Feminists Eat Your Greens!

Feminists Eat Your Greens!

Feminists Eat Your Greens!

By Dr Elsa Richardson, an AHRC New Generation Thinker and Chancellor’s Fellow in the History of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Strathclyde.

In this post, Elsa talks us through the history of vegetarianism and feminism. Who knew that Edwardian restaurants were also sites of political meetings and progressive social action? Learn more about the fascinating relationship between the movements. 

In E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (1910), Margaret Schlegel –youthful, liberal and intellectual— suggests to the middle-aged, conservative and often unpleasant Henry Wilcox that the next time he is in London he join her for lunch at a well-known vegetarian restaurant, which she refers to simply as ‘Mr Eustace Miles’s’. He assents to the proposed arrangement, but she quickly has second thoughts: “No, you’d hate it”, she said, “it’s all proteids and body-buildings, and people coming up to you and beg pardon, but you have such a beautiful aura”’. Coming not long before the start of their marriage, Helen’s sudden discomfort at the idea of dining with her rather stuffy lover in such an eclectic environment, goes someway demonstrating the generational and cultural gulf between the two characters. He, conventional and chauvinistic, is a remnant of the Victorian era just slipping from view, while she is a creature of coming modernity: bright, idealistic, and more than happy to forgo meat in favour of stuffed tomatoes.

Forster offers no further description of the restaurant in question, but many of his readers would have clocked the reference being made to one of London’s better-known meat-free establishments. The Eustace Miles Restaurant was located on Chandos Place at the western end Covent Garden. Spread over two floors, in addition to several large dining rooms it also boasted a school of cookery, publishing house and advice bureau. In addition to serving lunch and dinner, this ‘restaurant with ideals’ played host to evening lectures and political meetings. Like Margaret Schlegel in Howard’s End, many turn-of-the-century food-reformers held socialist, atheistic or otherwise radical affiliations, and vegetarian restaurants became sites of progressive political organizing.

The Eustace Miles was particularly popular with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) who used it to host celebratory breakfasts, programmed a public lecture series in one of its upstairs rooms and set up campaign pitches on the pavement outside. This was not the only vegetarian establishment affiliated with the fight for suffrage: the Gardenia in Covent Garden also played host to meetings and dinners, as did the Criterion on Piccadilly and the Tea Cup Inn off Kingsway. In June of 1916 the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) set up the Minerva Café on High Holborn to serve as its headquarters and generate income for the campaign through the sale of affordable, wholesome, meat-free fare. When the Representation of the People Act was finally passed in 1918, the Minerva Café served its patrons a celebratory menu of vegetable soup and lentil cutlets.
By then, the link between feminism and vegetarianism was already well established. After Alexandrine Veigelé established the Women’s Vegetarian Union in 1888, the diet tendered itself as a cause for the New Woman, alongside sexual reform, rational dress and suffrage. In Shafts, an early feminist journal, the writer Edith Ward argued for the adoption of a meat-free diet on the basis that ‘the case for the animal is the case for women’. According to Ward, the oppression of women and the exploitation of non-human animals resulted from the same system of power: to topple the gender hierarchy it would be necessary to also address species-based inequities.

Carried into the twentieth century, this insight has continued to fuel feminist criticism. Seminal texts like Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography (1981) and Carol J. Adam’s The Sexual Politics of Meat (2003) are similarly insistent on the correlation between the denial of animal subjectivity and the objectification of women. According to these authors, violence against women is made possible by the socially sanctioned killing of animals and violence is perpetrated against women because of their hierarchal equivalency with animals. From a slightly different angle, ecofeminists have pointed to the environmental impact of meat production and its role in perpetuating global inequalities.

Feminist’s Eat Your Greens!’ will return to the early history of vegetarian feminism to better understand the kind of challenge that abstaining from meat might still pose to patriarchal assumptions, structures and systems. For one night only, the Glasgow Women’s Library will play host to an Edwardian vegetarian restaurant. Over a meal prepared using menus and cookbooks from the early twentieth century, join us for an evening of feasting and feminist conversation.

Catch the event, ‘Feminists Eat Your Greens’, at Glasgow Women’s Library at 5:30pm to 7:30pm on November 15.