Historical essay
Women, Animals, and the Poetry of Activism

Women, Animals, and the Poetry of Activism

“What could be more calculated to produce brutal wife-beaters than long savage cruelty toward the other animals?”1 When Edith Ward posed this question in an 1892 issue of Shafts, a British feminist and vegetarian newspaper, she was calling attention to the similar ways that women and animals had been dismissed from moral consideration by men, making them both objects for male violence. Ward was not alone in drawing this connection. Frances Power Cobbe was a prominent feminist and leader in the movement against vivisection, the operation and experimentation on live animals. In her 1878 essay “Wife Torture in England,” Cobbe compares violence against women to vivisection: “… the familiar term ‘wife-beating’ conveys about as remote a notion of the extremity of the cruelty indicated as when candid and ingenuous vivisectors talk of “scratching the newt’s tail” when they refer to burning alive, or dissecting out the nerves of living dogs, or torturing ninety cats in one series of experiments.”2 When speaking on women’s rights and male violence, many women of the late nineteenth century evoked the oppression of animals in their cause. But before they penned newspaper articles and formally organized animal rights groups, many women writers used poetry to advocate for their rights and the welfare of animals, which worked to create a discourse that relied on metaphors of animal oppression to highlight their own experiences.

Sexual Science: Constructing Women as Nature

An intense interest in scientific inquiry into the differences between the sexes in the nineteenth century coincided with both a rise in women’s rights and a growing concern for the welfare animals. Men of science believed that the differences between men and women rested in nature itself, and that scientific inquiry would uncover them. Such inquiries, however, could not escape the gendered and racial dimensions that shaped the men conducting them. Men of science endorsed such a construction of women by placing her below man and closer to animals and nature on the evolutionary tree. In 1864, naturalist Karl Vogt argued in Lectures on Man: His Place in Creation, and in the History of the Earth that “whenever we perceive an approach to the animal type, the female is nearer to it than the male.”3 For anthropologists and biologists, this claim about women was observable in the female skull and skeleton, which allegedly most resembled that of primitive people outside Europe. Vogt and others believed that other races and women embodied lower stages of human development, mentally and physically, while white European men had ultimately developed beyond these lower stages: “the female European skull resembles much more the Negro skull than that of the European man.”4

Men of science often perceived women as an analogue for nature itself. Long-standing cultural ideas that associated women with the natural world and men with the mind and reason became further legitimized in the nineteenth century with the development of evolutionary biology. As the reproductive sex, women had long been ascribed the identity Mother Nature with the defining traits of parturition and nurturance. Social scientists, like psychologist Havelock Ellis, found characteristics like love, sympathy, compassion, and sentiment to be the inherent traits of reproduction: “Women are for men the embodiments of the restive responsiveness to Nature. To every man … the woman whom he loves is as the Earth is to her legendary sons … .”5 Men of science, however, positioned themselves higher on the evolutionary tree, making themselves the opposite and superior to women and nature. Endowed with reason and intelligence, they were meant to observe and penetrate nature to wrest her secrets from her.

Protecting Animals

Illustration from the chapter "On Waste," in The Uses of Animals in Relation to the Industry of Man, by Edwin Lankester (1860). (Google Books | Public domain)
Illustration from the chapter “On Waste,” in The Uses of Animals in Relation to the Industry of Man, by Edwin Lankester (1860). (Google Books | Public domain)

In the nineteenth century, growing urban environments brought animals and humans together in ways not previously seen. Big game from around the world was brought into cities and inhumanely caged for public entertainment. Horses were used as city cabs and abused openly in the streets if they failed to perform efficiently. And wild and domestic birds were killed for their plumes to adorn uniforms and trending women’s fashions, like hats, hair decorations, and coats.6 Consequently, the 1820s witnessed a growing interest in animal protection marked by Parliament’s passing of Martin’s Act of 1822, the first notable achievement of the movement to prevent animal cruelty, which banned public abuse to horses, cows, and other farm animals.7 In 1824, a group of men, most prominent among them William Wilberforce, established the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which was effectual in preventing dog fighting, bull baiting and running, and public abuse of particular animals.8

In the 1870s, a greater cultural awareness emerged concerning the ethical treatment of animals as vivisection in experimental medical science became a focus in public debate. In 1873, John Burdon Sanderson published the Handbook for the Physiological Laboratory, in which he argued that vivisection was essential for the experimental method. Immanuel Klein, a microbiologist whose work also appeared in the Handbook, went so far as to state that anesthesia was used only to keep the animal docile for the convenience of the experimenter, not the animal’s pain.

"Vivisection of a Dog" illustration from The Home Chronicler, 1878. (Google Books | Public domain)
“Vivisection of a Dog” illustration from The Home Chronicler, 1878. (Google Books | Public domain)

Anti-vivisectionists found a tragic symmetry in animals’ reactions to the cutting and prodding of vivisection and human reactions to pain. This prompted the public to reconsider animal sentience, the degree to which animals could feel. Lack of consideration on behalf of the animal instigated outcry from anti-vivisectionists, and women made up a strong and significant number of voices in the movement against vivisection and other animal cruelties. Though only men occupied executive seats in the Royal Society for the Protection and Cruelty of Animals, women often formed their own societies to campaign on behalf of animals, constituting between 40 and 60 percent of membership and executive positions in various anti-vivisection societies and represented the majority of bird conservationists.9

Saving Animals, Saving Ourselves

In Edith Ward’s piece in Shafts, she asked, “And what, on the other hand, is more likely to impress mankind with the necessity of justice for women than the awakening of the idea that justice was the right of even an ox or a sheep?”10 Physicians and scientists positioned women and animals below men in their intelligence, dismissing them from moral consideration and making them objects for male violence. Barred from public discourse on politics and science and often shamed for open sentimentality toward animals, women turned to literary traditions like poetry that, at the very least, gave them license to contemplate nature. Like science and medicine, the literary world operated through and within a patriarchal purview, and women were typically only allowed to write about certain topics that their culture had designated appropriate for them. In poetry, these topics were love, spirit, and nature.

In poems about nature, women poets often relied on metaphors of animal oppression in order to highlight their own experiences. For example, in “The Captive Dove”11 (1843), Anne Bronte draws a connection between caged birds and women. Nearly a century before Bronte, Mary Wollstonecraft established a women’s literary tradition of feminist discourse on nature by drawing attention to the metaphor of caged birds in relation to young women in a patriarchal society. Others like Eliza Cook and Jane Austen were also keen to use the metaphor of caged birds to illuminate the domestication and confinement of women. In “The Captive Dove,” Bronte attempts to evoke sympathy for the caged dove, which largely hinges on the reader’s realization that a dove can feel and express love, a quality that animal rights campaigns tried to convince the public of and that was perceived as an exclusively feminine trait.

Mary Howitt’s “The Cry of the Suffering Creatures,”12 (1834) further reflects the gender dynamics of the time by coding animals as female and animal abusers as male. She describes animals as servants, who are created to love and serve the needs of men.

[gblockquote]Oh! That they had pity, the men we serve so truly!
Oh! That they had kindness, the men we love so well…
We are made to be their servants — we know it and complain not;
We bow our necks with meekness the galling yoke to bear…[/gblockquote]

Howitt codes animals as female with their capacity to love and the association between animals and women with domestic servitude. She goes even further with this metaphor in the image of the yoke, which had been used by other writers, like Mary Coleridge, to illustrate the subjugation of women. In contrast, she identifies the abusers specifically as men and refers to them as masters of the earth whose reason and learning fail to make them see animals worthy of moral consideration.

[gblockquote]We know that God intended for us but servile stations,
To toil, to bear man’s burdens, to watch beside his door;
They are of earth the masters, we are their poor relations…
We have a sense they do not, or else dulled by learning —
They call it instinct only, a thing of rule and plan;
But oft when reason fails them, out clear, direct, discerning,
And the love that is written within us, have saved the life of man.[/gblockquote]

"Hints to Beginners," an illustration from Punch magazine in 1900 with the caption, "Always Let Your Horse See You Are Her Master."
“Hints to Beginners,” an illustration from Punch magazine in 1900 with the caption, “Always Let Your Horse See You Are Her Master.”

What Edith Ward would argue nearly 60 years later, Howitt expresses in poetry — if a man is desensitized to the suffering of a living, breathing, feeling animal, he will be callous also to the suffering of women.

Current day animal rights activism often relies on the level of an animal’s intelligence to determine the treatment the animal deserves. Meanwhile, women poets, essay writers, and activists of the nineteenth century believed that an animal’s capacity to feel, not think, was reason enough to grant them protection. For these women, advocating for animals meant also advocating for themselves, as they had been similarly positioned as inferior to men in both science and culture. The same scientific inquiry that dismissed animals from moral consideration also dismissed women, which contributed to a cultural acceptance of violence against them both. Though sexual and evolutionary science remained a male dominated discourse, a discourse on nature, in many ways and forms, belonged to women as a site of advocacy and social intervention.


  1. Edith Ward, Shafts, 1, no. 3 (1892), 41. Return to text.
  2. Frances Power Cobbe, “Wife-Torture in England” The Contemporary Review 1878. Return to text.
  3. Carl Vogt, Lectures on Man: His Place in Creation, and in the History of the Earth (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Robert, 1864), 191. Return to text.
  4. Cynthia Eagle Russett, Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 54-55. Return to text.
  5. Havelock Ellis, Man and Woman: A Study of Secondary Sexual Characters (London: Walter Scott, 1894), 429. I first came to know this work through Barbara Gates, Kindred Nature: Victorian and Edwardian Women Embrace the Living World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). Return to text.
  6. Barbara Gates, Kindred Nature: Victorian and Edwardian Women Embrace the Living World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 83. Return to text.
  7. This act was later expanded upon in the Animal Protection Act of 1835 to cover abuse of dogs and cats. Return to text.
  8. The Society later became the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1840 after Queen Victoria granted it royal status. While the RSPCA helped to end certain types of animal cruelty, the majority of these were associated with lower and working class culture. So while pastimes like dog fighting and cock fighting were condemned by the RSPCA, activities like fox hunting were not, as it was a part of middle and upper class tradition. Return to text.
  9. Susan Hamilton, “‘Still Lives’: Gender and the Literature of the Victorian Vivisection Controversy,” Victorian Review 17, no. 2 (1991): 21–34.23. Return to text.
  10. Edith Ward, Shafts, 1, no. 3 (1892), 41. Return to text.
  11. Anne Bronte, “The Captive Dove,” in In Nature’s Name: An Anthology of Women’s Writing and Illustration, 1780-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 110–11. Return to text.
  12. Mary Howitt, “The Cry of The Suffering Creatures,” in In Nature’s Name: An Anthology of Women’s Writing and Illustration, 1780-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 115–16. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Demonstration on March 19, 1910, in Trafalgar Square, protesting removal of a statue commemorating the Brown Dog affair, a flashpoint in the anti-vivisection debate. (Wikimedia | Public domain)

Leila is an independent researcher with a focus on women and gender in the history of science. Her previous research has been based on popular medical texts for women, midwifery, and women's ways of knowing in Imperial Germany, and currently, she is working on literature and science in the 19th century and the gendered separation between public and elite science. Leila is also co-writer and editor for Lady Science, an online writing project that highlights women’s lives in science, technology, and medicine.

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