This post is by Lili Trenkova, who was born and raised in Bulgaria during the final years of communism and has worked as an architectural and environmental designer, scenic artist and fabricator, and an activist for various causes. She lives in Brooklyn with her human partner Raffaella, with whom she founded Collectively Free, a pro-intersectional animal rights community in 2014.
The term "intersectionality" was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw and developed by her and other black feminists in the 1970s. They noticed that the Civil Rights movement wasn't addressing gender/women's issues, and the feminist movement wasn't addressing racial issues. Their work offers a lens through which we can view how different forms of oppression intersect and layer over one another to have a compound effect on the people that experience them. At Collectively Free, we explore how oppression of humans also closely relates to that of nonhumans. Given that ageism isn't something often talked about in social movements, we wanted to bring attention to it because it certainly affects many people in our community.
Ageism + Speciesism
Farmed animals such as dairy cows, egg-laying hens and all others raised for their flesh are valued based on how much and how quickly they can “produce”. For example, the younger an animal is when slaughtered, the higher the appeal of their flesh is (“tender”, “juicy”, “delicate”). Alternatively, the consumption of an “old” animal’s flesh invokes disgust (“tough”, “dry”, “chewy”).
This same framework applies to how our current society attributes “usefulness” to us humans based on our age. The younger and more “productive” (or “consumable”) we are, the more valued we are. Once we no longer fit society’s standard, we lose our youth privilege. We are no longer seen as attractive or as proficient at our work.
Ageism + Animal Rights
When we open a vegan brochure, we are most likely met with images of stereotypical able-bodied, youthful, “happy” people (who are also usually white and heteronormative). Veganism is then portrayed as a life-prolonging cure-all, in the same way as “anti-aging” beauty brands market their products, reinforcing the idea that more age equals less beauty, less health, less ability.
When did this narrative take hold in our movement? When mainstream organizations, led primarily by younger white men, claimed the spotlight and turned veganism into a marketing banner. In one of her essays, pro-intersectional animal-rights pioneer Carol J. Adams brings attention to Cleveland Amory, who in 1990 (later proudly quoted by Wayne Pacelle in 2008) labeled the “new” animal rights movement as no longer comprised of “little old ladies in tennis shoes”.
How exactly does ageism manifest in animal rights activism? How often have we marched in a group only to end up separating from folks who may walk slower? How often have we dismissed someone's opinion because they were too “old school” or “too young” and “inexperienced”? And how deeply do we consider our actions’ physical, visual, or auditory accessibility?
The addition of sexism only amplifies the effects of ageism. In mainstream “Western” society, older men are often viewed and portrayed (in films, media, etc.) as “wise” and “experienced”. Older women on the other hand are viewed and portrayed as “inadequate” and “burdensome”, even when they have been and continue to be caregivers (to grandchildren, to partners and friends, or to nonhuman animals). This is precisely the reason why Peter Singer is deemed the “father” of the contemporary animal rights movement for his 1975 book, “Animal Liberation”, even though he himself admits that he drew tremendous influence from the 1964 book by Ruth Harrison, “Animal Machines” (the first full exposé on intensive animal farming). Brigid Brophy was another activist and writer whose 1965 Sunday Times essay, “The Rights of Animals” effectively inspired the animal rights movement in the UK. There’s also Rachel Carson and her 1962 book, “Silent Spring”. Not to invalidate Singer, but while he gets credit, women like Harrison, Brophy and Carson have become lumped together as just obscure “little old ladies in tennis shoes”.
As with all oppression, ageism doesn't come down to just how we “feel” about older or younger people. We've built a system that continuously marginalizes and disenfranchises based on age. In gentrifying neighborhoods, older people who live alone are vulnerable to evictions and displacement - especially if they are people of color (+ racism layer). In countries with high poverty rates, it is the younger and able-bodied who flee. Older immigrants have higher risks of being denied refugee or asylum status (+ xenophobia layer). At the other end of the spectrum, children too are routinely denied the status of “human”, including the right to legal representation, forcing them to literally “represent” themselves in immigration court, some as young as three years of age.
Even our beloved companion animals are not immune to ageism. Older dogs and cats - as well as those with disabilities - have significantly lower chances of being adopted from a shelter, and more often than not end up “euthanized.”
Ageism is rarely discussed, even within activist circles that focus on other forms of oppression. Yet as we’ve seen, ageism too connects closely to other -isms, so we shouldn’t let it slide off our intersectional radars!