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January 2005
Vegetarian Advocate: Wanted: A Gloria Steinem for the Vegetarian Movement
By Jack Rosenberger

Wanted: a vegetarian goddess to enlighten America about the health benefits of a meat-free lifestyle. Ideal candidate must possess a desire to change the world, raw ambition, a sense of humor, a healthy ego, stellar communication and leadership skills, and an ability to perform in the public spotlight. No carnivores need apply.

It was an unpleasant and unusually dark night in Manhattan, with a strong wind blowing around discarded newspapers and other garbage. The threat of rain was imminent. After a late night of laboring in my midtown Manhattan office, I was walking up Fifth Avenue, headed for Grand Central Terminal. Some people were going home. Others were heading for work, night school, a friend’s birthday party, an art gallery, a first date, or a last one.

As I strode up the east side of Fifth Avenue, I encountered a man and a woman huddled together and talking. A young boy, bundled up in his winter clothes, was standing with them and kicking an empty coffee cup.

“Don’t worry about it,” the woman declared in a slightly loud voice. “Things can’t get worse.”

I had no idea what the pair were discussing, but my immediate reaction was to consider the statement’s validity: what type of situation couldn’t possibly get any worse? It was easy to imagine, for instance, President Bush’s second term in office being worse than the first—a larger federal deficit, protracted assaults on the environment, an escalating war in Iraq. Then I thought about vegetarianism: Are things getting better, worse or staying the same?

Before I tried to answer the question, I considered the existence of vegetarianism: it had begun in the West around 550 to 500 BC and in the East around 600 to 500 BC. In short, vegetarianism had existed for about 2,500 years. Yet, the percentage of the world’s population who is vegetarian is frightfully small. True, vegetarianism in the West has made exceptional advances during the last several decades, with an increase in the availability of vegetarian food in supermarkets and vegetarian or vegetarian-friendly restaurants, but its slice of the pie chart remains minute. “Hmm,” I said to myself, “I hope the next 2,500 years are better than the last.”

A Vegetarian Savior
As I boarded my train in Grand Central I thought about how to change public attitudes toward meat consumption. Obviously we can’t look to the federal government for leadership. It seemed to me that what the vegetarian movement needs is a female leader, someone who can do for vegetarianism what Gloria Steinem has done for women’s rights.

Indeed, one of the chief problems with vegetarianism in America is it lacks a person that the public can identify the cause with—a charismatic, visible leader.

While I don’t think the role of vegetarian leader should be restricted to a woman, as opposed to a man, a woman possesses several inherent advantages. The people most likely to embrace a meatless diet are female and they are probably more receptive to hearing about vegetarianism from a fellow woman. Also, when it comes to families, women are still responsible for the majority of the food shopping and meal preparation. Lastly, carnivores feel threatened by vegetarianism and, I believe, many of them may feel more comfortable with a woman, not a man, advocating a meatless diet.

Of course, I might be wrong on all or most counts.

While Gloria Steinem has been a powerful leader, public symbol, and spokesperson for the women’s movement, an advocate like her is not the only type of public figure who could increase vegetarianism’s stature. Julia Childs exerted a tremendous influence on cooking in America, and a vegetarian cook with a similar combination of ambition, determination, and personality could also drastically affect how Americans eat. Also, Oprah Winfrey is a cultural and social force in the U.S. A vegetarian woman, using her own TV or radio show as a platform for dietary change, could also exert a marked influence.

Regardless of what type of leader—social justice advocate, celebrity cook, or TV or radio talk-show host—comes forward, she must present a simple and persuasive message that the public can buy into. The single strongest message, I believe, is that a meatless diet is the healthiest diet in the world. While the arguments about animal cruelty, compassion, and environmentalism are strong ones, the public will respond best to a message about personal health and well-being.

In addition to sharing a message that can be summarized in a single, short sentence and appealing to people’s direct interests, the vegetarian savior should also create a public advocacy organization, which would support her work, build public approval, and produce a lasting legacy after her death.

Need some inspiration? Remember the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate; to have it make some difference that you have lived, and lived well.”



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