Marti Kheel: A Lifetime of Exposing Common Ground
By Christine Kim, Research Writer National Museum of Animals & Society
Marti Kheel was a passionate activist, respected academic, and a loving soul who touched the lives of human and non-human animals alike. She is regarded as one of the foremost pioneers in eco-feminist thought, applying the feminist ethic-of-care tradition, which can also be described as the radical cultural feminist approach, to animal ethics. As written by Rosemary Radford Ruether in her foreword to Marti’s pathbreaking book, 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.”
However, Marti made advances not only linking the struggles of animals and women but also in the realms of health and the environment. She made a point to show that no oppressed groups were too disparate to struggle together. A common, compelling thread that unified her work was her advocacy for a holisitc, nonviolent, emotionally responsive, and nondominative ethic humans should pursue to live harmoniously with nature and non-human beings. Marti’s clear voice will continue to reverberate in activism and academia due to her extraordinary accomplishments and compassionate lifestyle which were apparent throughout her lifetime.
The Early Activist
Marti Kheel was a native New Yorker, born in the Big Apple on August 25, 1948 as Martha Kheel. Her parents, Ann Sunstein Kheel, a journalist and civic leader, and Theodore Kheel, a labor mediator, were both politically engaged individuals, which no doubt rubbed off on Marti’s developing sense of justice. Even as a child, Marti’s distinct and tenacious perspective could be seen taking shape. The combination of the young Marti’s draw to animals and her knack for protesting is well illustrated by a biographical narrative on her website. During a family portrait, Marti turned her back to the camera and refused to participate in the photo if the beloved family cat, Booty-tat, was not also included.
There were several other events from Marti’s childhood that foreshadowed the kind of moving and shaking she would do in her adult life. For example, young Marti fought the social structure her parents had put into place among the six children. Marti’s parents had set up a system where the older three children had certain privileges, like a later bedtime, and the younger three children would abide by a different set of rules. Marti, being a middle child lumped into the “younger three” category, found her situation unfair and disagreeable, so she exercised her strong will and eventually succeeded in having her mother change the social groupings to “the older four” and the “younger two.”
Although always a rebel within her family, Marti’s attitude radicalized and took a more political turn by the time she entered college at the University of Wisconsin. During this time, Marti forewent the luxury of being a full-time college student and voluntarily took on the role of being a factory worker, not for any other desire than to stand in solidarity with the working class. While taking an active role in organizing the factory workers, Marti also maintained a part-time student status and slowly finished her undergraduate degree.
In 1973, as a young adult at 25 years old, Marti’s protesting spirit evolved to include vegetarianism–a response to her increasing awareness of the formerly living beings presented as “meat” at restaurants and grocery stores. When she moved to Montreal to begin her graduate degree at McGill University, Marti met a stray cat that led to her be involved in local cat rescue. Marti was mentored by the cat foster-placement community and was introduced to the Animal Liberation Collective. The collective expanded her understanding of vegetarianism and animal oppression by exposing her to the treatment of animals on farms and society at large, and at this point Marti became vegan.
Creating and Promoting a Holistic View–EcoFeminism
After relocating to California, Marti’s sure convictions led her to co-found Feminists for Animal Rights (FAR) in 1982, which sought to raise consciousness among those in the feminist community, animal advocacy movement, and the general public about the connection between the abuse of women and nature. As stated on the FAR website, “As ecofeminist animal advocates we view the exploitation of women and animals as an expression of a common patriarchal worldview, which manifests itself in both sexism and speciesism…FAR also works to raise consciousness about the devastating links between cultural and racial injustice and the devaluation and destruction of nature and the earth. FAR views patriarchy as a system of hierarchical domination, a system that works for the powerful against the powerless.” Marti’s holistic approach to solving social problems can be seen blossoming in FAR’s statement. As a way to live cruelty-free and embody respect for animals in daily life, FAR promoted veganism.
One of Marti’s great contributions to ecofeminism and to FAR was her development of the slideshow Women, Nature, and Animals through an Ecofeminist Lens, which was adopted and endorsed by FAR. The slideshow demonstrates the connection between the way women and non-human animals are seen in patriarchal society by juxtaposing cultural images of women and non-human animals from magazines, film, and other popular sources. FAR also confronted the sexist images in the animal rights movement and the presumption in the feminist movement that animals belong to humans to use and consume. Marti believed that ecofeminism offered a holistic lens through which to view the world and continued to work with FAR with the primary goal of developing a more inclusive philosophy that could bridge the areas of feminism, animal advocacy, and environmental ethics.
Marti’s academic pursuits left her with a stream of impressive letters after her name. She received her BA in history from the University of Wisconsin, a MA in sociology from McGill University, and a Ph.D in religious studies from the Graduate Theological Union. Not only was she a lifelong student, taking in and reflecting on material, but she was a constant contributor of important pieces to add to a scholarly body of literature. And in her characteristic fashion, her work attempted to be holistic and reflect the intersectionality of social problems. As a product of her far reaching perspective, her book Nature Ethics: An Ecofeminist Perspective, published in 2008 and her only book in which she is the sole author, was reviewed by Carol J. Adams as “a major contribution to ecofeminist philosophy, animal liberation, and environmental ethics.” This volume, which started out as her doctoral dissertation, was born out of her frustration with the minimal consideration animals receive within the larger field of nature ethics. But Marti was a do-er, not just a thinker or a say-er. To make her mark on the field of environmental science, Marti took a visiting scholar position most recently in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California, Berkeley, which was likely to have brought a much needed animal advocacy spin on this increasingly popular area of study and work.
Other landmark works include her numerous articles, which have been translated into multiple languages and have appeared in journals and anthologies. One of her earlier pieces, “The Liberation of Nature: A Circular Affair” published in 1985 in Environmental Ethics, began the cross-conversation in animal advocacy and environmental ethics. It evaluated and critiqued the rationalist bias of the two leading, male animal rights and animal liberation theorists–Tom Regan and Peter Singer. Aldo Leopold and J. Baird Callicott’s hierarchical dominative bias in environmental ethics also did not escape Marti’s critical analysis. As an alternative, Marti expressed the need for a “female mode of ethical thought.” The conventional scientific process rejects and attempts to eliminate the thinker’s private sentiment, but what Marti called for was a way of combining reason and emotion which embraces a personal sense of loving and a caring connection with all life-forms.
Medicine was also a topic that Marti felt and thought passionately about. In 1989, Marti published “From Healing Herbs to Deadly Drugs: Western Medicine’s War Against the Natural World,” a research laden expose on modern medicine. Marti drew upon world statistics to illustrate points on the west’s deviation from the tradition of women as healers; holistic, natural, and ancient forms of medicine; and the western conception of the role of animals in helping humans attain health. Although this article was published over two decades ago, it seems to have foreshadowed the highly personal relationship Marti would have with holistic medicine once she became ill with leukemia. Her audience would likely have been forgiving had she chosen to forego natural forms of healing once she was diagnosed. But Marti refused to abandon her beliefs and continued to be a testimony to her conviction that natural forms of healing are not just an “alternative.” Marti also refused non-vegan products to treat the symptoms of her illness. As her sister Jane Stanley recalls, Marti developed severely chapped lips just prior to her passing. Family members urged Marti to use chapstick to soothe what appeared to painfully dry lips. Marti refused to use chapstick with beeswax in it. She requested that they order vegan lip balm online, even though her family reminded her that ordering in would take several days. Finally, Jane found chapstick in a different city that did not contain beeswax.
Even at the end of her life, Marti worked tirelessly to educate and inspire people to view life holistically, as just two days before her passing she appeared as a guest at Yale Medical School to speak at a class on alternative and complementary medicine that was being taught by her doctor. Marti was engaged in the world around her up until her last moments. Her final entry in Caring Bridge, a website designed to help the seriously ill give personal updates to stay in touch with friends and family, states, “I also love hearing about the various Occupy Wall Street movements around the country, and especially the one in Oakland, which sounds amazing. I can’t be there in person, but I am there in spirit!” She was an unremitting change maker in so many capacities. People from a wide variety of circles and many disciplines mourn the loss of Marti, who died in her sleep of acute myeloid leukemia on November 19, 2011 in Greenwich, CT at 63 years of age. Although Marti’s strong presence will be missed not only in the activist community but in academia and among friends and family, her death will not leave an ideological hole in any of these parties. Marti left a host of disciples in her wake to continue to carry out the work she started. She only sparked what is likely to be a lasting paradigm shift in the way we view the integrally connected subjects of animals, women, and the environment.
**The National Museum of Animals & Society extends its sincerest thanks to Jane Stanley for her interview.
(n.d.) Biography of Marti Kheel: August 25, 1948 – November 19, 2011. In Biography. Retrieved from http://martikheel.com/marti-kheel.html.
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