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Gender, relational role orientation, and affinity for animal rights.
by Charles W. Peek , Charlotte Chorn Dunham , Bernadette E. Dietz



In the last fifteen years the animal rights movement has exploded onto the political scene. Nationally publicized attacks on animal researchers (Baldwin, 1993; Johnson, 1990) and other political actions - the 1990 March for the Animals in Washington, D.C., and massive lobbying which generated federal laws to protect animals (Jamison & Lunch, 1992; Jasper & Nelkin, 1992) - have propelled this movement with its approximately 600 organizations (Myers, 1990) into prominence. Burgeoning research on this movement shows a greater affinity for animal rights among women.(2) They comprise two-thirds to four-fifths of various groups of animal rights activists (Jamison & Lunch, 1992; Plous, 1991; Richards & Krannich, 1991), are more troubled about the moral treatment of animals (Gallup & Beckstead, 1988; Galvin & Herzog, 1992b; Herzog, Betchart, & Pittman, 1991), and have more humanistic attitudes toward animals (Kellert & Berry, 1987).


Few studies offer any explanation of women's greater support for animal rights. Except for a very recent investigation which examines gender ideology as a source of this support (Peek, Bell, & Dunham, 1996), these studies use the relational orientation in women's traditional roles - nurturing, empathy and care toward others - to explain this support (Galvin & Herzog, 1992a; Herzog, Betchart, & Pittman, 1991; Kellert & Berry, 1987). However, this research does not test successfully the question of whether a relational orientation actually accounts for women's greater involvement with animal rights. It also fails to address a related question - does a relational orientation have the same effect on animal rights support for men as it may for women? Values stressing caring and participation in caregiving activity among some men (Beutel & Marini, 1995; Gerstel & Gallagher, 1994) point to a related question this research fails to address - does a relational orientation have the same effect on animal rights support among men as it may among women? Our research focuses on these two questions.




Explanations of how a relational role orientation produces greater support among women for animal rights occur in both research on animal rights and in cultural feminist theory. Most explanations in animal rights research are after-the-fact accounts for gender differences in animal rights advocacy already uncovered by the research (Galvin & Herzog, 1992a; Kellert & Berry, 1987). Such explanations use Carol Gilligan's (1982) argument concerning women's acquisition through socialization of a moral orientation which emphasizes caring and responsibility for others. For example, Kellert and Berry (1987, p. 369) see this moral orientation as "consistent" with their findings "that women tend to assert strong emotional attachments to individual domestic animals and object to a wide variety of activities involving the possible infliction of cruelty, harm and suffering on animals." Stern, Dietz and Kalof (1993) view such an orientation as similarly promoting proenvironmental attitudes and behaviors among women.


Drawing from not only Gilligan (1982) but Chodorow (1978) as well, some cultural feminist theory fleshes out how women's socialization into more caring and empathetic relational roles toward others generates an affinity for animal rights. For Chodorow this relational orientation comes from women's mothering and maturing girls' identification with their mothers; for Gilligan it results from women learning to make moral judgments based on relations rather than on universal standards of right and wrong.


Such an orientation may create greater backing for animal rights among women in three ways. First, because it encourages the view of animals as individuals, it often breaks down the wall between animals and humans, thus promoting the extension of rights of individual humans to individual animals (Alaimo, 1994). Second, it tends to make abuse of animals more visible. Adams (1994) argues that persons with a relational orientation will more likely have and value significant relationships with animals - an argument supported by research showing that female children assume more responsibility for pets than male children (Kidd & Kidd, 1990). These relationships may force questioning of generally accepted forms of animal treatment (such as hunting, consumption of flesh, and use in research), decreasing their cultural invisibility. Finally, relational thinking may promote greater identification of women with and concern for other living beings (Donovan, 1990). Maternal thinking embedded in this relational role orientation, which Ruddick (1980) thinks creates concern for those whose well-being is at risk, should aid this identification, as also might parallels between the subjugation and treatment of women and animals (Adams, 1994; Warren & Cady, 1994).(3)


Using a small sample of students from three North Carolina colleges, Herzog, Betchart and Pittman (1991) attempt to test the impact of a relational orientation on gender differences in affinity for animal rights. They report that women scored higher than men on the feminine subscale of the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI), which Bem (1974) claims measures "an affective concern for the care of others", and were also more supportive of animal rights. But differences on this subscale did not account for women's greater affinity for animal rights, which persisted after controls for scores on the feminine subscale.


Unfortunately, this research deals adequately with neither of our two questions. It does not even consider whether relational orientation has similar effects on animal rights support within each gender. Several problems limit its answer to our other question of whether a relational role orientation produces women's greater preference for animal rights. One involves doubts about Bem's (1974) claim that the feminine BSRI subscale measures a relational orientation.(4) Another is use of a local and non-representative sample, raising questions about whether this study's findings apply to other groups and contexts. Finally, analyses of this research do not explore the impact of other predictors of animal rights support (age, social class and several attitudinal variables) on how a relational orientation impacts gender differences in this support.


Our purpose is to provide empirical answers to both questions. Using ordinary least squares regression analysis, we first ascertain that women in a recent nationally representative sample (as opposed to local/limited samples) are more supportive than men of animal rights, both before and after controls for many other variables linked to animal rights support. Then we assess whether this relational role orientation is responsible for any greater animal rights support that we find among women, our first question. Finally, we explore our second question: the extent to which a relational role orientation as well as other variables affect backing of animal rights within each gender.






Data for our analyses come from the 1993 General Social Survey, a probability survey of persons age 18 and older living in English-speaking households in the continental United States (Davis and Smith 1993a, 1993b). Of the 1606 respondents, we use 792 (86 black and 706 white) and 788 (86 black and 702 white) respectively in analyses of the two measures of animal rights support we describe below. The majority of omissions occurred because one of the three measures of relational role orientation was split-balloted (OTHERHELP - see below) and asked of approximately two-thirds of the sample (1057 respondents). Remaining exclusions were due to unusable responses (blank, "can't choose", no answer) on any of the variables we measure below, with most of these exclusions due to such responses on items drawn from the environmental module of this survey, which contained the two indicators of animal rights support, three items gauging attitudes toward the environment and two measures of attitudes toward science.(5)




More detailed information about measures of all variables is in Table I. Here we address the selection of these variables and generally describe their measurement.


Animal Rights Support. Two animal rights items appear in the environmental module of the 1993 General Social Survey, to which respondents indicated their agreement: "Animals should have the same moral rights that human beings do" (AMRIGHTS), and "It is right to use animals for medical testing if it might save human lives" (AMTESTS). Both are pivotal issues to the animal rights movement. The first item taps a key conviction of animal rights proponents, distinguishing them from less radical animal welfare advocates; the second statement addresses a topic on which even animal rights activists disagree (Plous, 1991). The correlation between the two items was not sufficiently strong (r = .45 for entire sample, .43 among women and .45 for men) to allow merging them into a single measure, so each serves as a separate indicator of affinity for animal rights in our analyses.(6)


Relational Role Orientation. Three items presented an opportunity to measure a role orientation that emphasizes caring for others. Two are asked of all respondents: "You have to take care of yourself first. . . then help other people" (OTHERFIRST), and whether people are obligated to give care or should give care only if they wish to an elderly parent or seriously ill/injured spouse (OBTOHELP). The other is split-balloted, asked of approximately two-thirds of the sample. It concerns how important it is for a child to learn "to help others when they need help" (OTHERHELP). [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE I OMITTED] Because these items did not correlate well and thus could not be reduced to a single scale, we treat them as three separate indices.(7)


Control Variables. Our analysis contains several demographic and attitudinal/behavioral variables which previous research has shown to be associated with animal rights advocacy (Galvin & Herzog, 1992a; Jamison & Lunch, 1992; Kellert, 1980; Plous, 1991; Richards & Krannich, 1991). GENDER, AGE, RACE, level of education (EDUC), yearly family income (INCOME), whether respondents are currently married (MARRIED), and if they have any children (CHILDREN) are the demographic variables we use. Single-item attitudinal and behavioral variables include church attendance (ATTEND), self-placement as politically liberal to conservative (POLVIEWS). Because some qualitative research indicates that a negative orientation toward science and positive views toward the environment may be paths to animal rights support (Herzog, 1993; Sperling, 1988), we include indices of both types of attitudes as control variables. Two items measure attitudes toward science - how harmful respondents view science overall (SCIHARM) and their opinions about whether scientific change makes things worse for nature (SCIWORSE). We use factor scores on the first principal component from a factor analysis of three questions (willingness to "pay much higher prices", "much higher taxes", and "accept cuts in your standard of living" to protect the environment) to measure attitudes toward the environment (PROENV).(8)




Relational Role Orientation and Women's Animal Rights Support


As anticipated from previous findings on gender and animal rights activism, women in this national sample display greater affinity for animal rights. Correlation coefficients in Table II (as well as differences in means [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE II OMITTED] in Table I) show that women back equal rights for animals (AMRIGHTS) and oppose medical testing of animals (AMTESTS) more strongly than do men.


However, gender differences in relational role orientation do not account for women's greater support of animal rights. Correlation coefficients between the three measures of relational role orientation and gender are significant in only one case, but it is men rather than women who are slightly more likely to think that people are obligated to care for ill family members (OBTOHELP). Both this and another measure (OTHERFIRST) are also associated with the view that animals have the same moral rights as humans. Counter to expectations, however, respondents with greater relational role orientation exhibit less agreement with this view. Although these measures demonstrate some connection with both gender and affinity for animal rights, they do not account for gender differences in this affinity. Controls for all three indices of relational role orientation (model 1) as well as for the entire set of variables (model 2), fail to reduce appreciably the initial regression coefficient of gender and animal rights support (.335 for AMRIGHTS, .410 for AMTESTS - not shown in table).


Relational Role Orientation and Animal Rights Support Within Each Gender


While it cannot explain why women favor animal rights more than men do, might a relational role orientation help to distinguish between those who do and do not support animal rights within each gender? Results from separate regression analyses for women and men question this possibility. Table III shows that women who feel less obligated to care for an elderly or ill family member (OBTOHELP) and who are less inclined to put others before self (OTHERFIRST) initially display greater rather than less agreement with the AMRIGHTS index of animal rights support (model 1); and even these negative associations disappear after controls for other variables (model 2). No relational role orientation measure affects the AMTESTS measure of agreement with animal rights before controls for other variables (model 1), although two weak relationships emerge after these controls (model 2). Women with higher scores on OTHERFIRST now display slightly greater opposition to medical testing of animals, while those who think children should learn to help others (OTHERHELP) tend to favor such testing. These two small and contradictory associations are the only evidence that relational role orientation can distinguish between women who do and do not support animal rights. They emerge only after controls for attitudes toward science and the environment are entered in the last step of a stepwise regression analysis (results not shown in table), suggesting [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE III OMITTED] that such attitudes impact support for animal rights (at least as measured by AMTESTS) as previous qualitative research has indicated.


Table IV does not even furnish weak evidence that would link relational role orientation to animal rights support among men. As was the case for women, both OTHERFIRST and OBTOHELP display small and negative initial relationships with AMRIGHTS (model 1) which evaporate when controls for other variables are instituted (model 2). Unlike women, greater subscription to the view that children should learn to help others (OTHERHELP) is originally linked to more disapproval of medical testing of animals in model 1 of analyses on AMTESTS. However, controls in model 2 for other variables eradicate this association; and, after these controls, no relationships between other measures of relational role orientation and the AMTESTS item emerge as they did among women.


At least as gauged by results using this entire set of variables, similar forces seem to influence both men's and women's animal rights support. Among both genders younger age, lower socio-economic status (assessed mainly by EDUC but also in one case by INCOME), greater willingness to support environmental causes (PROENV) and for the AMRIGHTS measure, more negative evaluation of science provide links to affinity for animal rights. The two gender differences in these forces are contradictory connections of two indices of relational role orientation to AMTESTS among women but not among men, and the impact of low church attendance on women's but not men's backing of both measures of animal rights support.




These results confirm on a national level that women endorse animal rights more than men do. However, a relational role orientation has nothing to do with this difference. Our three indices of caring for others neither together nor separately account for women's greater overall affinity for animal rights. Why does this role orientation fail to explain the greater support given to animal rights by women? One reason is that differences between men and women on the three measures of this orientation are too small to create much gender variation in backing animal rights. Recall from Table II that of the three relational role orientation measures associated with animal rights support, only one (OBTOHELP) varied significantly by gender; and this association was very small (r of .07, mean difference in Table I of .14 on a five point response scale).


A caring role orientation also may not account for women's greater affinity for animal rights because this affinity is more a product of women's structural locations than their role socialization. Structural feminist theory [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE IV OMITTED] connects women's greater animal rights advocacy to their experiences with patriarchal oppression rather than with earlier-learned roles (Adams, 1994; Griffin, 1978; Warren & Cady, 1994). Such experiences may directly generate empathy for other oppressed beings, as well as leading to general egalitarian and nonhierarchical ideologies that are applied to the treatment of animals as well as women (Peek, Bell, & Dunham, 1996).


Relational role orientation appears only slightly more useful in distinguishing those who do and do not approve of animal rights among women (but not among men), since two of its three measures are related to AMTESTS among women. But the lack of associations of any of these measures with AMRIGHTS, their failure to emerge except after controls for attitudes toward science and the environment, and their contradictory directions with AMTESTS, undermine the utility of commitment to caring for others as an explanation of some women's greater animal rights support. Recall that while women with more affinity for animal rights were more approving of putting others before self, they were less likely to agree that children need to learn to help others. If an emphasis on caring for others is behind animal rights support, then why do women who place less emphasis on children learning this orientation display lower rather than higher affinity for animal rights?


Again we turn to social structure in an attempt to account for both the lack of connection of any of the three measures of relational role orientation to AMRIGHTS and the two contradictory associations these measures display with AMTESTS. These findings may be a function of a recent structurally-induced ambivalence of women toward the emphasis on caring for others found in traditional female roles. While women learn through typical socialization some commitment to caring for others, recent structural changes which locate nearly all women in full-time work outside the home may devalue a caring orientation. Gerstel and Gallagher (1994) suggest that considerable requirements of the "first shift" of the job plus the "second shift" of home and child work lead women to reject obligations to care, which could create a "third shift" of work. Because jobs held by women are more likely to demand some type of care and nurturance than jobs held by men (England 1992; Wharton 1993), women may also reject additional obligations to care in order to avoid care "overload" or "burnout" (Hochschild 1983). Yet, caring learned through socialization and reinforced by work both outside and inside the home may remain a valued part of women's gendered self-image.


The structurally-induced rejection of obligations to care coupled with continuing positive evaluations of the idea of care may generate an ambivalence toward care. This ambivalence may be manifest in contradictory associations of various care measures with support for animal rights. Positive associations would emerge between relational role orientation measures and animal rights support among women who emphasize the idea of care. Negative associations would surface among women concerned with structurally-generated care overload. Rejecting obligation to care as a part of their structural oppression, they may also reject other forms of structural oppression, including that of animals. No association between indices of a caring orientation and animal rights support would appear among women negative toward care obligations but equally positive toward the idea of care.


Women's more recent structural locations, then, enable some interpretation of why a relational role orientation does not account for overall gender differences in affinity for animal rights. They also provide a clue to the absence of associations between the role orientation indices and AMRIGHTS among women, as well as the weak and contradictory associations among women of two of these indices to AMTESTS.


Several caveats may mitigate these conclusions. First, our analyses do not capture a large amount of variance in either measure of animal rights support, suggesting the need for incorporation of other variables. However, insertion of other variables which might interact with a relational role orientation in producing animal rights support, such as involvement with animal pets/companions, might increase this variance but also alter our results. Switching focus to behavioral participation in the animal rights movement as a measure of animal rights support rather than attitudes toward animal rights could also change these results. Second, other procedures for measuring a relational role orientation may yield different results. As is the case with much research using national surveys, we had to construct measures of a relational role orientation from items already in the survey which were not sufficiently correlated to form a scale (although these low item-to-item correlations could be due to the multi-dimensionality of a relational role orientation as well as to the hypothesized ambivalence toward this orientation discussed above).(9)


Our final caveat features a key task for subsequent research. The variables in this study probably do not capture the interplay between socialization forces and structural forces - an interplay that may be behind gender variations in affinity for animal rights. For example, some of women's previous socialization may result from earlier experiences with patriarchal domination, experiences which may retard commitment to elements of traditional gender roles such as relational orientation and enhance affinity for animal rights. Interplay between demands of women's current structural locations and ideas acquired from previous socialization likely occurs in the process of doing gender (West & Zimmerman 1987). Endorsement of animal rights may be a strategy which some women employ in this process of continually reconstructing and presenting their gender images to others, perhaps to demonstrate a nurturing side even as they reject traditional relational roles. Subsequent research might benefit by attending to this process and the particular structural and socialization forces that provide its context.


2 A well-known social science journal (Journal of Social Issues, 49) recently devoted an entire issue to the topic in 1993. Other research involves theoretical interpretations of the animal rights movement (Jasper & Nelkin, 1992; Kinney, 1991; Nash & Sutherland, 1991), studies of groups of animal rights activists (Galvin & Herzog, 1992a; Herzog, 1993; Jagger, 1992; Jamison & Lunch, 1992; Palmer & Forsyth, 1992; Plous, 1991; Richards & Krannich, 1991; Sperling, 1988), and investigations of college student's attitudes about animal rights, which occasionally involves comparisons with animal rights activists (Gallup & Beckstead, 1988; Galvin & Herzog, 1992a; Galvin & Herzog, 1992b; Herzog, Betchart, & Pittman, 1991).


3 Although widely used to understand women's greater support of animal rights, this explanation has another problem in addition to its lack of adequate testing. Questions have been raised about its basic assumption - that variations in men and women's socialization produce essential gender differences in individual attitudes and behaviors. Voluminous research evaluating this assumption fails to uncover many differences between men and women in personality and individual traits and especially fails to support Gilligan's (1982) theory, the backbone of this explanation (Epstein, 1988, chap. 4; Tavris, 1992, chap. 2).


4 As Ballard-Reisch and Elton (1992) show, eleven of the twenty items that are the BSRI's measure of femininity fail to load on the feminine factor defined by nine items emphasizing care for others. When scores from these eleven items are merged with scores from the nine "care" items to form the feminine subscale of the BSRI (the standard procedure used by Herzog and his colleagues), one can hardly argue that the overall feminine subscale represents "concern for the care of others". Spence (1993) and Hunt (1993) call attention to an additional but similar problem with the BSRI feminine subscale as a measure of caring for others. Both contend that because this subscale contains many items that describe undesirable traits, it may be at least as much a measure of willingness to ascribe such traits to oneself as it is an index of caring. Bem (1979) later developed a short form of the BSRI which eliminated all negative traits, but it is the original long form that Herzog et al. use.


5 The environmental module apparently was not given to 27 of the 1057 respondents queried about all three relational role orientation items, since these 27 had a system-missing (blank) value on each of the seven items in this module. Another 132 respondents were eliminated from analyses because of "can't choose" or "no answer" responses to at least one of these seven items. Unusable responses on any of other attitudinal/behavioral variables (the three indices of relational role orientation, a measure of conservative political attitudes and an item on church attendance) excluded another 72 respondents, while missing values on any of the remaining social-demographic variables resulted in the final set of eliminations.


6 We considered using another item - whether people consumed meat - as third measure of animal rights support. But, its low although significant correlation (p [less than or equal to] .001) with the animal rights measures (.20 with AMRIGHTS, .14 with AMTESTS), as well as our concern that most who do not consume meat reject it for health or religious reasons rather than out of respect for animals, argued against this strategy.


7 Only one of the three correlations between pairs of these variables reached statistical significance in the entire sample: .13 for OTHERHELP and OTHERFIRST (p [less than or equal to] .001, two-tailed test).


8 The measures of attitudes toward science and the environment result from principal components analyses (varimax rotation) of four and eighteen items respectively available in the 1993 General Social Survey. Analyses on all the environmental questions produced a number of environmental concern factors. Using alpha coefficients (many factors had unacceptably low ones) and consistency of factors for women and men as criteria, we choose the environmental attitudes scale we describe in the text. Analyses of the four items on attitudes toward science also yielded unscalable factors, so we include in our analysis the two items with the highest loading on each of the two factors from this analysis. Finally, we omit two additional GSS behavioral questions on frequency of hunting and fishing, and membership in environmental groups because neither was significantly correlated with the two animal rights measures (within the entire sample or separately among men and women).


9 We were able to assess two additional items available in this survey as measures of relational role orientation: whether we are "spending too much, too little or about the right amount on social security?" and "on health?". While the items may mix concern for self with concern for others (the reply "too little" may exhibit a concern for financing one's own social security and health needs as well as for financing these needs for others), result of previous analyses using these items were similar to those presented in this paper. Although both items had a bivariate relationship with gender and each measure of animal rights support, controls for these items failed to reduce appreciably women's greater support for animal rights. After controls, preference for greater spending on social security differentiated women opposed to medical testing of animals from those not opposed, as did OTHERFIRST and OTHERHELP in this paper. The only difference from the present analysis was that willingness to spend more on social security distinguished men who thought animals have moral rights from those who did not, while none of the measures in this paper did so.




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