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Breastfeeding As An Ecofeminist Issue

After Hurricane Katrina, I read a news story about a young mother whose newborn baby died of dehydration during the days in which she had been stranded without access to clean water. Upon admittance to the hospital, the mother was asked if she needed anything, and she replied that her breasts were uncomfortable, and could she have something to dry up the milk? This story brings tears to my eyes and chills to my body. What does this say about our culture that it is actually possible for mothers to be unaware that they carry the power to completely nourish their own babies with their own bodies? As mammals, all women have the potential to be lactating women until we choose not to be. The genius of formula marketing and advertising is to get women to withhold from their offspring that which they already have and to instead purchase a replacement product of questionable quality. To me this feels like being a given a “choice” between the blood already flowing through your veins and a replacement product that marginally resembles blood.

We are mammals because as a species we nurse our young. This is a fundamental tie between the women of our time and place and the women of all other times and places, as well as between the female members of every mammal species that has ever lived. It is our root tie to the planet, to the cycles of life, and to mammal life on earth. It is precisely breastfeeding’s connection to the physical, the earthy, the material, the mundane and the body that challenges men, feminists and society.

Breastfeeding is a feminist issue and a fundamental women’s issue. It is an issue deeply embedded in a sociocultural context. Attitudes toward breastfeeding are intimately entwined with attitudes toward women, women’s bodies, and who has “ownership” of them. Patriarchy chafes at a woman having the audacity to feed her child with her own body, under her own authority, and without the need for any other. Feminism sometimes chafes at the “control” over the woman’s body exerted by the breastfeeding infant.

Part of the root core of patriarchy is a rejection of the female and of women’s bodies as abnormal or as enticing…or sinful, messy, hormonal, complicated or confusing. Authentic feminism need not be about denying biological differences between women and men, but instead about defining both as profoundly worthy and capable, and of never denying an opportunity to anyone for a sex-based reason. Feminism can be about creating a culture that values what is female as well as what is male, instead of a culture that tries to erase or hide “messy” evidence of femaleness.

However, precisely because of the patriarchal association of the female with the earthy and the physical, feminists have perhaps wanted to distance themselves from breastfeeding. This intensely embodied, biologically mandated physical experience so clearly represents a fundamental difference between men and women that it appears to bolster biological reductionism. Yet in so doing, feminism colludes with patriarchy and itself becomes a tool of the patriarchy in the repression and silencing of women and their leaky, ever-changing, endlessly cycling bodies: these bodies that change blood into food and bleed without dying and provide safe passage for new souls upon the earth. Sometimes the issue of a woman’s right not to breastfeed is framed as a feminist “choice.” This is a myth, made in the context of a society that places little value on women, children or caregiving. It is society that needs to change. Not women, and not babies.

Systemic and Structural Context

In an essay for the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine called “What does feminism have to do with breastfeeding?” maternal-fetal medicine specialist Dr. Alison Stuebe points out that for the most part, feminist advocacy ignores breastfeeding, and that most breastfeeding advocacy sidesteps the complicated contextual issues of women’s lives. Stuebe notes:

…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?…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.

Appropriately, Stuebe further notes 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 woman, we place the entire responsibility for carrying out that choice on the individual woman…. 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.

And, in considering contextual and systemic issues that impact women every day, Stuebe points out:

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?

Naomi Wolf also addresses the myth of “choice” regarding breastfeeding (specifically with regard to lack of support for breastfeeding while working outside the home) in her 2003 book, Misconceptions: “…it was unconscionable for our culture to insist that women ‘choose’ to leave their suckling babies abruptly at home in order simply to be available for paid work.” Wolf also quotes Robbie Kahn, who says, “the job market holds out an all-or-nothing prospect to new mothers: You can give your body and heart and lose much of your status, your money, your equality, and your income; or, you can keep your identity and your income—only if you abandon your baby all day long and try desperately to switch off the most powerful primal drive the human animal can feel.”

And then, considering the argument that bottle feeding “liberates” women from the tyranny of breastfeeding, Dia Michels and Naomi Baumslag provide this observation in their brilliant 1995 analysis of the politics of breastfeeding in the United States, Milk, Money, and Madness: “The liberation women need is to breastfeed free of social, medical, and employer constraints [emphasis mine]. Instead, they have been presented with the notion that liberation comes with being able to abandon breastfeeding without guilt. This ‘liberation,’ though, is an illusion representing a distorted view of what breastfeeding is, what breastfeeding does, and what both mothers and babies need after birth.” Often, not breastfeeding is a structural and systemic symptom of a patriarchal society that devalues women and caregiving work and views the masculine body as normative, not a personal choice!

I am a systems thinker and always hold in mind that breastfeeding, like all aspects of women’s lives, occurs in a context, a context that involves a variety of “circles of support,” or lack thereof. Women don’t “fail” at breastfeeding because of personal flaws; society fails breastfeeding women and their babies every day through things like minimal maternity leave, no pumping rooms in workplaces, formula advertising and “gifts” in hospitals, formula company sponsorship of research and materials for doctors, the sexualization of breasts and objectification of women’s bodies, and so on and so forth. According to Michels and Baumslag, “…infant formula sales comprise up to 50% of the total profits of Abbott Labs, an enormous pharmaceutical concern.” And the U.S. government is the largest buyer of formula, paying for approximately 50 percent of all formula sold in the nation.

Michels and Baumslag make the following salient points about why women in the U.S. so often experience breastfeeding problems:

“In western society, the baby gets attention while the mother is given lectures [emphasis mine]. Pregnancy is considered an illness; once the ‘illness’ is over, interest in her wanes. Mothers in ‘civilized’ countries often have no or very little help with a new baby. Women tend to be home alone to fend for themselves and the children. They are typically isolated socially and expected to complete their usual chores, including keeping the house clean and doing the cooking and shopping, while being the sole person to care for the infant….”