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Breastfeeding and feminism

2009 March 12
by Hannah Mueller

I just read this article called The Case Against Breastfeeding in the newsmagazine The Atlantic because a pulled quote made me think of our class immediately:

My friend sat on my couch hooked up to tubes and suctions and a giant deconstructed bra, looking like some fetish ad.  Looking nothing like Eve in her natural, feminine state.

After reading just this, I didn’t know what the article was going to be about at all.  Both of these situations seemed suspect to me:  first, if I were a mom, no, I wouldn’t want to be tethered to breastfeeding technology like this, and certainly not fetishized by it.  But I don’t think any feminists aspire to be like Eve, the sinful woman made out of man, and we in this class have constantly tried to break down the very concept of a “natural, feminine state.”

In fact, the author of the aritcle argues that the ideal of a mother and child united in nature through breastfeeding is just that, an ideal that can never be realized.  It’s been perpetuated since the 1970s in popular literature for parents through the claim that breastfeeding has many advantages for the health of the child:  its IQ, weight, immune system, etc.  But the author says that the popular literature exaggerates or has little to do with the medical literature about breastfeeding, and actually the data are murky about how much breastfeeding really affects children’s health.

The most immediate effect of the breastfeeding mania, according to the article, is that the woman yet again ends up in the home with the bulk of the parenting duties–not because her husband says she has to, but because the medical establishment tells her the baby needs her to.  “Then other, logical decisions follow: she alone fed the child, so she natually knows better how to comfort the child, so she is the better judge to pick a school for the child, and the better nurse when the child is sick…”  It seems to me that breastfeeding could be one factor to explain why women and men still don’t generally share parenting duties equally.

Going back to the quote, I think it creates a great image of a woman’s body being built into a super-cyborg-mother by the political technology of breastfeeding–ironically, all in the interest of naturalness.  The point of the article is to ask women to exchange one technology for another:  in order to be less constricted by the technologies of breastfeeding (needed to make the natural process practical in the modern world), women should resort back to the technology of formula, reputedly less natural but really no more or less harmful for babies.   In other words, let’s get away from the socially-endorsed, technologically-enhanced ‘natural’ process in favor of the ‘artificial’ formula that gives women more freedom.  The cyborg-like woman attached to the breast pump in to quote is less cyborg-like (following Haraway’s idea of the cyborg) than the woman who uses formula in order to create a more egalitarian nursing situation between parents.

3 Responses
  1. March 13, 2009

    There’s actually quite a discussion about this at this woman’s blog to which I contributed. I both didn’t breastfeed and did. And let me just say that breastfeeding is a pain in the ass. I did it for a year, while working, so I had the whole machine thing going too. I didn’t hate it, but they sell you on it with the whole “ecofeminism” mantra. And to me, that puts women in a less equal position–both in terms of childrearing, but also preventing them from participating in the workforce. It’s a contentious issue and if you want to see how contentious, go read the comments on the linked post.

  2. Roisin Foley permalink
    March 15, 2009

    This is really interesting to me because I grew up in a household where breastfeeding was talked about a lot. My mother is a La Leche League leader and takes calls from women (and sometimes men, too) who are or are about to be mothers/fathers and have questions about/are having issues with breastfeeding.

    The idea that it “puts women in a less equal position–both in terms of childrearing, but also preventing them from participating in the workforce” is sad to hear, because what my mother and the women she volunteers with have always stressed is not the need for women to conform to some eco-feminist technology of motherhood in which breastfeeding brings you back into the home/closer to nature and sticks you there, but that workplaces and public places should be made more amenable to the needs of mothers and women in general, and to the relationships and closeness of families. That is why most women who are active in La Leche and other groups care really deeply about issues like paid maternity AND paternity leave and employers providing spaces (other than bathrooms, which is kind of insulting) for women to pump during the day if they need/want to.

    It’s true that some people can be a little self-righteous about it. I don’t agree with the idea that if a woman decides not to breastfeed, or starts and then stops that she’s a bad mother or a bad woman. But to be honest, the idea that “in order to be less constricted by the technologies of breastfeeding (needed to make the natural process practical in the modern world), women should resort back to the technology of formula, reputedly less natural but really no more or less harmful for babies” makes me really uncomfortable. If a woman or couple really just doesn’t want to, fine, but the fact is that the financial relationships between pharmaceutical/formula companies and hospital/medical professionals, and the technology/culture of the workplace, makes it so that for many women (especially poor women and women of color, to which baby formula is aggressively marketed in developing nations that sometimes lack even the clean water necessary with which to make baby formula), it’s not even a choice. Instead of women having to resort “back” to the technology of formula because the “modern world” makes it to hard, the “modern world” should have to accomodate the needs of women and children.

  3. March 16, 2009

    Roisin–I agree with you about how “the modern world” should have to accommodate the needs of women and children, but it’s hard. Women have been fighting for the time and the space to breastfeed and/or pump for years. I was lucky for my second child and my office mate gave me the office a few times a day so that I could pump–she had done the same thing.

    For the first, I had to return to work after 6 weeks; we had not established breastfeeding and although I had an office to pump in, I was quite uncomfortable about it as people would knock on the door and it was in a very public area. I was the only one in the whole office with an infant, much less an infant I was trying to breastfeed, so there just wasn’t a critical mass of people trying to raise the issue. FMLA had only been passed a year before my first was born; I was lucky to be allowed 6 weeks off (half of that was unpaid).

    Yes, it’s cheaper and healthier to breastfeed and I think the marketing of formula to underprivileged and third world mothers is horrible, but I also know that workplaces are not always friendly toward allowing mothers to pump or leave to breastfeed. Some jobs only allow two 15 minute breaks and you might have to choose to pump or pee. I think too often breastfeeding is made out to sound like it’s a piece of cake–and it’s not, especially if you’re trying to both work and continue breastfeeding.

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