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Thursday, April 5, 2012

In Honor of Marti: the Suffragist Movement, Labor Unions and a Little Brown Dog

This blog entry is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend and Food Empowerment Project supporter Marti Kheel, who passed away late last year. Marti and I were both passionate about the importance of the interconnections between the issues of animal exploitation and the rights of women and workers, especially knowing that their combination truly made history.

For those of you who support Food Empowerment Project, one of the reasons you probably do so is because of the connections we make between various causes for justice. A number of years ago, I was able to spend time with a long-time animal rights activist who has been active both in England and in the US. He told me about an important episode in the anti-vivisection movement. (Vivisection is the live experimentation on animals, and anti-vivisectionists are those of us who oppose this practice.)

The reason why I love this story is the mix of people who were involved. Many might have had their own reasons for acting – but the power of their passions is why this is now a part of history.

This is a much longer and more detailed and important story than I am giving space to. My main goal is to make sure people know of it and understand its importance.

The story begins in 1902 in England. Louise Lind-af-Hageby and Leisa Schartau enrolled at the London School of Medicine for Women with the intent of learning about what went on in vivisection laboratories. Though the college itself did not allow vivisection, guest speakers would occasionally lecture on the subject and demonstrate animal experimentation.

During a guest lecture, the two women witnessed the vivisection of a brown dog and noticed that the dog had “an unhealed wound” on his side, which indicated he had recently been used for another experiment. They marked this in their diaries. They eventually chose not to pursue a degree and took their information about the multiple experiments on the same dog to the head of the National Anti-Vivisection Society, who determined it was in violation of the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876, which specified that “a vivisected animal could not be revived after one experiment and used for another.”

The vivisector was angry about this accusation and sued for libel. There was a court case and it was decided the vivisector had been defamed. But after the trial, the public had not only been educated about vivisection, but had been awakened by this case, and in 1906 a memorial in honor of the brown dog was erected at a park in the London neighborhood of Battersea. One of the cool things about the Battersea area is that Battersea General Hospital did not support or engage in any vivisection. How many hospitals do we have like that today? It makes me wonder if the anti-vivisection movement has moved forward or regressed.

Additionally, it's important to note that Battersea was considered to be a very progressive area. Many of the people in support of the efforts for the brown dog were unionists (workers supporting labor unions) and suffragists (mostly women advocating for a woman's right to vote).

On November 20, 1907, a group of thirty students from University College and Middlesex Hospital purchased a massive hammer and crow bar and set out to destroy the statute of the brown dog. They were stopped by the police, who were tipped off. These students also started to attend suffragette meetings in an attempt to disrupt them – even though not all the people in attendance were opposed to vivisection. It is believed that the students started to view the anti-vivisectionists and the suffragist’s movement as one and the same.

The male medical students, known as "Brown Doggers" and who supported using animals for experimentation, began once again to turn their aggression against the statue of the brown dog, which to many represented a victim – their victim.

They began organizing demonstrations, one of which was in Trafalgar Square, but they were pushed back by “groups of workingmen.”

These protests involving those who were against the brown dog statue and those striving to protect him went down in history as riots. Yes, riots in order to protect the statute of a brown dog.

A majority of the suffragists were from more affluent backgrounds, and they were typically at odds with the working class (the unionists). Many women in the working class (just like now) were trying to figure out how to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, and so to hear these women talk of “a vote” seemed like asking for a luxury. According to one writer, “Working men jeered at the suffragettes in order to protect their own livelihood and restricted sphere of social influence, and when they turned out in Battersea to defend the brown dog, they were protecting themselves against the vivisector’s knife.”

Even though these working class men did not support the suffragists, they could relate to the exploitation of the animals, feeling themselves exploited by those in power. Perhaps the young medical students (who from my reading have all been men and were also typically from affluent backgrounds) saw this emotion for the brown dog as a threat to science.

Women at this time were being treated as property and were questioning their own rights in society, which of course was a direct threat to men. When they fought for their rights, they were jailed and force fed while in prison. It's easy to recognize the similarities between how these women were mistreated and the mistreatment of animals then and now. (If you want a quick history lesson on how suffragettes were treated in the US, watch the 2004 film Iron Jawed Angels.)

Both the workers and the women were able to identify with the suffering of not only the brown dog, but all animals imprisoned and treated as commodities because they themselves were not held in high regard in society at the time.

I am retelling this story as a way to show the importance of the interconnections of what I do and talk about for Food Empowerment Project. I'm convinced that we are stronger when we work to connect issues of injustice, and when we work together, we can open more minds to fight the oppressors and free the oppressed.

What happened to the statue of the brown dog? Eventually it was taken down due to the turmoil it was causing, but many decades later, a new one was erected.

Once again, I relate this time in history in honor of Marti Kheel, who used her passion for justice and compassion to make the connections we all need to continue to make to create a better world for all living beings and our planet. We miss you and love you, Marti.

I want to thank Kim Stallwood for introducing me to this amazing piece of history and the time he shared with me when he was in the states. And I don’t find him to be so grumpy.

Photo credit: National Anti-Vivisection Society (UK)