What does breastfeeding have to do with feminism?

exclusively breastfed on demand

One of my (exclusively breastfed) babies

I recently found a new (new to me, not new new) blog, Mom, JD, where I read about an article by Elisabeth Badinter called “The Tyranny of Breast-Feeding: New mothers vs. La Leche League”.  It is not available online unless you want to spend $17 for a year’s subscription to Harper’s, so don’t bother looking.  I got it at the library.

Given that the article contains the words “despotism of an insatiable child”, it is no surprise that I agree with very little in it.  Mostly it is a history of La Leche League from the perspective of someone who believes that LLL’s real motive is to repress women and that it has co-opted the authority of organizations such as WHO and UNICEF in a global conspiracy to promote their women-repressing agenda.  Using quotes from extreme militant breastfeeding supporters, Badinter argues that LLL is full of uncompromising lunatics who support an “ideological shift toward…dedicated motherhood”.

Badinter’s indictment of breastfeeding culture does not jive with my experience.  I spent five days in the hospital with my first, and there was no lactation consultant available.  The nurses strongly encouraged me to bottle-feed when I found nursing difficult.  I have been chastised for nursing in museums and doctor’s offices.  I have been relegated to a bedroom to feed my babies during family gatherings.  When I spent a week in the hospital for a heart issue, I could not get a breast pump from the maternity floor to relieve my engorgement.  An “orthodoxy of nursing”?  Hardly.

I loved nursing because it made early motherhood so very much easier.  Sterilizing nipples, mixing formula, adding another thing to my grocery list, packing bottles every time I left the house…not my cup of tea.  With Harry, I got way more sleep than I would have otherwise because when he was hungry, all I had to do was roll over, lift my shirt, and go back to sleep.  (With Bess it wasn’t so easy, but that’s a long story.)  I had an ace-in-the-hole when my babies were sick or crabby.

But every situation is different.  I worked from home so it was easy to nurse on demand.  I could take a break whenever I needed to, and I never had to deal with pumping or low supply.  I recognize that I had a pretty sweet arrangement.  While I am an ardent supporter of breastfeeding, I know that it doesn’t work for everyone.

I do, however, believe that it is the height of hubris to believe that humans could manufacture a formula that is equal to breastmilk, which was shaped by millennia upon millennia of natural selection.  I believe that males and females serve different functions, and that even as 2,000 years of civilization has expanded our choices and our expectations, it has not changed our essential natures.  My feminism is primarily about choice, and that includes the choice to stay home with one’s children in lieu of working for pay.  If that makes me a “maternalist feminist”, then I will wear the label proudly.

In the end, LLL and its supposed anti-feminist agenda is a red herring.  Badinter’s readers catch a glimpse of the real issue in a quote from the International Pediatric Association: “this right [to breastfeed] is associated with another, the right to benefit from adequate maternity leave and a re-adaptation to the world of work.”  BINGO!

Badinter’s claim that “thanks to bottle-feeding, couples can share roles” is, frankly, absurd.  It is women who endure the discomfort and indignities of gestating and producing new human beings.  It is women’s bodies who expand, contract, and pulse with hormones.  A few midnight feedings can hardly be considered sharing.  It’s not about breast vs. bottle, people.  It’s about people who give birth (women) vs. people who don’t (men).  Instead of insisting that women fit into the patriarchal system that was designed by and for the benefit of men, maybe it’s time we start restructuring the system so it works for all women regardless of how they want to feed their babies should they choose to have them.

  • guest

    Yay. I was glad to find this blog. I just read this article with some dismay and wanted to see how others who consider themselves feminists and pro-breastfeeding responded. I had a similar feeling reading this as when I recently picked up an old copy of “What to Expect: The Toddler Years” to look at the nursing section, and it was so unscientifically anti-breastfeeding after age 1, I didn’t bother looking at any of the other sections. I’m a single mother but was able to stay home with my son for his first 7 months and then pumped as much as I could to send to daycare with him a few days a week. If I had had to send him sooner or 5 days a week rather than 3, I might have had more trouble pumping enough. But he had also started solids by then. My only had formula a few times when my mother died and my supply shut down for a day or two when he was nearly 3 months old. He didn’t like it (and actually doesn’t like and shows an intolerance to cow’s milk– so maybe that was part of the problem with formula) and never had it aside from those few times.

    I know nothing about this author, but her complete lack of recognition of the prejudices women still face for breastfeeding, especially if doing so in even a semi-public setting, and especially for extended breastfeeding beyond a year (my son is 19 months and still nursing twice a day, but the attitude I’ve encountered once he hit 1 was, “Enough is enough.”) I agree that women who have trouble breastfeeding or choose not to for their own personal reasons shouldn’t be shamed because of it, but Badinter’s gross exaggeration of “the tyranny of breastfeeding” seems to be on the other end of the extremity spectrum.

  • Julie

    You forgot to add that the author of the Harpers article is an heiress to the Nestle fortune… Of course she’s going to promote formula ;)