Breastfeeding Medicine

Physicians blogging about breastfeeding

What does feminism have to do with breastfeeding?

with 61 comments

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.

Written by astuebe

June 12, 2010 at 12:30 pm

61 Responses

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  1. Yes, yes! Oh, wow, I can’t wait to read this on a computer and not my phone!


    June 12, 2010 at 1:21 pm

  2. […] the social context that mothers have to work within as they try to breastfeeding their babies. This post from the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine does a great job addressing this issue. Here is a taste: […]

  3. […] Breastfeeding Medicine wrote a post about breastfeeding and feminism. This is an important topic; one that should be addressed because it has become yet one more reason to pit one group of women against another. […]

  4. Thank you for this post. The relationship between feminism and breastfeeding has always been interesting to me – and in some respects, the relationship between feminism and motherhood (so many earlier feminist writers viewed motherhood as demeaning and constraining, rather than viewing our culture’s views of motherhood as demeaning and restraining).


    June 12, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    • Jorie, that’s a great comment. Well said!


      June 14, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    • Actually, women’s liberation supported mothers by providing child care at conferences and promoted parent-controlled day care (instead of for-profit day care). It was corporate co-optation of feminist ideas that fit in with the corporate worldview that separated feminism from mothers’ rights. See, for example, Jane Alpert’s “Mother Right,” c. 1974, later published in “Ms.” magazine:

      Otherwise, I agree with most of this piece, although I would add that parental (fathers as well as mothers) rights to flextime and child care need to be emphasized as a right, not just a choice.


      June 17, 2010 at 1:19 pm

      • I agree with Sonia. It wasn’t motherhood that feminists in general disagreed with, it’s forced motherhood, or motherhood being the only or default option for women, there’s a difference! Why should feminism require us to reject being women, and this is one of the awesome things that women can do: GROW PEOPLE! It’s so cool!


        March 12, 2012 at 3:29 pm

  5. “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?” Thank you for asking this question as well. Too often feminist arguments about infant care and feeding are, like the Swedish model, premised entirely on the ultimate desirability of the mother’s return to full-time paid employment within a year of her child’s birth, and ultimately devalues the important work of caring for the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society, as well as reducing women’s options.


    June 12, 2010 at 3:18 pm

  6. It has always struck me that feminists failed women by buying into the modern industrialist male model of economics instead of campaigning for systemic change that would make the workplace not only more compatible with women pursuing careers in addition to mothering, but would making it possible for fathers to be more involved with their families as well.

    In small family owned businesses mothers and fathers have worked together throughout history, and children have frequently been present as well. I spent much of my first three years in my father’s gas station. My “play pen” was frequently a stack of tires. Today, OSHA or some other government agency would doubtless complain, but it not only spared my father from hiring someone else to main the service station office, but made me a real part of my parents’ lives. When my sister was born my mom went into part time at the station, part-time doing the books at home mode. I think two of us there was just deemed a bit too much. However, later in life my parents were again side by side day after day operating a dairy farm, and we were involved with the operation as well. I realize not all occupations allow for this, and larger businesses have a difficult time accommodating children. However, a la “9-5” or “Baby Boom” we could provide on site day care, job sharing, flex scheduling, etc. to make it easier for parents to actually combine parenting with careers more easily. We could also make sure that the minimum wage is actually a living wage so that when there are two parents involved that a mother who wishes to stay at home can actually afford to do so.

    It seems to me that the feminists of the mid twentieth century were so eager to “compete toe to toy with the boys” that they denigrated women who wanted to spend their time mothering. Many of them chose not to be mothers and put down the women who chose that path. If instead of seeing it as an issue of being equal with men they had seen femininity as a unique identity (not less than man, but different) and sought to create a society where both men’s and women’s gifts were fully appreciated and recognized things might be different now.

    As it is we are actually more oppressed in some ways because men have grown up believing that they were entitled to live with the income that could be generated by two incomes and that their wives could somehow juggle all of the baby stuff in addition to holding down a forty hour a week job. Many women do that, but it can be not only at a high cost to them, but at a high cost to their children as well. In addition, employers and the government see a living wage for one income to be a far less important priority since the assumption is that the second parent can earn an income as well. A failure to receive the number of months of breast milk recommended by WHO is only the first of many costs to children and their families.

    I support moms who continue to breastfeed their children after returning to work, but I know at what cost they are doing so. I also know that the cost is not only time and energy on their part. I have yet to speak with one breastfeeding mom who has gone back to work in the first year of her baby’s life who wouldn’t have preferred to have waited until later. There may certainly be some highly motivated career women who can’t wait to get away from their baby and back to the office, but most of the working moms I now are doing so because they simply can’t afford to do anything else. My daughter managed to negotiate her full-time job into a part-time position from home. Every working mom she knows has told her how jealous they are of the deal she worked out. Yet she’s netting as much money as she would be if she had continued at her 40 hour position and paid for day care, and she gets to stay home with her baby.

    I also agree that it’s time that the work of women in the home was valued by society in general. It has never made sense to me that if I went and cleaned my neighbor’s house and she cleaned mine we could in essence swap money on paper and each earn SS benefits, but if we stayed home and cleaned our own we weren’t eligible. Or if I took care of her kids and she took care of money and we each claimed we paid money for the deal we could each claim SS credits. Somehow we are contributing to the gross national product in that scenario, but if we stay home, raise our own children, and manage to live frugally we are not. Only when we participate in the big consumer project are we helping the economy, supposedly. Perhaps some day we’ll realize what our present economic theory is doing not only to our environment, but to our families as well.


    June 12, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    • From a second-wave feminist: We DID fight for systemic change, we DID want drastic change in the economic and social and gender relationships of society. But what got accepted into the culture were the parts of feminism that fit into the corporate worldview. What we failed to see was the right-wing backlash — specifically against women’s rights in anti-ERA organizing and the antiabortion movement, but also the Reagan revolution, which was the start of rolling back all the benefits we’d gotten from the 1930s-1950s.

      What we really didn’t overcome was the gender regime that says “mothers” are the best for staying home and raising children while “fathers” are best at going out to work and earning the money. I was extremely lucky to have a husband who wasn’t identified with his job, who was willing to be a full-time parent (for five years) when I had the opportunity to become heavily involved with my job. Our daughter grew up seeing BOTH her parents as emotional and caring people as well as well as people who went off to work. Yes, we were privileged to be working for companies that let us bring our child to work if we needed to, and let either of us be at home when she was sick. But that situation shouldn’t be a privilege — it should be available to everyone.


      June 17, 2010 at 1:33 pm

      • Thank you so much for your viewpoint! I am a 27 year old feminist and have argued repeatedly with folks over the years who blame the fems in the 70s for their “failures.” I can never seem to get them to see that you can fight for what you want and not have 100% of it accepted by society as a whole. America definitely picked and chose what it wanted to accept and reject. Thanks again for giving me some eloquent words to add to my discussions!


        October 8, 2010 at 11:36 am

    • Liz, you aren’t getting feminism.

      Also, fyi… for some of us, the idea of being stuck at home is (literally) a death sentence. You’re definitely not speaking for everyone.

      chatte noire

      May 24, 2013 at 1:15 am

  7. Hear, hear! Thank you. We need breastfeeding mothers involved in political organizations. It is absolutely feminist to frame breastfeeding as a human right. I am eager to listen to the piece on NPR.


    June 12, 2010 at 9:53 pm

  8. The previous two comments hit the nail right on the head! I’m afraid that I won’t be as eloquent.
    As a new mom, I find myself wondering where the women’s movement has gotten us. It seems to me that it served to elevate the role and value of women in the workplace and downgrade the value of women who stay at home and work in raising their families, which is just as much of a job (if not more) than is working outside the home.

    Before the women’s movement, I would probably have stayed home with my baby and had this one, challenging job. Instead, I now work full time, AND continue to have the job of taking care of my daughter, only now, people don’t see this as a real job. In essence, I do more, but am seen as contributing less.

    I also think that if we want to talk about family values as politicians are want to do often, then we need to talk about providing parents (both men and women-the gender of the person who does this doesn’t matter) with the opportunity to stay home and raise their children.


    June 13, 2010 at 2:38 am

    • As an older feminist, I want to know why your baby’s father isn’t doing his fair share of the child care. If you are both working, why isn’t he doing half the child care — not to mention the house work, cooking, etc.?

      I can’t resist a little history: before the women’s movement, women were expected to stay home with their children, but their work wasn’t more valued and certainly wasn’t considered as valuable as a job. Middle-class fathers felt forced to stay in jobs they didn’t like because they were the only source of income for their families. And in poor or lower-income families, mothers still had to work, but their wages were low, and they didn’t have the same access to jobs they have now: help-wanted ads were segregated, “male” and “female.” Don’t romanticize the past. Women’s liberation and feminism started because women had few rights and the gender regime was heavily segregated.


      June 17, 2010 at 1:41 pm

      • I have to agree. It reminds me when older people in my family reminisce about how it used to be “safer” and how good the “old days” were & always say, “Sure…if you were white man that probably was an AWESOME time to live in”.

        My gramma went to work in WW2 & stayed working through retirement. I thank her & women like her every day who put up with harassment & everything else that I can choose to either work or stay home (income permitting) and not feel I HAVE to do either. I have done both as a mother & although neither is easy (and what is easier likely depends on who you ask, as it depends on what you like)…I also have a husband that wouldn’t dream of tossing clothing on the floor or leaving a plate in the living room. A huge step apart from how my father was & what I remember of men as I grew up. Even now that I am home, he doesn’t expect me to be HIS maid, he expects me to care for the children & I do. We cook together or take turns, we share the evening duties when he can be home. In our house, when my husband “clocks out” of work, so do I & then we change over into family mode & we work as a team. I cant’ see any of this as being possible without someone else starting to pave that road & I am thankful to be able to keep it going. My husband didn’t start out quite this enlightened…I have had 15 yrs of working with him to get here….but we go there. 🙂 MORE importantly though – we have all boys & THEY will hopefully be already in that mode before they move on to having their own families. My FAVORITE quote is: “We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons… but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters. ” Gloria Steinem


        December 9, 2010 at 6:15 am

  9. I’m often curious how so little correlation gets drawn between breastfeeding and feminism. As something that only women can do, I always imagine that it makes more sense for feminists to argue strongly for breastfeeding as to argue against it demeans our very nature. It is what we were built for, so is telling a woman that breastfeeding is something that holds us back not, in a round about way, telling us that the very core of what makes us female is, in fact, a fault? There is, of course, the argument that our biology is a part of us, but should not define us, but should that go so far as to mean that we should ignore that biology for the sake of pursuit of equality with men? And, for that matter, is it really equality if we’re giving up what makes us female to fit into a world designed around men?


    June 13, 2010 at 8:25 am

  10. Good points, and the framing of breastfeeding as a reproductive right and not merely a “choice” is long overdue in the larger social conversations (where I see a lot of the in-fighting spoken of here).

    Yet I tend to see these articles quite light on talking about children and their care, as well as those at-home (nonpaid) carers. They almost always are talking about working mothers, getting mothers to work if they want to, helping them work, getting them childcare, getting the playing ground more “even” for women to earn.

    While these are important goals and I support access, I believe our society vastly undervalues those who stay home and also takes for granted we need warehouses (child care and later school) for our children. I think we also need to support the reproductive right to spend time with our children when they are young. That is not supported in any meaningful way (in other words, it is the children themselves and their needs who are rarely discussed) and, as this article alludes to, caring for one’s own children is vastly out of reach for poor and working class famlies (and disproportionally affects women and children of color).

    Until we stop measuring progress primarily by dollars and cents, we will be missing out on creating meaningfulwell-being and will continue to “borrow it from future generations.”


    June 13, 2010 at 1:01 pm

  11. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Arwyn, Kelly Hogaboom. Kelly Hogaboom said: Reproductive rights vs. "choice" ||Need more discussion of kids' rights. But this article is an OK start. via @fjernsyn […]

  12. […] Medicine has a piece on what feminism has to do with breastfeeding, arguing that “the ultimate link between breastfeeding and feminism is that in a truly […]

  13. Great, I love this post. More please!


    June 13, 2010 at 3:34 pm

  14. I’ll throw out a different viewpoint, just because I think all discussions need differing points of view brought to the table. The above article takes an interesting POV but has some holes in my opinion.

    “demand high-quality, affordable child care, flexible work, and paid maternity leave…” This idea seems say that a company should have the full burden of risk to start a business – and most businesses fail – and, in addition, allow employees to work whenever they feel like and leave for extended periods of time. How is this fair to the small business with a few people, where losing an employee for maternity leave could mean losing the whole business. This is often not considered in the discussions of ‘fair’. There is often a notion, which I think is reflected in the quoted statement, that businesses are started simply to serve the one’s own interests and ignores the person who had the vision, took the risk, and maybe put their life savings on the line. It just feels like a very selfish line of thinking.

    I am a strong supporter of equal rights but have a hard time when equal rights and opportunities start getting confused with equal outcomes. You have a right to do action A and, therefore, I should have a right to enforce consequence B (good or bad) on you (or on my interactions with you). Trying to live where you can do action A and your outcome cannot change(and my ability to enforce a consequence is eliminated) is asking to have your cake and eat it too. And, in the end, really calls the whole concept of ‘fair’ into question.


    June 13, 2010 at 7:02 pm

    • I have a hearing impairment. I have been employed by small businesses before who turn out to not be able to ‘accommodate’ my access needs. They argue that they are a small business, and that it would be too expensive for them. I always argue that if I was going to set up a small business, I would have to make sure it was deaf accessible, otherwise I wouldn’t have a business. Access would be something I would factor into my business model, and if it turned out that, after all my calculating, I couldn’t afford to make it accessible, I would just have to wait until I gathered more money, or give up. Why should employers who do not have disabilities have the privilege of requiring less start-up money?

      I think there is a similar issue with women who are pregnant or breastfeeding or have childcare needs. There tends to be this assumption that people who start up small business are never prengant, breastfeeding or requiring childcare. The assumption is that small business are run by men or women who don’t and won’t have children, and that the ideal employees are other men or women who don’t and won’t have children. Anybody else could ruin the business just by getting pregnant.

      In reality, why should men have the privilege of starting businesses without factoring in things like maternity leave, breastfeeding access and childcare when a lot of women do not have this privilege? Why should they be able to start a business with less start up money than a woman with a baby?

      As for putting your life savings on the line, an able bodied person’s life savings are worth more than a disabled person’s, because of the extra expense of making everything accessible. A man’s life savings are worth more than a woman’s who might have a baby, because of the extra expense of prengnacy, childcare and breastfeeding. This is clearly not equal. Making equal rights mandatory in the workplace is a way of addressing this inequality.


      June 14, 2010 at 5:50 am

      • If you were to set up a small business would you make sure that all material was available in each of the 100’s of languages in the world as well so as to avoid not accommodating anybody? Of course not. The whole notion of accommodating everyone is based on the false premise that you can accommodate everybody; it is just where we draw the line the differs from person to person. I support your right to make your decision about when to start a business, but leave the other private business to themselves.

        I agree that there is an assumption that if you are a start-up you don’t have kids and won’t be pregnant. Can it be done, sure, but more often than not a start-up requires you to pour everything you have into it. It is your relationship. Thinking that you can run a start-up and have a family will be doing a large disservice to one or the other or both. Yes, it can be done, but there is a huge cost of failure.

        Women have the same privilege as men in terms of factoring other care, like maternity leave. They must for their employees, by law, and are in control of their own body as much as men are. No difference.

        I guess at the end of the day we just have a basic disagreement on what is a right. I think that the RIGHT is the opportunity, and needs to be protected for all men, women, and those who blur the line. I think the RESULT being equal does not belong anywhere near the law books.

        If you and I shake some dice to see who gets the highest score and you get 2 6’s and I choose to only roll one die and get a 3, you win. That’s choice and chance. We both had the right to shake the dice, and equal opportunity to win, one shake was higher than the other, probably due to my choice to only roll one die. Life’s results will be unequal for people – just make sure the right to try is there.


        June 16, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    • I don’t think it’s fair to demand that businesses provide these things via law, but I do think that one of the glories of a capitalist society is that we get to vote with our money. If a business chooses to fire women upon finding out they’re expecting (a technically illegal, but all too often done anyways action), it is my choice not to support them.

      Similarly, it is my choice to work in a child friendly environment, even if I have to start the business, and to buy from companies that I know offer the same to their employees. It is the simplest way I know to support, or not, various business practices. If I hate what you do, I’ll take my money to your competitors and encourage the like minded to do the same.


      June 20, 2010 at 11:56 am

      • Dave,

        ‘If you were to set up a small business would you make sure that all material was available in each of the 100′s of languages in the world as well so as to avoid not accommodating anybody?’

        No, I wouldn’t. I would accommodate breastfeeding women and people with disablities though. Probably because I’m a disabled woman. I expect everyone draws the line according to their own needs.

        This is a problem with the people who draw the deciding line legally are mostly (in the UK at least) white middle class able-bodied men.

        You say opportunity should be a right, but you also admit that breastfeeding women and mothers in general do not have the same opportunities in business as men do. So do you think opportunities should just be for men and women who are not pregnant/breastfeeding/mothering?


        June 21, 2010 at 11:05 am

    • I think you aren’t realizing that small business gets around almost all requirements anyway – even the 6 week maternity leave. They hold jobs currently by CHOICE not requirement. They aren’t even required to comply with FMLA if they have less than 50 employees….so if YOUR child were to become critically ill & you needed FMLA time, your company does NOT have to hold your position if YOU work for a small business.

      In other countries, maternity leave is generally a government benefit, not an employer benefit and even in the US if companies were to provide AFLAC for their employees, they could offer covered maternity leave if they desired to do so. My husband owns a small business we started 5 years ago & I have worked for small businesses most of the 20 yrs I have worked. I do understand how fragile a small business can be, but I also think that we can’t let that be what prevents us from moving forward with family friendly policies. My husbands business is VERY small (less than 10 employees) and we have always been able to maintain a very family friendly flexible environment & in return our employees bend over backward when needed to make ti work for the company as well. Sure we put our necks out to start the business, but to some degree so did our employees, taking on positions with a start up company that initially could not offer any benefits, etc. You cannot build a successful company alone, you need good employees & if you have good employees & are wise, you WILL bend over backward to keep them happy as they are what makes your business flourish.


      December 9, 2010 at 6:24 am

  15. […] 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 […] […]

  16. […] a feminist issue Jump to Comments The latest article on Breastfeeding Medicine confirms it: breastfeeding is a feminist issue. Breastfeeding advocacy is a feminist concern (although breastfeeding advocates are quite often not […]

  17. […] Post on Feminism and Breastfeeding Courtesy of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine…read it here. // Posted by Meredith on June 14th, 2010 | Category: News Brief, […]

  18. Three of the women that I know who made the choice not to breastfeed did not have to go back to work. They were full time mothers who decided that breastfeeding was, “gross” or “time consuming.” Breastfeeding was, “too hard.”

    Another mother that I know did go back to work but never tried breastfeeding because she said she, “isn’t a cow!”

    This is a great article but it does not address the issue of women who cannot seem to get the message that there are risks to formula feeding and breastfeeding is normal. Feminist or not the health benefits have to be put front and center.


    June 14, 2010 at 3:39 pm

  19. I think this ties in well to the idea that reproductive rights seem to begin and end with contraception and abortion with regards to the Feminist Movement. Too much of Feminist energy is directed at preventing pregnancy in the name of “Reproductive Choice”, that other aspects of reproduction such as access to choices in birth provider and place, the abhorrent c-section rate, lactation issues, and childcare are not even an afterthought because the role of mother is not valued.

    It really shows the shortsighted view of people that demean women with children. Without a new generation of children there would be no new workers and nobody to care for them when they are no longer able to do so for themselves. By not being willing to make an investment today in our children, they rob themselves of a healthy future workforce. By encouraging mothers to practice the most healthy habits for themselves and their families, they make the investment in creating a more healthy (and less costly) society, which benefits everyone.

    The lack of value placed on the role of mother and its traditional role is a major factor in why I don’t identify as a Feminist. The Feminist Movement seems to devalue the very things that distinguish us from males in a race to show everyone that a woman can be a better man than a man while blaming men for the things that make us different. While I think it would be great to channel the energy of the Feminist Movement into reproductive right beyond contraception, I don’t see organizations like NOW embracing a comprehensive family-friendly platform. I’d much rather see an organization with a family-friendly agenda championing the cause of comprehensive reproductive rights, but unfortunately, most of them are anti-abortion/anti-contraception and would not be able to bridge the gap between the pro-family and hardcore Feminists.


    June 14, 2010 at 4:12 pm

  20. From my favorite author:

    “Whenever women have insisted on absolute equality with men, they have invariably wound up with the dirty end of the stick. What they are and what they can do makes them superior to men, and their proper tactic is to demand special privileges, all the traffic will bear. They should never settle merely for equality. For women, “equality” is a disaster.”
    — Robert A. Heinlein

    That about sums it up to me!

    Liane Varnes

    June 14, 2010 at 7:20 pm

  21. WOW this is a fantastic article!! And the comments are all very engaging too! I have always considered myself a feminist – I went to Smith College, I have a PhD in Genetic and I played the corporate game with all of the “men” and excelled. I was also very fortunate to have some strong female influencers in my life who were feminists and great mothers and breastfeeding supporters. My life has taken a radical turn since having my son 4.5 years ago. I went back to the corporate world when he was 4 months old and stayed there until he was 15 months old. Then I quit, and started up my own business designed to support breastfeeding moms. I now have a very successful business, I breastfed my son for nearly 4 year and I couldn’t be any happier being my own boss and juggling the demands of self-employment and family. This article has inspired me to do more!!

    Judy @MommyNews Blog

    June 15, 2010 at 8:28 am

  22. The PDA will forever label breastfeeding as a choice. It would be a hypocrisy for them to consider the welfare of the child, being that women are legally given the choice to have the child in the first place. Which in my view, is a complete depletion of child welfare in today’s society. Women preach reproductive rights, this and that…but only … See Moreafter the child is born are we demanding respect for the child’s life. By keeping choice before birth, it only follows logic that the PDA would continue pinning “choice” after the child is born.


    June 15, 2010 at 8:37 am

  23. […] >>What does feminism have to do with breastfeeding? […]

  24. Shouldn’t we as women celebrate our body’s differences. We grow a human being, we give birth, we feed our babies all with out bodies. This is the wonder of women. Why then, is it a sign of weakness when we need maternity leave to recover from delivery, adapt to having a new being in our life and giving that new being the best start possible by breastfeeding as long as possible. I believe in equality in the work place with pay and time off. Maybe we should look at paternity leave also so a family can start with a great foundation. Women and men are different and instead of pushing to be totally equal, why can’t we empower women to use their very special gifts?

    Kathy McCormick

    June 16, 2010 at 5:52 am

  25. […] What does feminism have to do with breastfeeding? […]

  26. It’s too late at night for me to give coherent thoughts now, but just want to say…..

    EXCELLENT article!


    June 21, 2010 at 12:39 am

  27. […] Medicine has a piece on what feminism has to do with breastfeeding, arguing that “the ultimate link between breastfeeding and feminism is that in a truly […]

  28. I agree breastfeeding should be framed as a reproductive right vs a choice — however the rights-based arguments lead to a provocative question – do babies have the right to be breastfed? Does this framework then pit women against babies?


    July 11, 2010 at 11:01 am

  29. […] What does feminism have to do with breastfeeding? posted at Breastfeeding Medicine. […]

  30. […] What does feminism have to do with breastfeeding? at Breastfeeding Medicine. Breastfeeding: a “choice” (which we can then skewer ALL women with, no matter what they choose) or a reproductive right? […]

  31. So many great points in this article. You do feel conflicted in that you want to breastfeed your child exclusively, but sometimes there’s a supply issue that takes time to overcome and not all workplaces are pump-friendly.


    July 31, 2010 at 12:38 am

  32. […] שיח שחשוב לא לוותר עליו בעיניי הוא על הקשר בין פמיניזם והנקה. לא בהכרח מה […]

  33. […] really interesting editorial by the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine re the log rolling ads here:…breastfeeding/ Log rolling ad […]

  34. Yes, breastfeeding is a reproductive right, as is paid maternity leave.

    But for heaven’s sake, let it be a choice at the same time! Don’t make it a duty. There are women who hate breastfeeding, who feel it is making them a slave of their baby, alienating their body. This article and the comments all seem to make a difference between “good (breastfeeding) mothers” and “bad mothers” (those who willingly don’t breastfeed). Mothers who prefer to stop breastfeeding after a short time and give the baby a bottle, can be just as good, loving and caring mothers as those “heroines” who breastfeed for 1-2-4 years… After all, those babyfood products are not all that bad!

    Anne-Marie Rey

    October 2, 2010 at 6:36 am

  35. So you don’t want to label breastfeeding a choice, but you want to maintain that having the child in the first place is a choice. Why should the law recognize one as a right and the other as a choice. Once the child is wanted then it as a right to be breastfed, but if the child is unwanted it can be aborted without any thought. I don’t think society at large will respect breastfeeding mothers until it also respects the life and health of children from conception on through adulthood.


    August 16, 2011 at 7:12 am

  36. […] spoločnosť nie je veľmi priaznivo naklonená čerstvým matkám. Natrafila som na článok Čo má feminizmus do činenia s kojením, kde k podobnému záveru autorka dospela mierne inou cestou. Vyberám (voľný preklad; tučné […]

  37. Very nice post. I certainly appreciate this website. Continue the good work!

    breast feeding

    March 17, 2012 at 12:30 am

  38. For more discussion on this topic, from a world-wide perspective, read Gabrielle Palmer’s book The Politics of Breastfeeding, available from It’s a rollicking read and meticulously referenced as well 🙂

    rachel O'Leary

    April 8, 2012 at 5:50 pm

  39. […] help us achieve our goals rather than to profit a multibillion-dollar industry. Breastfeeding is a feminist issue: it is shaped by the distribution of women’s access to social, cultural and economic […]

  40. […] pieces exploring the social and personal dynamics among breastfeeding, feminism, and class: “What does feminism have to do with breastfeeding?” from the Breastfeeding Medicine […]

  41. […] Feminist scholars have articulating this point eloquently, arguing that breastfeeding is not a “ch…. If the conditions that allow breastfeeding make our children smarter and healthier, then we’d best stop fighting about how much breastfeeding matters and focus on fighting for the policies and programs that enable all families to optimize the health of their children. […]

  42. […] their full potential, we need to do more than simply say that women should choose breastfeeding. A choice that is not also a right is not really a choice — it’s a privilege. I #March4Nutrition because it is time to protect every woman’s right to breastfeed, for as […]

  43. […] A. (2010). What does feminism have to do with breastfeeding. Breastfeeding Medicine, Retrieved on March 1, […]

  44. […] Interestingly enough, the “liberal feminists” supporting women’s equality in the work place are seemingly at odds with breastfeeding. After all, a traditional breastfeeding relationship requires mom to be available to her baby and is much easier when a woman is able to take extended time off from work.  Read more thoughts  about this here or here. […]

  45. […] She worked her way through the ranks at the clinic: volunteer to clerk to counselor to educator. From here, she moved on to working as a WIC program director. At this time, her focus shifted from a women’s health perspective to maternal child health; especially after reading Gabrielle Palmer’s The Politics of Breastfeeding: When Breasts are Bad for Business.  Palmer’s book helped her to realize that breastfeeding is a feminist issue. […]

  46. […] associations, is extremely threatening to many men and women. Images of breastfeeding and discussion of breastfeeding rights are roundly mocked by all quarters including, sadly, many prominent feminists (such as Erica […]

  47. […] Breastfeeding Medicine blog: […]

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