Saturday, November 26, 2011

Marti Kheel--A Collective Tribute

We are long time friends of Marti Kheel, who worked with her as activists in the organization she co-founded, Feminists for Animal Rights and collaborated with her in creating ecofeminist theory sensitive to other animals.  We have joined together to create this statement remembering Marti Kheel because this effort represents the kind of work she always believed in—collective and supportive. We each have lost a dear friend, and we mourn the loss of that friendship. But, we created this remembrance because we believe honoring the importance of her singular life and work is essential. 

Marti Kheel was one of the pioneers of the radical cultural feminist approach to animal ethics now known as the feminist ethic-of-care tradition.  Her groundbreaking article "The Liberation of Nature:  A Circular Affair"  (1985) critiqued both the rationalist bias in Tom Regan's "animal rights" and Peter Singer's "animal liberation" theories, on the one hand; and on the other, the hierarchical dominative bias in the environmental ethics of Aldo Leopold and J. Baird Callicott.  Instead, Kheel called for "a female mode of ethical thought," which fused reason and emotion and was rooted in a personal sense of loving, caring connection with all life-forms.

In 1989, Marti published "From Healing Herbs to Deadly Drugs:  Western Medicine's War Against the Natural World," a powerful critique of the Western scientific view of the body as inert object, of medicine as a "war" on disease, and of the drug industry for its cruel use of laboratory tests on live animals, its corrupt promotion of dubious products, and its for-profit motivation.  

In "Ecofeminism and Deep Ecology" (1990), Kheel extended her critique of Leopoldian environmentalism and its macho valorization of hunting--an analysis she continued to devastating effect in "License to Kill:  An Ecofeminist Critique of Hunters' Discourse" (1995).

In 2000, she completed her doctoral dissertation at the Graduate Theological Union, writing “An Eco-feminist Critique of Holist Nature Ethics: Attending to Non-Human Animals.” Marti was a careful, meticulous writer. As she had already done the work of writer, editor, and copy editor, her contributions to anthologies were always delights to edit. Thus, keeping to her high writing standards, it was over a several year period that she converted her doctoral dissertation into her stand-alone volume: Nature Ethics: An Ecofeminist Perspective (2008), a substantial articulation of ecofeminism, environmental theory, feminist thought, animal liberation, and eco-theology.

The importance of Marti’s contributions to ecofeminist philosophy cannot be overstated.  She brought active critical attention to standard masculinist approaches to other-than-human animal liberation philosophy by pointing out the overly rational and isolating perspective it so often took.  She focused her keen eye on environmental philosophers, including some ecofeminist philosophers, who while attending to whole systems and relations, generally ignored the lives of individual animals--other-than-human beings who have families and friends and who suffer horribly not only by our actions but through our willful neglect.  

As Rosemary Radford Ruether recognizes in her foreword to Nature Ethics: “The extent to which the dominant theories in contemporary environmental ethics are linked to male bias has not been generally appreciated, and Kheel makes the case more clearly and convincingly than anyone else has done to date.”

Marti’s ethic was one of active, engaged, empathetic care, not selfish or selfless care-taking.  And while she was critical of many, her compassion always extended to them.  She was a genuine philosopher, a lover of wisdom, of learning, and of debate.  In true feminist form, her philosophical vision sought to challenge aspects of our common ways of thinking about ethics, even those that don’t immediately appear to emerge from masculinist assumptions.  Since her earliest work, Marti’s scholarship drew on connections and brought out new possibilities for living more harmoniously with the movements of the natural world.  Throughout her writing Marti advocated a nonviolent, emotionally responsive, holistic, and nondominative ethic by which humans may live in harmony with nature and nonhuman creatures. 

As an activist, Marti also advocated and lived according to this nondominative ethic. In the early 1980s, she joined with others to start a small study group, where they formulated the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of Feminists for Animal Rights (FAR). From its beginning, and with Marti as a central figure, Feminists for Animal Rights challenged the views that animals are undifferentiated. 

FAR asserted that animals are individuals, with feelings, needs, and the capacity to love and to suffer. FAR made comparisons with the way women have been perceived and treated in patriarchal society. To help illuminate this intersection, Marti created a slide show "Women, Nature, and Animals through an Ecofeminist Lens." Drawing upon an (unfortunate) wealth of cultural images, she showed how the dominant culture presents, in Marti’s words, “women and animals as wild, demonic beings that must be subdued, and as inanimate objects that exists to serve ‘man’s’ needs.” 
Marti Kheel at the first March on Washington for Animals.
Marti stands, smiling, above the FAR image on the banner.

FAR situated itself on the boundary between the animal rights/liberation movement and the feminist movement—reaching out to activists to highlight the connections between these movements: raising consciousness, advocacy, tabling at meetings and conferences, conducting workshops, letter writing, and the publishing of the FAR Newsletter. There, Marti explored the loaded issues that often still confound these organizations—sexist images in the animal rights movement and the presumption in the feminist movement that animals are ours to use and consume. Promoting veganism was central to the activism of Feminists for Animals Rights, as it was in Marti’s writings and her life. 

Through the FAR newsletter, ideas formulated by Marti and others reached into both the feminist and the animal advocacy communities in this country and throughout the world.  Before any state passed legislation to incorporate companion animals in orders of protection for battered women, before leading humane and animal advocacy organizations recognized the connection between harm to animals and domestic violence, FAR developed a program of foster care for companion animals of battered women. 

At animal rights conferences, FAR would sponsor conversations for women to discuss their experiences. Marti was always there, listening, supporting, making arrangements to talk further. 

Her compassionate life, like her work, was fully engaged; she didn’t just theorize about non-violence and care, but she lived and died by those values.  

This remembrance is only the beginning in what we expect to be other acknowledgements of her legacy that insure her visionary achievements are not forgotten. Next November 9-10, 2012, there will a conference in honor of Marti’s work at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Ct. 

This obituary was written collectively by Josephine Donovan, Batya Bauman, Lori Gruen and Carol Adams.