The humanized human in Western culture has been the white, enfranchised, property-owning male” (Adams [1990] 2015). Casting individuals as animalized humans is usually influenced by race, sex, (dis)ability, sexual orientation, and class. The humanized animal is, for instance, the “pet,” the animal who has a name and is treated like the individual each one is seen to be.

But Wolfe misses the underlying gender categories that are functioning in our representations of and treatment of the other animals, and how speciesist attitudes about other species influence the treatment of women:

Figure 2.9. The sexual politics of meat grid.

Consider an image carried in the New York Times, shortly after The Sexual Politics of Meat first appeared in the early 1990s. The image was created for an article about low-fat hamburgers. The artist’s mind associated “low-fat” with “women on diets.” The image is of a thin—anorexic thin—calf, standing on her back two legs (Venus again), but this calf holds up a drawing of a cow. The message is like one of those weight loss ads (“I used to be an old fat cow, but now look at me”). This image was so potent in representing animalized women and feminized animals that I used it for the cover of my 1994 book, Neither Man nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense of Animals. Joan Dunayer (1995: 13) recognizes the fluidity in referent points:

As a term for a woman, cow is, in anthropologist John Haverson’s words, “thoroughly derogatory” (1976:515), characterizing the woman as fat and dull . . . Exploitation of the cow for her milk has created a gender-specific image. Kept perpetually pregnant and/or lactating, with swollen belly or swollen udder, the “dairy cow” is seen as fat. Confined to a stall, denied the active role of nurturing and protecting a calf—so that milking becomes something done to her rather than by her—she is seen as passive and dull. The cow then becomes emblematic of these traits, which metaphor can attach to women.

Now we also have “Skinny Cow” advertisements, in which the cow has a tape measure around her middle, to reflect her thinness. These are not the issues cows have: these are size-related issues in a fat-shaming society (Farrell 2011).

Names associated with the female reproductive system become insults: Old cow, fat cow, pig, sow, hen, old biddy, and bitch all have negative connotations. Terms for women derived from females who have absolutely no control over their reproductive choices. In 2013, Democrats Organizing for America responded to new punitive and restrictive abortion laws with a meme showing a cow (only a cow, no women) asking “What do you call a female who is not allowed to control her own reproduction? LIVESTOCK.” Some animal activists thought it was a pro-vegan, anti-dairy meme. It wasn’t. It was comparing women to cows solely on behalf of women’s rights.


When Venus arises from the sea, she arises from violence and fragmentation. After Cronos castrated his father, Uranus, he threw his genitals into the sea. Out of these scattered body parts, Venus arises. As one scholar explains, “Venus, or desire, is produced from the foam, or excess, released in the act of cutting the father’s testicles from the body” (Johnson 2007: 9).

Flesh eating also involves scattered body parts. When mad cow disease appeared, it was because cow’s bodies had been scattered and fed to other cows. The scattering of dead body parts has also contributed to the repeated outbreaks of E. coli 0157: H7. According to Eric Schlosser (2002: 205), “A single fast food hamburger now contains meat from dozens or even hundreds of different cattle.” Look closely at the photo of the bovine Venus: in the lower right corner, a Burger King sign lit up, a reminder of her future fate, her scattered body parts for sale.


In July 2016, I posted to my public Facebook page a screenshot of a do-it-yourself ear tag for a cow from the Facebook page of “Uptrend Farm & Agriculture.” The ear tag read: “Bitch from Hell.” One could also read the comments of various farmers regarding cows they considered “bitches from hell.” They mentioned writing “slut” on one cow, or cheerfully sending cows that were aggressive toward them to the slaughterhouse. In less than two weeks, more than 900 people had shared my Facebook post. In the hundreds of comments that responded to the image, the women farmers who had shared the post were themselves referred to as “sluts” or “cunts” by individuals posting on my page thus engaging in the same degrading language as animal oppressors. In response to this image on my Facebook page, some commentators felt the farmers did not deserve to live, while one wrote: “I hope those bastards catch bone marrow cancer or burn alive in a oil fire.”[8]

In The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics: A Reader, Josephine Donovan and I identified what we believed to be the central components of a feminist ethics of care for animals:

  1. It is wrong to harm sentient creatures unless overriding good will result for that creature.

  2. It is wrong to kill such creatures unless in immediate self-defense of oneself or one’s immediate circle (those for whom one is personally responsible).

  3. One has a moral obligation to care for those animals unable for whatever reason to adequately care for themselves, in accordance with their needs and wishes, as best one can ascertain them and within the limits of one’s own capacities.

  4. Finally, one has a moral duty to oppose and expose those who are contributing to animal abuse (Donovan and Adams 2007: 4).

The hostile responses to animal abusers such as the ones I cited above suggest the need for a vegan ethic of care. Drawing on objectifying and fragmenting language to attack animal oppressors participates in the same patriarchal ethical framework we are trying to undermine. Components of the vegan ethic of care would build on the principles identified by Donovan and myself.

  1. Attention. A vegan ethics of care is always asking the question, “What are you going through?” This question is taken from a beautiful insight of Simone Weil who wrote, “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, ‘What are you going through?’” She writes that this question is a recognition that the sufferer exists not as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled “unfortunate,” but as an individual, who “was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction” (Weil [1951] 1971: 75). The cows’ laments told us what they were going through. We need to listen.

    Figure 2.10. “Calf Removed from Mother.” Photograph courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals.

  2. Activism. Activism is as varied as open rescues, rescue work with shelters, fostering animals, activism against slaughterhouses, photojournalism, vegan education, and serving delicious vegan food so that others can encounter veganism in a safe space. Veganism itself is a boycott of a cruel system.

  3. Acceptance of grief. Mourning is a given in an animal-destroying culture. Grief is the gift of awareness. Because we care, we will feel grief. We won’t privatize it or be ashamed of it. The recent work of scholars such as Stanescu (2012) and Gillespie (2016) highlight the importance of acknowledging grief in one’s work and life as critical animal scholars. We must also acknowledge that cows experience grief and this grief, caused by human beings, is a valid ethical issue.

  4. Acknowledging interdependence rather than valorizing independence and disdaining dependence. Rather than reinforcing myths of self-sufficiency, we can affirm our interdependence. Recalling the insights of the ethics of care that none of us is truly autonomous, we can help others reinterpret our own and others’ needs, not as burdens on others, but as aspects of our interdependency (Adams, Breitman, and Messina 2017).

Learning of cows who lament, I too lament. Each day there is lamenting. We notice the sorrow in the image of Venus and the sorrow of the cows and our own sorrow. Then we determine to do something about it. Acknowledging the sorrows is a part of freeing Venus and all of her sisters from the captivity of both material and discursive violence.

[*] Thanks to Mark Hawthorne, Tina Kolberg, Aaron Parr, Anne Zaccardelli, Camille Brunel, Aaron Parr, Adele Tiengo, Evalisa Negro, Cathy Goeggel, and many others for sending me images and for Kathryn Gillespie and pattrice jones for talking with me. A special thanks to Élise Desaulniers for letting me draw on her remarks at the Making Milk workshop in Paris, May 2016 for this essay. Thanks also to Mathilde Cohen and Yoriko Otomo, organizers of “Making Milk” and editors of this volume, for their support and encouragement of this essay, as well as their close editing of it, challenging me to engage with these ideas in depth.

[1] Amy Newman excerpt from “When at the Close of her Letter about Her Therapist Linking Suicide to Masturbation, Anne Sexton Writes, ‘I Shall now Go out to a New Kitchen and Prepare Shrimp and Cocktail Sauce’” from On This Day in Poetry History. Copyright © 2016 by Amy Newman. Reprinted with the permission of Persea Books, Inc (New York),

[2] As described by the Uffizi Website. See “The Birth of Venus by Botticelli,” Available online: [accessed April 29, 2016].

[3] See PETA’s video “Milk Gone Wild,” Available online: [accessed August 1, 2016].

[4] “How to Artificially Inseminate Cows and Heifers,” Wikihow. Available online: [accessed April 30, 2016].

[5] My citation for the rape rack was PETA News, 1, no. 8 (1986) p. 2.

[6] See the restaurant’s website. Available online: [accessed August 1, 2016].

[7] See Julia Mariell Graup (2016), “Vegan Humor,” Facebook, 27 April. Available online: [accessed August 3, 2016].

[8] See Carol J. Adams. (2016), “This is a Facebook page discussing cows used in dairy production,” Facebook, 18 July. Available online: [accessed August 13, 2016].