Strangers and Bedfellows: When Feminists Marry Animal Lovers
Issue #54, March 2001
Long before that Mars-Venus guy started making millions on his insipid books, it had been common knowledge that men and women often view each other as strangers — at times with particularly disastrous results for women. The depth of this estrangement has stood in the way of feminism's advance, making it harder for women to achieve their goals and even leading to divisions among feminists. "Difference" feminists would like us to accept that what makes the genders strange to each other are significant differences that are not going to go away. "Liberal" feminists are more inclined to see those differences as atavistic and unimportant.
No less philosophically divided are those who care deeply about animals and think of them as rights-bearing creatures. And in some respects they have an even tougher problem. Most men who kill women at least get to know them first. Animal rights activists want people to care about and understand a group generally considered so different that they are systematically slaughtered for meat, shoes and car interiors.
What happens when the advocates for these two groups that get shafted for deviating from normative understandings of gender and species identity decide to get together? Animal rights advocates can make feminists a little nervous. There is something about wanting to save cute little non-rational creatures that calls to mind the pro-life movement. Among animal rights defenders and pro-lifers, there seems to be a common tendency to search for the pure and innocent and protect it at any cost. On the other hand, feminists can strike animal rights advocates as a little quaint. When the President of NOW Galen Sherwin objected to a PETA ad she considered sexist, PETA President Ingrid Newkirk responded by calling Sherwin "snotty" and "reactionary." Despite these tensions, there have nonetheless been a few high-profile attempts by prominent members of these two groups to tie the knot. Taking a closer look at these unions reveals that the way feminists and animal rights activists get together is indicative of their whole approach to the problem of estrangement in the first place.
Of course, being a committed feminist can get you pretty down on heterosexual marriage. About a decade ago Gloria Steinem explained her apparent conviction not to marry — despite numerous proposals and at least two engagements — by maintaining that marriage was "designed for a person and a half. You became a semi-non-person when you got married." Now Steinem seems to have found a solution to this dilemma. On September 3, 2000 she married a man who is best known for caring about non-persons, semi and whole, animal rights activist David Bale.
Steinem is apparently not the first feminist to have happened upon this personal solution to the estrangement problem. About five years ago, angry feminist icon and legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon, who rarely mentions marriage except to point out how often it legitimizes rape and abuse, came within a hair's breath of taking the plunge herself with another advocate of animal rights, Jeffrey Masson. Masson, who was actually MacKinnon's live-in fiancee for four years, is known for his best-selling books which argue that animals have complex emotional lives and that it is therefore wrong to harm them.
While MacKinnon and Masson's relationship was carefully scrutinized at the time, most prominently in a notorious cover story in New York magazine, very little is known about Steinem and Bale's relationship. In fact, the latter pair were married under what many in the press see as mysterious circumstances. They were joined in an "alternative" Native American ceremony, even though Bale (father of the actor Christian Bale of American Psycho) is South African and Steinem is a Jew from Toledo. Steinem, who once was seen about town wearing a chinchilla-ringed dress, may or may not have worn a traditional native costume.
Other speculation has centered on the deportation hearing that Bale was scheduled to face in November. His marriage to Steinem earns him two years conditional residency in the U.S. The couple dismisses suggestions that the marriage had to do with anything other than love. "Apparently, there is a need to look for ulterior motives when a feminist marries" scoffed Steinem. Immigration and naturalization services will be keeping their eye on them in the meantime, conducting a series of interviews to ensure that the marriage is legit.
But apart from cursory comments affirming their deep affection, the couple is remaining reticent about their union. All this speculation, with so little information, makes it tempting to extrapolate from the MacKinnon/Masson relationship to try and gain some insight into this more recent union of feminist superstar and animal lover. I made some calls to investigate. I asked Ingrid Newkirk, President of PETA, if she saw a connection between Steinem and MacKinnon's marriages. She believes it's no coincidence. "Look, these ladies are getting older, right? They've seen an awful lot of men and are tired of this macho-meat business. They realized it was time for a healthy, compassionate, nurturing, empathetic man. They don't want some Ted Nugent character." Masson himself concurs, saying "I think there is a parallel, and many feminists are aware of the fact that people tend to ignore the harm done to animals and the harm done to women. Kitty [MacKinnon] had an unusual empathy for animals, which was very inspiring to me." Typically, MacKinnon's agreement comes with a little less enthusiasm. She told me "women and animals both are often seen and treated as subhuman in ways that are deeply connected. Some people who see through one kind of bigotry might see through another. However, Hitler was a vegetarian."
What evidence there is, however, indicates that the ways that feminists love their creature-cuddling men are as different as their approaches to smashing patriarchy. The ways that MacKinnon and Steinem arrived at and handle their relationships to animal rights guys accentuate, rather than soften, the contrast between their approaches to the estrangement of the genders.
While Steinem is often a prickly critic of gender relations, she is downright soft when compared to MacKinnon, who, by all accounts, is as tough as nails in defense of her views. The London Guardian described interviewing MacKinnon as "a bruising, hostile, intimidating ordeal" and noted she was "curiously indifferent to thirst, heat and sweat." Another critic has called her take on feminism "Stalinist." But MacKinnon's uncompromising stances on issues like sexual harassment and pornography has made her a hero to many, including philosopher-of-the-moment Richard Rorty. He finds her feminism to be "prophetic" and "unforgettable" and has referred to her as "a symbol of social hope."
It was MacKinnon's tough-as-nails reputation that caused a stir when she began appearing in court with Jeffrey Masson. She was there to show support during Masson's libel suit against the New Yorker for an article that made him look like a sexist and egomaniac. Masson was in court to dispute a few quotes, but he wasn't disputing the one where he claimed to have slept with "probably a thousand women." What was the radical feminist doing with a womanizing pretty-boy?
Kicking his butt, it appears. Masson seemed to worship MacKinnon, showing the press the shrine to her he had built on the dashboard of his Subaru. Like The Guardian, Masson noted MacKinnon's imperviousness to thirst, but he put a decidedly different twist on it: "She will sit for sixteen hours and not eat or drink unless I say 'Kitty, you've got to drink!' She just sits and thinks deep thoughts. She is the greatest mind at work in the world today. Hearing her lecture often makes me cry. I am immensely privileged to be living with her. It is like living with God!"
Masson may have called MacKinnon "Kitty," but it is clear who was the pet in that relationship. In fact, it seems as if MacKinnon might have played a key role in getting Masson in touch with the emotions of animals and launching his career as an author of best-selling books on the topic. Though he was a lifelong vegetarian (he became one as a boy when a neighbor ate his pet duck), Masson was best known as a critic of psychoanalysis and only began to really think seriously about animal rights when he was living with MacKinnon. In the acknowledgments for his first book on the subject, When Elephants Weep, he said, "as for Kitty, only Kitty knows what Kitty is owed." But the rest of us can speculate, of course.
During Masson's pre-MacKinnon days as a member of the psychoanalytic elite, and then as a critic of Freud, he sometimes almost seemed like a puppy looking for the right master. For example, one acquaintance describes the way that Masson charmed Freud's disciple, K.R. Eissler: "Eissler is a little scary and has a standoffish manner. But Jeff approached him in a very friendly and interested way, and Eissler responded immediately. Eissler is not lovable [but] he seems desperate for a kind of friendliness that he cannot achieve naturally and spontaneously. And he found it in Jeff." Anna Freud, Sigmund's legendarily unapproachable daughter, found other canine qualities in Masson. She complained to a friend that "you don't know what its like having Masson in my house. He's like my dogs. They race around and get into everything. Masson is just like that." When Masson debated his own analyst, Irvine Schiffer, on Canadian television, Dr. Schiffer reportedly looked at Masson disdainfully and said, "Let's put it this way, you would mount any woman that moved."
It seems that living with MacKinnon may have helped Masson get in touch with the fact that, to paraphrase the film title, he was living his life as a dog. The author Mandy Merck has argued that MacKinnon's analysis of masculine sexuality attributes to men uncannily canine qualities. Growing up in a culture saturated by pornographic messages and images causes men to have a Pavlovian response to certain stimuli. They are programmed, trained to act in ways that are oppressive to women. It appears that MacKinnon's views were so persuasive that she may have convinced her fiancee that he was, in essence, a dog — or at least enough like a dog that he should dedicate his next three books to discovering exactly how much, emotionally speaking, he had in common with animals and vice versa.
No one seems to think that anything quite like this has gone on between Gloria Steinem and David Bale. There are no reports of Bale being a womanizer, and his daughter Louise told me he had been passionately involved in animal rights "for as long as I can remember." By all accounts Bale is basically a nice, compassionate, sensitive guy. And though he is very concerned about injustice, he seems to be upbeat and have a positive view of people.
In Steinem, Bale has probably found the right feminist for him. While MacKinnon never budges from her dismal assessment of power relations between the genders, Steinem has been moving from edgy to new-agey for years. Steinem began to see the value of looking deeply into her own soul when she finally ended a love affair with the very rich, conservative, and insensitive publisher and real estate developer Mort Zuckerman in the late 1980s. The result of this soul-searching was Steinem's "self-esteem book" Revolution from Within. That book ended with Steinem's reflections on Native American spirituality and the connections to be found between animals and humans. "Animals are professors of self-esteem," she wrote.
This sort of soul searching is clearly the path that led Steinem to Bale, and to finally try marriage, and in particular to try it in a Native American ceremony in Oklahoma. MacKinnon, in the meantime, seems determined to continue to blaze darker paths alone. When I slipped and referred to her "marriage" she corrected "I was not married to Jeffrey Masson. Anything you can do to spread the word on that is fine with me."
Brian Duff is a graduate student in Political Science at UC Berkeley. He likes his steak rare and finds himself strangely attracted to Kate Roiphe.