What does feminism have to do with breastfeeding?
At first blush, most people would say, “Nothing at all.” After all, the conventional wisdom is that breastfeeding is a maternal duty that forces women to eschew their career aspirations to fulfill some ideal of motherhood, while feminism is about liberating women from exactly those constraints. Case closed. Or is it?
I’ve had to good fortune to think a lot about breastfeeding and feminism in the past few weeks, in preparation for a fascinating discussion on NPR’s The State of Things. Paige Hall Smith, Director of Center for Women’s Health and Wellness at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, set up the discussion beautifully: for the most part, “Feminist advocacy doesn’t consider breastfeeding, and breastfeeding advocacy doesn’t consider the context of women’s lives.”
The result is that women end up fighting among themselves about the choices our society forces us to make — motherhood or career? Breast or bottle? — instead of uniting to address the societal structures that prevent women from realizing their full potential.
During the broadcast, host Frank Stasio played the controversial “Log-rolling” ad council spot about the risks of formula feeding. The ad shows pregnant women in a log rolling contest with the subtitle, “You wouldn’t take risks before your baby’s born. Why start after? Breastfeed exclusively for 6 months.”
The implication? Women who don’t breastfeed are “bad mothers.” This paradigm pits feminists against breastfeeding advocates, and everyone loses. Feminists abhor cultural norms use guilt and coercion to label a woman’s behavior as “good” or “bad.” And breastfeeding advocates who focus on individual mothers, rather than systemic barriers, leave many women “booby trapped” between what they are told they should do and what is possible in the context of their lives. A choice that is not also a right is not really a choice — it’s a privilege.
Hall Smith and Miriam Labbok, Director of the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute, have been bringing together feminist scholars and breastfeeding advocates for an annual Breastfeeding and Feminism Symposium since 2005. In the Proceedings of the 2007 symposium, they write:
The annual Breastfeeding and Feminism Symposia aim to reposition breastfeeding as valued part of women’s (re)productive lives and rights. The symposia are designed to raise the profile of breastfeeding within the women’s advocacy and feminist studies’ communities, and to increase recognition among breastfeeding supporters that breastfeeding promotion could receive more socio-political support by partnering with those concerned with women’s reproductive health, rights and justice, women’s economic advancement, and the elimination of social, economic and health inequities.
Central to the symposium is the notion that breastfeeding is not a “choice.” Breastfeeding is a reproductive right. This is a simple, but remarkably radical, concept. Here’s why: When we frame infant feeding as a choice made by an individual women, we place the entire responsibility for carrying out that choice on the individual woman. Moreover, as Bernice Hausman writes in her essay, “Women’s liberation and the rhetoric of ‘choice’ in infant feeding debates,’ we position the nursing mother as making a consumer decision, rather than exercising a human right. This framework, in turn, weakens legal protections for breastfeeding families. In her analysis of “The construction of parenting protections in United States law,” Maxine Eichner writes about why courts have determined that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) does not apply to breastfeeding mothers:
Rather than consider it a “related medical condition” with respect to pregnancy, which would give it coverage under the PDA, courts deem breastfeeding to be a “choice” related to parenting and therefore to be uncovered. Constructing breastfeeding as a choice that absolves employers from any duty to accommodate it evades the question of whether such “choices,” when they contribute to welfare of children, should be supported.
The result, says Paige Hall Smith, is that women who have control over their bodies, their time, and their lives — typically highly educated, upper middle class women – can choose to breastfeed, but most mothers – hourly workers, women from families that require two incomes to survive, poor women required by law to go back to work or forfeit their federal aid — can not. The lack of response by feminists to these workplace inequities makes breastfeeding a “class-based privilege,” she says.
This essential issue of social injustice should be common ground for both breastfeeding advocates and feminists. Feminist scholar Penny Van Esterik articulates the key issues in a WABA brief, “Breastfeeding, A Feminist Issue:”
Women who wish to breasted their babies but cannot – because of inadequate support from family or health workers, constraints in the workplace, or misinformation from the infant food industry – are oppressed and exploited. Groups and individuals interested in fighting for women’s rights and human rights should take action to change this situation, and recognise breastfeeding as a woman’s right.
Women are empowered by asserting the value of both their productive and reproductive work. Women should never be forced to make a choice between mother-work and other work. Conditions supportive to successful nurturing, are conditions which reduce gender subordination generally by contradicting negative images of women and emphasising the value of women’s reproductive work.
Indeed, the ultimate link between breastfeeding and feminism is that in a truly equitable society, women would have the capacity to fulfill to pursue both their productive and reproductive work without penalty.
These issues transcend breastfeeding. Why, for example, do we pit “stay at home moms” against “working moms,” rather than demand high-quality, affordable child care, flexible work, and paid maternity leave so that each woman can pursue both market work and caring work, in the proportion she finds most fulfilling? Why do we accept that, if a woman devotes all of her time to caring for her family, she does not earn any social security benefits, whereas if she gets a paying job and sends her children to day care, she and her day care provider earn credits toward financial security in old age? And why do we enact social policies that subsidize child care and require poor mothers to enter the paid work force, rather than support poor mothers to care for their own children?
When advocates for women’s rights and advocates for breastfeeding come together, these structural issues are front and center. Organizations like Moms Rising and Best for Babes are taking on these issues, transcending the media-fueled “Mommy Wars” to create a movement for change. We have a lot of ground to cover. Let’s get to work.
Alison Stuebe, MD, MSc, is a maternal-fetal medicine physician, breastfeeding researcher, and assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
Posts on this blog reflect the opinions of individual ABM members, not the organization as a whole.