Thursday saw Joanna Bourke give an insightful talk about the historical relationships between human and animal rights based around her latest book, What it Means to be Human.
She began by reading from a letter to The Times newspaper written by ‘An Earnest Englishwoman.’ This 1872 letter asked the surprising question, "Are Women Animals?" The author acknowledged that women were unlikely to be granted equal rights to men so suggested instead that women's right to live without undue suffering might be advanced if, in henceforward, all laws against the mistreatment of animals were understood to include women in their scope.
It's hard to to believe now, but it was once generally held that 'lesser beings' - a category which could include working-class people, most foreigners, women and children - could not feel or suffer in the same way as white men. In addition, there was a strong belief that a man should have the right to do as he wished in his own home - and that the law should not normally intrude on his treatment of members of his household.
Interestingly, in 1884 children gained the protection women asked for but a man’s wife still had fewer rights than his pig. Joanna also informed us that animals were only protected against cruelty to safeguard humans, as law-makers feared that callousness to animals would seep into their other interactions. Abuse against women and children, however, was not of much concern.
Fortunately, the Earnest Englishwoman’s letter contributed to the humanisation of women and, eventually, the rights we have today.
Joanna looked at many theories of the time and gave concise, researched analysis. She went on to question religious ideas about humans and animals as well as philosophical notions such as how we and other animals are ranked in the universe.
Joanna’s talk was intensely interesting throughout while still remaining accessible to someone who knows little of her field. My only complaint is how quickly the hour seemed to pass!