Should We Stop Eating Meat? The Case from Victorian England 

Ruby Ekkel unpacks Anna Kingsford’s arguments for feminist vegetarianism in the age of English roast beef. 

Life as a nineteenth-century vegetarian could be hard. Meat was held in high esteem as a sign of wealth and a promoter of British strength, virility and imperial success, and abstainers were often treated as amusing and at least mildly insane.  Vegetarian restaurants were few and far between, with most options far less varied and flavourful than today. Because many vegetarians and other animal protectionists were women, men in the movement often had their masculinity questioned, an experience which hasn’t completely gone away. So why bother?

Anna Kingsford circa 1880s. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

For author, animal protectionist, and spiritualist Anna Kingsford (1846-1888), meatless eating was not only the right thing to do by the animals – it was also the way to women’s liberation and spiritual redemption. Kingsford was so committed to protecting animals that she became one of the very first British women to qualify as a doctor just to prove her point that it was possible to do so without participating in vivisection (the practice of operating on conscious animals for experimental purposes). Her writings influenced the burgeoning community of British radical vegetarians, as well as a rising generation of suffragists, and a young Mahatma Gandhi. 

The animal protectionist movement, as we know it, emerged in England in the mid-1800s, with the establishment of the RSPCA its best-known result. When I started reading about the movement, I was struck by accounts of Kingsford and other vegetarians which depicted them as laughable eccentrics, or as people who only performed care for animals as a way to express some other cause, prejudice, or anxiety.

Vegetarianism, especially women’s vegetarianism, has often been ‘explained away’ by historians, rather than actually explained. So in my research, I tried to take seriously Kingsford’s meat-free commitment as a philosophy and way of life. So, why did Anna Kingsford think we should be vegetarian? Let’s cover just a few of her key justifications. 

Front cover of Penny Vegetarian Cookery by Thomas Low Nichols, 1891. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Meat-eating is unnatural 

Most vegetarians and vegans are familiar with the protest that humans ought to eat animals because our teeth are naturally primed to tear through meat. The argument that aspects of our anatomy prove a propensity for meat-eating is not a new one (think of the ‘but canines!’ defence), and Kingsford addressed it in her best-known book, The Perfect Way in Diet (1881). She drew on scientific research to argue that human anatomy in fact has more in common with herbivores than with carnivores. 

Kingsford analysed the shape and function of animal and human digestive tracts, brains, teeth and facial structures, concluding that humans are naturally herbivorous. In her speeches, she used more emotive justifications for humanity’s ‘natural’ vegetarianism. If ‘man’ were indeed suited to carnivorism, she argued, he would surely share ‘the savage disposition of the carnivora; it would be a pleasure to him to kill and tear his victim, and the sight of blood would be an agreeable titillation to his hunger’. 

To drive home what she saw as the unnaturalness of meat-eating, Kingsford conjured stomach-churning images of ‘carnage’ and ‘cannibalism’ and blasted the hypocrisy of polite society who looked down on butchers as barbaric but paid them to kill and carve their meat. She tried to restore what ecofeminist Carol Adams has called the ‘absent referent’ of the animal to the fancy dinner table where animal body parts were appetisingly recast as delicacies. 

Tied to this idea was Kingsford’s belief that vegetarian foods were health-promoting. She thought fruits, vegetables and legumes were ‘the best and purest forms of human alimentation’, while meats were presented as the purveyors of disease and physical degeneration. She attributed her own continued vitality to her strict and simple meat-free diet. 

Vegetarianism leads to social progress and spiritual redemption

Health Foods and How to Prepare Them by Emma Todd Anderson, 1899. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Beyond physical ailments, Kingsford charged meat-eating with causing serious moral and social degradation in both producers and consumers. She believed meat-eating was associated with alcoholism, violence, gambling, prostitution and uncontrolled lust, and that a vegetarian diet was health-promoting and protected vulnerable people from harm caused by a male-dominated medical system. 

By contrast to the morally corrosive nature of meat-eating, vegetarianism was promoted by Kingsford and other proponents as having the tendency to ‘exalt the philanthropic faculties’. It should be stressed, however, that these impacts were only part of Kingsford’s larger rationale for vegetarianism, one that foregrounded the right of animals to live free from human-inflicted suffering.

What’s more, vegetarianism was a means – the only means – towards universal spiritual redemption. As a Theosophist, Kingsford believed in the importance of a radically new way of life: the ‘perfect way’ described in her vegetarian and spiritualist publications. She argued that modern Victorian society was a deeply flawed pseudo-civilisation, and posited an alternative, authentic civilisation founded on care for animals, women’s equality, nonviolence and spiritual fulfilment. 

Kingsford sought to recover an ancient and untainted version of religion and society that would bring humankind into harmony with God and the environment.

Vegetarianism helps women  

Kingsford’s foremost goals were, she declared, ‘justice as between men and women, human and animal’. Like many antivivisectionist and vegetarian women, she saw violence against animals as related to violence against women. She viewed vivisection on women, children, and other vulnerable people as the logical conclusion to the utilitarian defence of the practice on animals.  

Kingsford also believed that the battles against animal abuse and women’s oppression were necessarily intertwined. In her account of the utopian ‘upward path’ society must eventually follow, the exaltation of women brings about an outcry against ‘the slaughter and torture of our animal brethren’. 

A Pig in the book Ireland: Industrial and agricultural, 1902. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

However, Kingsford only occasionally drew a close connection between animal oppression and women’s oppression. Rather than focusing on women and animals’ common victimhood, Kingsford emphasised the role of women as rescuers, protectors and carers for animals. If women were innately intuitive, emotional and moral, as Kingsford believed, then they were also well positioned and morally bound to help vulnerable animals.

More practically, vegetarian cooking was thought to save time, money, and energy for women responsible for feeding their household. Not only would meatless cooking free up women’s schedules and lighten their financial load, Kingsford hoped the change of diet would also help to protect mothers and their children from trips to the doctor (almost all of them men), who stood accused of callousness and a dangerous over-eagerness to operate. 

There’s no doubt that Kingsford’s ideas about gender and feminism were closely intertwined with her care for animals. Other feminist animal welfarists would follow in her footsteps, often combating similar accusations of madness, irrelevance, or hysteria to those she faced during and after her lifetime. Importantly, she believed that her vegetarianism and respect for animals lay at the foundation of all other progressive movements, including those for which she also strongly advocated. Animals were independently worthy beings who deserved protection from death and cruelty. Refraining from killing and eating these creatures was not only a way to save animals and better society, but was the indispensable groundwork for all other forms of authentic progress. Her objections to the exploitation of non-human animals were not reducible only to second-hand expressions of other ideas and fears.

You can read more about Anna Kingsford and her ideas about gender and the non-human animal in in the 2022 open-access edition of Lilith.

Ruby Ekkel is a PhD candidate at Australian National University. Her research focuses on changing attitudes towards and interactions with native animals, especially as mediated by women. She has published and presented on topics spanning animal history, environmental history, and women’s history in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

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