Human Women and their Animal Sisters: Gendered Kinship in Late 19th Century Antivivisection Rhetoric – Constance Carrier-Lafontaine

The following text is adapted from a longer article and was originally presented at the “Intersections Conference of the Joint Doctoral Program in Communication Studies” in Montreal on November 6, 2010.

On February 27th 1895, Caroline White gave a speech before the National Council of Women at their Convention in Washington. There, she spoke not on behalf of women, as might have been expected in a gathering of reform-minded individuals in a period where the suffragette movement was making great strides, but rather on behalf of animals. White was the founder and then-president of the American Anti-Vivisection Society (AAVS), an organization aimed at opposing vivisection, understood to be the use of live animals in scientific experiments. She uttered a speech titled “Is Vivisection Morally Acceptable?” before a crowd of hundreds, the great majority of which was comprised of women. White’s address can be construed as being a sort of manifesto for the antivivisection movement of the time, in that it outlines for the first time in a public forum specifically why it sees vivisectionist practices as morally reprehensible.[1]

The AAVS, as well as White’s specific utterance of the speech, can be seen as emerging from a number of exigencies, or imperfections that called forth a rhetorical intervention. The first was the creation and proliferation of laboratories in the United States that conducted testing on live animals, which was seen by some to be an egregious abuse of the human dominion over nature. In fact, the growing concern for animal protection, along with the formal organization of advocacy groups during the period spanning from late 19th century to the early 20th century, can be seen as having arisen in a manner parallel to scientific progress, as well as its popularization and vulgarization (Hilda 1995, 16). On the one hand, there arose an opposition to scientists who were seen to be blindly vying for medical progress and discounting due reverence to nature. On the other hand, and perhaps paradoxically, these very same scientific advancements were corroborating Darwinism and thereby supported the growing belief that humans and animals had descended from common ancestors, with all the similarities that this could imply. The second exigence is the inability of women to serve on the board of the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSPCA) at the time, which led White to create an organization that permitted women to have a strong presence in the animal rights movement.

The AAVS was not meant to be a women’s movement. In fact, it originally included members of the clergy, who were wary of the materialism of science, and physicians, who had been trained before the laboratory revolution. But the membership of middle-class women increased steadily, soon making the AAVS a distinctively female endeavour (Buettinger 1997, 857). In fact, the antivivisection movement as a whole was mostly female and consequently became tightly associated to women’s issues, so much so that attacks against the movement were often meshed with attacks against women’s suffrage and women in general.

It is in this context that White began her speech before the National Council of Women. While she acknowledges that a number of arguments can be made against vivisectionist practices, she notes that she is only interested in discussing one: “it is wrong, morally speaking, that is, it is a sin in the sight of God.” Her judgement on vivisection as an immoral act, as we will discuss, is predicated on her conception of animality and the meaning she confers upon the ideograph [animal].

Michael Calvin McGee argues that the ideograph is a word that also acts as a markedly powerful abstraction, which embodies a social reality and guides a collective commitment (1980, 15). In that sense, the treatment that will be given to animals can be seen as tributary to the representation that is made socially of the ideograph [animal]. In the interest of exploring the articulation of the ideograph [animal] within the context of White’s antivivisectionist speech, it is markedly relevant to consider that the efforts of activists to produce societal change can be done by first shifting society’s interpretation of ideographs. In fact, Kevin Michael DeLuca identifies one of the main elements in social movements’ rhetorical arsenal to be the ability to disarticulate and rearticulate the ideographs, in hopes of instigating an ideological shift and a new public consciousness (2005, 46).

Thus, when considering White’s attempt to disarticulate and rearticulate the ideograph [animal], we find her initial concern to lie with the vivisectors’ “mistaken understanding of animals”. She asks, for instance:

Do [vivisectors] not […] attempt to justify themselves for their cruelties by saying that they may be able, in the course of time, although they have never done it yet, by means of these atrocious experiments, to add a few years to our lives, or to remedy some of our diseases? Or worse, do these men not excuse their deeds on baseless pretext that these poor brutes can feel no pain?

White’s accusation that vivisectors legitimize their experiments on the premise that animals, unlike their human superiors, are unable to feel pain speaks more broadly to the ontological divide seen to exist between humans and animals. In fact, philosophical theorization on the ontology of animality provides a conceptual foundation for historical attitudes towards animals. Outcomes of Western thought have most often been variations of a profoundly dualist theory: one that emphasizes the disparity between humans and animals, and the superiority of the former over the latter. This line of thinking dates back at least to Aristotle’s location of the human’s dominance and uniqueness in his ability for speech, which has persisted since. This perceived disparity between humans and animals culminated with Descartes’ depiction of animals as mere machines (automata), a notion that is seemingly reprised here with surprising fidelity and refuted by White. It is in fact the Cartesian thought that most drastically objectifies the animal, explicitly legitimating vivisection, even to the extent of equating animal sounds of pain and their physical responses to stimuli with mechanical operations.

As we will soon discuss, White clearly refutes the idea of animals as automata and disarticulates this specific notion of [animal] in her speech. However, in striking contrast to contemporary animal rights movements, the antivivisectionist discourse does not go so far as to question the ontological disparity and hierarchical structure of humans and animals. White thus echoes the vivisectors’ belief that animals are inferior, herself calling them “lesser” and “lower” beings and complementarily finding humans to be “superior.” Her rhetoric, therefore, is not one that aims to recast [animal] as a human’s equal or even question the ontological hierarchization of humanity over animality. She rather reaffirms it, but curiously finds within it the grounds to justify the protection of the animal. Her claim is simple, these “lesser brutes”, who are “innocent” and “powerless” should be protected on the basis of their vulnerability and corresponding inferiority.

It is in the hopes of contesting the idea of [animal] as automata that White begins a lengthy explanation or rather enumeration of the “atrocities these poor brutes suffer at the hands of the physicians,” thereby disarticulating the ideograph [animal] as representative of a being unable to suffer and rearticulating it as one that can feel “pain” and “torment”. She first recounts instances of dogs being doused with turpentine and set alight, so as to measure their degree of suffering. Then, she writes about corks being lodged in the throats of animals, suffocating them. She writes of dogs being “fastened down to boards, and starved with food placed in front of them, but just outside of their reach, so that the sight of it might add to their torments”. As well, other living dogs’ ears are placed in the opened stomach of others, “until eaten away by the gastric juices”. White also talks about experiments in which animals of different species are segmented, immobilized and then sewn together, so as to create new interspecies hybrids. The torture of animals is presented in a seemingly interminable crescendo of horrors. Each sordid experiment is only outdone by the next, and the winded enumeration is contrasted by the simple forcefulness of her concluding sentence: “[t]hese experiments were performed without anaesthetics.”

The historical accuracy of these experiments matters little in this examination. The picture that is made of vivisectors is one of men who have interest in and perhaps even derive pleasure from witnessing suffering. Suffering seems to be the common denominator and it is never seen to be a means to an end or a deed that will lead to the betterment of humans. What possible benefit to human medicine could the audience see in gauging the pain of a dog as it is set on fire? The audience is not given the opportunity of considering the benefits engendered by vivisection, as it is left with images of defaced canines and amalgamated creatures. Yet decidedly, the emphasis that seems to be placed on the measure of pain in vivisection implicitly but clearly hints at the hypocrisy of the vivisectors, specifically in that the very experiments legitimized by a view of animals as “mere automata” with the inability to feel physical and emotional pain are premised on an opposite logic of measuring their suffering.

Certainly, the enumeration of the forms of torture exerted onto the animals is one that can be seen as an appeal to pathos, as her descriptions are generously furnished with shocking and explicit detail of the treatment of animals, symptomatic of her effort to confer to the victimized animals the sympathy of her audience. But up to this point in her speech, White presents the animals only as being faceless and nameless. The creatures subjected to the experiments in her enumeration are always referred to in the plural form; therefore avoiding the linguistically risky issue of gendering animality, and vivisection is thereby seen to be a cruelty enacted upon masses. The audience is sometimes told of specific species, but most often the beleaguered are encompassed under the general and objectifying term of “animal”. But this has been a mere rhetorical build-up to the climax of her argument. White proposes to now speak of the “cruellest atrocity” of vivisection and reframes the [animal] as an individual subject and, interestingly, one that she considers inherently virtuous and feminine.

To exemplify what she considers to be the epitome of brutality, she describes two experiments in some detail. In this approach, she moves beyond the enumerative form, to one in which the pain inflicted onto a unique female subject by the male vivisector is used to instigate a kinship or sisterhood between females of the human and animal kinds. She writes:

Experiments upon the tender maternal instinct of dogs have been made over and over again, suggested, as we can only think, by stony hearts and depraved imaginations. A canine mother has a litter of pups; she displays them with pride and joy to the vivisector who visits her, rejoicing at seeing him and little suspecting his fell design. He takes out his knife and extirpates all the lacteal glands. She can then give no milk to her little ones. The next day, when the vivisector visits her she regards him with abhorrence. Her pups die of starvation and she soon follows them.

While the animal mother remains inferior ontologically, White here frames her as an anterior version of the oppressed human woman, one that is oblivious to her subordination in society. She is, in a way, a woman in a state of nature. She demonstrates a trusting character that has not yet been compromised by an awareness of a society dominated by an oppressive male. This innocence and ignorance allow the mother dog to feel and demonstrate joy as the vivisector enters the room. It is only after the trust is shattered, after she is aggressed, that the mother dog looks at the vivisector “with abhorrence.” This abhorrence, this realization, rather, is not merely predicated on a mutilation that will lead to her death, but on the excision of the part of her female body that ensures the nourishment and survival of her young, and thereby allows her to act as a mother. The locus of the abuse, this “cruellest atrocity” is not physical, it is emotional, and our understanding of it is predicated on framing the mother dog as a subject endowed with a duty imparted through motherhood.

But nowhere in White’s text can the virtuous character of the animal mother be seen as strongly as through her depiction of another mutilated mother dog on the brink of death, who is subjected to a test of the “strength of [her] maternal affection.” White explains that her pups are placed before her and made to feel pain so that the vivisector can observe whether or not the mother will try to protect them. “I am glad to record to the credit of that poor mother that she did try virtuously in her wretched condition to defend and shelter her young”, says White. White’s praise of the mother dog’s attempts to defend her young reiterates the animal’s position as a virtuous creature. The mother dog’s “tender maternal instinct” is specifically reminiscent of a human mother’s commitment to the survival and wellbeing of her own young and what could be considered (human) morality.

In both of White’s thorough accounts of the experiments on the mother dogs and their pups, the focus is placed on the plight of the individual mother, rather than on that of the litter. White uses the subjectifying personal pronoun “she”, linguistically attributing a gendered personhood and, for the first time in her speech, a unique identity. She speaks of a dog, an animal that Western society has domesticated and anthropomorphised to the extent of neatly inscribing it within the confines of a traditional family unit. White carefully describes vivisection through a narrative that is made all the more compelling by the audience’s realization that the pain of the young is first and perhaps most deeply felt by (and through) the mother, who is rendered helpless and forced to watch her pups die. The mother-dog is vivisection’s ultimate victim, whose ultimate pain is devastatingly mediated through her role as a mother.

Therefore, I argue that White presents the ideograph [animal] as not only representative of a being able to feel physical and emotional pain, but a being that is en-gendered, and made to be specifically feminine. This was done first quite literally, in discussing the plight of “mother dogs” as an archetype for animality. The hypothetical unique male animal (or father dog, perhaps) is never envisaged or narrativized. Secondly, we find a broader contextual feminization of [animal] through the utterance of a narrative in which the animal is attributed a role in society that is congruous with that of the woman. The animal functions in its relations with men as the inferior being. The animals are said to be “oppressed” and to be “deprived of their rights,” a language that reprises women’s rights claims uttered during this very same convention, and that fit more broadly within the context of burgeoning first-wave feminist rhetoric. More specifically, the female association to the ideograph [animal] can be seen through White’s account of the treatment of the woman and animal by the medical profession. The female medical practitioner was exceedingly rare, and the male practitioner remained the norm in vivisection, as well as in the broader field of medicine (Lansbury 1985, 414). Similarly, for White, the roles of vivisector and physician are expressly male and markedly repressive. The mother dogs described by White were rendered helpless before the “evil man.” She makes a point of noting that vivisectors are “first and foremost physicians,” who have done little to garner trust from women. This claim relies on the tacit knowledge of the audience that the medical practitioners of the time had been known to victimize and mistreat women through, for instance, sexual abuse and forced sterilization. The animal is made to take on an analogous role to that of woman in its relationship with the oppressive male medical practitioner.

Then, through this rearticulation of [animal] as feminine, White finds the basis for the creation of a gendered kinship, specifically a sisterhood, which endows the female human with a responsibility to regard the female animal’s existence as one that is similar to her own. The audience is therefore called to act in solidarity with the animal and to advocate for the abolition of vivisection. In fact, by virtue of having rearticulated [animal] as an en-gendered and specifically feminine being, the animal becomes strikingly similar to the female human. It is now a being with which kinship is not only possible, but morally necessary.

White’s movement towards the feminization of the animal called for a recognition and an actualization of the kinship that exists ontologically and contextually between women and animals. White says:

“Some of these experiments of which I have hesitated to speak to you, outrage one of the noblest and most generous instincts of the brutes species, the maternal instinct, and it is for that reason, as well as many others, that I appeal to you, the women before me, mothers and future mothers, begging you to help us with this work. God gave us mercy and the sensibilities to recognize the horror of vivisection and I am begging you to make use it.”

White’s speech is one that constitutes women through their femininity and motherhood.[2] She finds women to have uniquely and historically been endowed by God with “mercy” and “sensibilities”, reaffirming traditional gender roles and also positioning women as transhistorical subjects united across time by their common natural propensity for kindness. The audience of women is also made to be one of “mothers and future mothers,” united through their biological ability to engender life, and in the actual or forthcoming duty they have towards their young. It is an audience that is uniquely able to understand the plight of the mother dog. White finds within this gendered motherhood the means required to bridge the ontological cleavage that exists between humans and animals, but finds within the mercy conferred by God onto women an obligation to do it. Despite arguably burdening women with yet another socially defined behavioural imperative, more optimistically, perhaps, she positions the human woman within a narrative in which she is capable and obligated to understand the animal’s despair and oppression and acknowledge the existence of a morally prescriptive kinship.


[1] The author would like to thank the American Antivivisection society for providing access to its archives.

[2] The concept of the constitutive function of rhetoric is here borrowed from Maurice Charland (1987).

Works Cited

Buettinger, Craig. “Women and Antivivisection in Late Nineteenth Century America.” Journal of Social History, 30, no 4 (1997): 858 – 872.

Charland, Maurice. “Constitutive Rhetoric: The Case of the ‘Peuple Québécois’.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 73, no. 2 (1987): 133-150.

DeLuca, Kevin Michael. Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism. New York: The Guilford Press, 2005.

Kean, Hilda. “The ‘Smooth Cool Men of Science’: The Feminist and Socialist Response to Vivisection.” History Workshop Journal, 40 (1995): 16-38.

Lansbury, Coral. “Gynaecology, Pornography, and the Antivivisection Movement.” Victorian Studies, 28, no. 3 (Spring 1985): 413-437.

McGee, Michael Calvin. “The ‘Ideograph’: A Link between Rhetoric and Ideology.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 66, no. 1 (1980): 1-16.

Constance Carrier-Lafontaine is originally from the Ottawa region, where she dabbled in government communication. She has since decided to engage her interest in representation and photography and her love of animals by pursuing a Ph.D. in Communication Studies in the Joint Doctoral Program at Concordia University. She explores the counter-hegemonic representations of human and non-human bodies through the avenues of theoretical work and mixed media art. Most recently, her work has been concerned with the ways in which notions of alterity and kinship are represented visually and how ontological hierarchies are constructed, reproduced and challenged.