In the fourth of the “And If You Know Your History…” blog series, Dr. Roger Yates of the Vegan Information Project, takes a look at some of the women pioneers of the vegan movement: Elsie (Sally) Shrigley, Dorothy Watson, Fay Henderson, and Eva Batt.
In the patriarchal space of Nonhuman Animal rights activism, the voices and contributions of the many women who helped build the movement are generally silenced or forgotten.
Abbate, Vegan Feminist Network.
It is probably not a surprise to learn that, even in a movement with a membership dominated by women, women’s voices are the least heard. This certainly appears to be the case in the vegan animal advocacy movement.* The invisibility of some of the women pioneers of the vegan movement is so marked that Dr. Samantha Calvert, the Vegan Society’s researcher-in-residence, writing for VeggieVision TV, described Elsie Shrigley, one of the women featured in this blog entry, as a “shadowy figure” in the movement, despite of her importance in the earliest years of the movement.
In August 1944, Elsie Beatrice Shrigley, often known as Sally Shrigley, joined with Donald Watson in pushing for a non-dairy section of the Vegetarian Society. The (friendly) rejection of this proposal would lead to the formation of the vegan social movement not long afterwards. The vegetarians likely did our movement a huge favour when they said no to a non-dairy section of their organisation. We can only speculate as to whether the vegan movement’s radical vision of the future would have blossomed as it did if it remained within the umbrella of the Vegetarian Society. I’m inclined to think that would have been a constraining and limiting factor on the development of veganism.
In the third edition of The Vegan News, published in May 1945, Donald Watson reports on the formation of a temporary committee of the Vegan Society. The committee held a meeting a month earlier in April, and they began the process of expanding the concerns of the “non-dairy vegetarians” far beyond the “milk issue.” Watson writes about the “new movement’s” aims
It was unanimously decided that the Society, which had developed from a small group of ‘non-dairy’ vegetarians, should work for the abolition not only of all food of animal origin, but also of commodities made from animal products, in particular, those from the slaughter-house.
Elsie Shrigley was elected as a committee member and also as a committee member of the London Vegan Group, formed in July 1945, and initially separated from the Vegan Society. Watson reports that she gave a talk at their first meeting, arguing that the vegan diet was “clean,” “humane,” and “logical.” By the time of the publication of the Spring 1946 edition of The Vegan (the first properly printed version of the magazine), Shrigley was announced as the Society’s “Press and Minutes Secretary.”
By 1947, Shrigley had begun a series in The Vegan magazine entitled, “Report of Food Investigations.” She concentrated on chocolate, sweets, and biscuits in the autumn edition, so she knew a good few things back then about how vegans tick! Seriously, though, these were times of continued rationing and hardship after the war, so sweet stuffs must have been a great treat. Interestingly, there seems to have been no shortage of chocolate suitable for vegans in 1947. Sam Calvert says that Shrigley’s early work on products suitable for vegans provided the groundwork for the Vegan Society’s popular “Animal Free Shopper,” a small booklet many vegans took around with them, a vital resource before the age of the internet.
Shrigley was to work for the vegan movement in one capacity or another for thirty-three years until she died in 1978. She was a vegan delegate at the congresses of the International Vegetarian Union, a long-time member of the Vegan Society’s committee and, in the 1960s, was the organisation’s Deputy-President and President. In 1967, in a warm tribute entitled “Vegan Since 1944” by “S.N.C.” (possibly Serena Coles who was a committee member of the Vegan Society at the time) Elsie Shrigley was remembered as a pioneer of the movement who was, “still playing an active part in the out-working of the idealists who first brought the society into being.” Again, emphasising the fact that the “second world war” was an important factor in the lives of the vegan movement co-founders, it was noted that Shrigley acted as “leader of the street” for the Fire Guard Service. Thanking Shrigley for her service to the vegan cause, “S.N.C.” finished with
She has reminded us that the Vegan Society was formed because of correspondence in the Vegetarian Messenger of Leslie Cross, who inspired her to become a non-dairy vegetarian.
In the acknowledgements of Ecofemnism: Feminist Intersections with Other Animals and the Earth, edited by Carol Adams and Lori Gruen in 2014, Dorothy Morgan is credited with coining the word “vegan” by taking the first three words and the last two words of “vegetarian” and putting them together, getting married (to Donald Watson), helping “to found the Vegan Society, and [promoting] veganism as a world view and word.” There are, actually, a number of versions about how the word “vegan” came about and this one is one of the most frequently recounted. Commentators often settle on the idea that the word was coined by some combination of the Watsons and Elsie Shrigley. We may never know for sure but given the other terms under consideration at the time, such as “Allvega,” “Dairybans,” the “Total Vegetarian Group,” “Neo-Vegetarian,” “Vitan,” and “Benevore,” it is a good thing that someone came up with “vegan!”
As another “shadowy figure” in the vegan movement, it is the writing and the doings of her husband that are best known. There’s not a lot “out there” on Dot Watson, although this story says a lot of the character of both her and Donald. In 1951, a neighbour had a glass conservatory made and, not long afterwards, birds began to crash into the glass since they could not see it. On one occasion, a barely-alive female blackbird was found. She had collided with a pane of glass and was lying with one eye hanging out of its socket. Even though they thought it may be the best thing to do, neither Dorothy or Donald could bring themselves to kill the bird. They left her with some water in a greenhouse overnight, expecting her to die. However, she was well the next day, her eye luckily having “popped back” into place. They happily released her. Two days later, Dorothy Watson was in their yard and she claims that a blackbird flew by her, dipping in flight, which she took to be a “thank you” message.
Fay Henderson was much more visible in the vegan movement than Watson. For example, she wrote literature for the Vegan Society, served as a vice-president, and toured Britain and Ireland giving lectures and cooking demonstrations. Sociologist Matthew Cole suggests that Fay Henderson was a prime mover in pioneering a “consciousness raising model for vegan activism,” putting the emphasis on education. To that end, in 1947, she wrote
It is our duty to recognise the obligation we owe to these creatures and to understand all that is involved in the consumption and use of their live and dead products. Only thus shall we be properly equipped to decide our own attitude to the question and explain the case to others who may be interested but who have not given the matter serious thought
In the Winter 1948 edition of The Vegan, Henderson wrote a piece entitled, “You Have Been Warned.” She was responding to a dire warning emanating from the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations on the “food problem,” which can be summarised by this ominous line: “The whole human race is rumbling to destruction.” (Sounds familiar, somehow, doesn’t it?) Indeed, with the advent of groups such as Extinction Rebellion (XR), her words seem incredibly relevant right now. For example, she talks about food security issues, the transfer of feed to “livestock” rather that providing food directly to humans, and says this: “The solution to this problem lies in the homes of the people as in the organisation of Governments,” which is a lesson XR may have to learn quickly.
A crucial part of the solution to the “food problem,” from a vegan point of view, is to eliminate “dairy and stock farming,” which Henderson declares unnecessary, extravagant, and cruel. Here, she turns to a concern of many of the vegan movement pioneers – the state of the soil, involving the “art of cultivating the soil.” She concludes by saying
Give-and-take is a good rule in all phases of life, and it especially applies to our relationship with the soil.
Henderson was an admirer of botanist Albert Howard, a pioneer of organic agriculture. She had travelled to meet him in his “war-time home,” and paid tribute to him in the pages of The Vegan after his death for his belief that food needs to be grown in healthy, naturally balanced, soil.
Eva Batt also talked a good deal about the soil, both in terms of its “correct balance,” and in terms of its conservation as part of the “correct long-term use of the land.” Batt was concerned that her generation of vegans needed to ensure that they protect the soil to “hand it over” to the next generation as a valuable heritage that was not, “eroded, scorched, or leached of the essential minerals so necessary for a full and healthy life.” Little did she know that we are more ignorant of such a priority than her generation, and act as if we couldn’t care less for much else than consuming things.
More generally, she talked about releasing humanity from animal husbandry which would result in a country such as Britain becoming a net exporter of foodstuffs. She wrote
Think what this could mean to the “underdeveloped” (another term for starving) peoples of this world and what a contribution it would make towards world peace!
Aside from immediate effects, vegans consider this way of life to be no less than a duty to future generations. It will take many ages at the present rate of progress to undo all the results of past wrongs, if indeed this is ever possible; but whatever our actions, it is our heirs even more than we who will reap the results (good or bad) of what we do today, tomorrow, and the next day, until we leave them—what? A desert, a conflagration, or a garden of plenty?
In 1964, in a pamphlet entitled “Why Veganism?” Eva Batt wrote what remains as one of the most powerful assertions of vegan values when she stated that
veganism is one thing and one thing only—a way of living which avoids exploitation whether it be of our fellow men, the animal population, or the soil upon which we all rely for our very existence.
In 1965, she wrote as the Honorary Secretary of the Vegan Society to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in London which was considering recommendations and regulations for food labelling. The letter was effectively a list of demands that would radically shake up the food industries. For example, Batt argued that, “The word ‘milk’ should be used in its technical sense, i.e., as a term for an emulsified liquid as in vegetable milk, coconut milk, latex milk, etc., etc., and not used to necessarily denote cow’s milk only.” She goes on: “Butter likewise should be referred to as either “nut butter” or “cow butter.”
Cow butter! I tend to call cow milk, “calf food,” because that’s what it is, but even the term “cow milk” can cause raised eyebrows during vegan education outreach events. I must remember to talk about cow butter.
Another brilliant labelling demand was this
All food containing animal milk or cream, cow butter or cheese made from animal milk, should clearly state this on the label. All foods containing eggs, whether or not intensively produced, should be clearly marked.
It will surprise no-one reading this to learn that these vegan demands were never met! Incidentally, I emphasised the words, “whether or not intensively produced,” to underline how much the vegan pioneers into the 1960s were on board with Leslie Cross’ declaration a decade earlier that veganism is not so much about welfare but about liberation.
The role and the hard work of the women pioneers was clearly as important as that of the men. In practical terms, perhaps moreso, given that it was the women who were invariably given the job of research the foods suitable for vegans, and managing and running cookery demonstrations, but that’s hardly an enlightened part of vegan history, and it pains the feminist ally in me to say it.
The fact that it’s harder to find the evidence of the contribution of women pioneers should concern us, especially due to the fact that male voices continue to be loudest in 21st century vegan animal advocacy. It perhaps should also be rather obvious that, thus far, this series has told a very white and probably very middle class story. The fact that this problem persists should also concern us moving forward.
* The late 1970s and early 1980s seemed to be a time when women were more prominent in the movement. In Britain, for example, Paddy Broughton and Margaret Manzoni managed the BUAV (British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection). Angela Walder was their scientific adviser. Jean Pink founded Animal Aid, and Juliet Gellatley was and is a prime mover in VIVA! (Vegetarians International Voice for Animals). Jan Creamer founded ADI (Animals Defenders International) and she worked for the NAVS (National Anti-Vivisection Society – Louise Wallis was the NAVs Regional Campaigns Officer in the 1980s before moving to the Vegan Society where she initiated the annual World Vegan Day). Muriel, the Lady Dowding, was a co-founder of Beauty Without Cruelty and active in the Lord Dowding Fund for Humane Research, while Rebecca Hall published Voiceless Victims. Ingrid Newkirk co-founded PeTA and, in Ireland, Bernie Wright and Nuala Donlon were among the co-founders of AFAR (Alliance for Animal Rights).
The Vegan News. (May 1945).
The Vegan. (Spring 1946).
The Vegan. (Autumn 1947).
The Vegan. (Winter 1947).
The Vegan. (Winter 1948).
The Vegan. (Summer 1967).
“In Search of Sally – the Lesser Known Founder of the Vegan Society with Donald Watson,” Sam Calvert. VeggieVision TV http://www.veggievision.tv/2016/04/27/in-search-of-sally-2/
Ecofeminism: Feminist Intersections with Other Animals and the Earth. Carol Adams & Lori Gruen (eds) 2014.
“‘The Greatest Cause of Earth’: The Historical Formation of Veganism as an Ethical Practice.” Matthew Cole, in The Rise of Critical Animal Studies: From the Margins to the Centre. Nik Taylor & Richard Twine (eds) 2014.
Returning to Olympia London for the 7th year running on the weekend October 26-27, this eagerly anticipated event includes 320 stalls packed with the latest vegan products, a Vegan Food Village with 25 caterers, a New Vegan Support area for beginners to veganism, a Foodies Stage with live music, the Art of Compassion Exhibition, two Fitness areas, a Holistic Health Hub, Cookery Demos, talks on Plant Based Health, a Natural Therapy Zone, Lifestyle presentations, a Yoga Zone, a Kids Yoga area, talks on Veganic Growing, a Mature Zone, a Kids Area, plus talks on Animal Rights and Activism, the Vegan Activists Support, the VGN News Room, the VGN Climate Change Summit and the Animal Rebellion summit.
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The organisers of VegfestUK are running a new show Plant Powered Expo next February in the National Hall of Olympia London. This new event celebrates the best of a plant-based way of life with 235 stalls, 12 features and 100 speakers. For more information, visit www.plantpoweredexpo.co.uk