Last week, the Humane Society of the US announced a “reconciliation process” that is intended to heal its workplace. HSUS is inviting “anyone who may have experienced or witnessed sexual or other kinds of harassment, inappropriate workplace behaviors, a hostile work environment and/or retaliation” to share their experiences in confidential interviews with Kate Kimpel, a respected DC lawyer and advocate for women.
Aside from the language around reconciliation — it’s not the job of those who have been harassed to reconcile with those who mistreated them — this is welcome news. It’s an open-ended investigation, at last, into the widespread allegations of sexual harassment lodged against Wayne Pacelle, the former CEO of HSUS.
His behavior, it appears, enabled others to engage in inappropriate conduct and set an unhealthy tone for the organization; at least three other senior executives at HSUS have been accused of workplace misconduct affecting women in recent years.
A fish rots from the head down, as the saying goes. “Women could be preyed on for years,” said Kelly Dermody, a lawyer representing women at the animal advocacy group. By email, Dermody told me that she is pleased by this latest development: “The selection of Kate Kimpel as the outside investigator gives the whole process enormous credibility, and certainly serves my clients’ interests in advancing the mission of serving animals.”
By way of background: Pacelle resigned in February under pressure from staff and donors, a day after HSUS’s 31-member board abruptly curtailed an investigation into his conduct and, incredibly, voted to keep him on the job. No one has held the HSUS board accountable for its bungling–this is likely the biggest outrage of all–although along with the so-called reconciliation process, a governance review is underway at HSUS, as is a pay equity study and work “with culture experts on culture change,” the group says.
None of this should have happened, says Carol J. Adams, the longtime vegan advocate, feminist and author, and much of it likely could have been avoided had more animal rights activists paid attention to her work. The animal advocacy movement, she argues, should ally itself with broader efforts to secure social and environmental justice, whether for women or workers (particularly those in slaughterhouses) or people of color.
“The movement has to get beyond a single issue,” Adams says.
By chance, Adams visited Washington just before the HSUS announcement to talk about her new book, Protest Kitchen: Fight Injustice, Save the Planet and Fuel Your Resistance, One Meal at a Time. Its original title was “The Anti Trump Diet,” she said, and even now the book includes recipes for “Trumped Up Vegan Cutlets a L’Orange,” “Stop the Wall Taco Salad Bowl with Fire and Fury Salsa” and, naturally, “Impeach Cobbler.” Who says feminists don’t have a sense of humor?
Speaking at East City Bookshop, a women-owned independent bookstore on Capitol Hill, Adams noted that it has been 28 years since the publication of The Sexual Politics of Meat, her landmark book exploring the relationship between patriarchal values and meat-eating. Ever since, Adams has collected images that connect the oppression of women with the oppression of other animals.
“They treated women like meat”
The connections between demeaning animals and demeaning women are everywhere, once you are alert to them. Adams pointed to a recent New Yorker story by Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer about Brett Kavanaugh that quoted a woman who socialized with boys at Georgetown Prep, his high school, in the 1980s, who recalled that male students tried to get girls drunk and then take advantage of them. “It was disgusting,” the woman reportedly said.“They treated women like meat.”
The argument, if I understand it correctly, is that exploiting one group of beings — chickens, pigs and cows — makes it easier for the powerful to exploit others who are vulnerable, including women.
In Protest Kitchen, Adams and her co-author, nutritionist Virginia Messina, write: “The oppression of farm animals strengthens misogyny…Animal agriculture is a major vehicle for maintaining and disseminating misogynist attitudes…Female animals are forced to spend their lives producing babies, milk and eggs solely for human consumption.”
How, then, could animal advocates mistreat women at HSUS, Mercy for Animals and the Farm Animal Rights Movement? Partly it’s a matter of culture, as I wrote in January in The Chronicle of Philanthropy:
The culture of the movement creates conditions that are ripe for exploitation, insiders say. Female staff and volunteers are often idealistic, sensitive souls who empathize with the suffering of animals. They assume that men in the movement are kindred spirits. Bonding over their refusal to eat meat or wear animal products, they socialize as well as work together.
Adams argues that the narrow focus of the animal advocacy movement also comes into play. She told me:
To have leading animal advocates treat women as pieces of meat when they know exactly what a piece of meat was, is very disturbing…These were the men framing how to do advocacy in the movement, pushing the movement to be single issue, who then, as serial sexual exploiters, benefited from a movement that was framed in this way.
When I asked Adams whether the movement is coming to grips with its #metoo problem, she replied: “On a scale of one to 10, I’d say two. I just don’t think we’ve really dealt with it. I think we’re further behind than the culture at large.”
The HSUS “reconciliation process” hasn’t changed her mind.
“What took so damn long?” said said. “The HSUS Board made a terrible mistake in January, and this ‘reconciliation’ could begin with them saying so, and saying they should have fired Wayne.”
True enough. The lack of clarity and transparency around who did what to whom hasn’t been good for the movement, for the women who were harassed or, for that matter, for the men who accused of harassment, sometimes with little in the way of specifics to back up the charge. This has led to debate about who should be welcomed back into the movement, and when. Pacelle, for example, is already attempting a comeback as a prominent volunteer with a new political action committee called Animal Wellness Action.
I asked Anna West, senior director of public relations at HSUS, whether the findings of the reconciliation process would be made public. By email, she replied:
We plan to make an announcement at the conclusion of the reconciliation process and expect, as part of that, to share information about the process and any resulting changes to the organization’s practices. We will be guided in our communications by our commitment to restorative accountability – accountability and transparency that facilitates healing and growth – and the protection of the identities and individual experiences of participants will be prioritized at all times.
Accountability would require taking a hard look at the role of the board, which, like most nonprofit boards, answers to no one but itself. That’s a problem with no obvious solution, and one that goes way beyond HSUS.
Photo of Wayne Pacelle by SlowKing4, via Wikimedia Commons