Do feminists consider breastfeeding to be liberating or oppressive?

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How do academic feminists feel about breastfeeding?

According to social scientist Suzana Ignjatović’s paper Breastfeeding Divisions in Ethics and Politics of Feminism, academic feminists are divided:

In general, all feminist positions on infant feeding can be placed in two strongly opposed views: pro-breastfeeding and pro-choice feminists, including the option called “beyond choice” perspective, which is basically a pro-breastfeeding position.

How do they differ?

The issue is biological essentialism.

The pro-breastfeeding group of scholars refers to breastfeeding as a liberating practice or at least as an issue of women’s rights. It focuses on a woman’s right to breastfeed, which is a feminist response to the established right of the child to be breastfed. Within this framework, breastfeeding is empowering against the medicalization of a woman’s body.

But the pro-breastfeeding scholars have become strange bedfellows with conservative gender traditionalists.

During the 1970s, there was a convergence of the feminist movement and lactivism promoted by La Leche League as a reaction to medicalization of pregnancy, child care and mothering: “they were fed up with being lectured at and dictated to by male physicians”. La Leche League (LLL) is a conservative movement that promotes breastfeeding as a primary task of motherhood in early child development, stating that “good mothering was a full-time occupation” or “good mothering through breastfeeding.”

Other academic feminists have adopted a pro-choice position.

It seems that the “pro-choice” position has gained substantial support among feminists. Many feminist papers uphold the ongoing critical debate about biased or unconfirmed scientific facts about breastfeeding. Negative aspects of breastfeeding are significant …

It is the gender conservativism that has led these academic feminists to view breastfeeding as oppressive.

Feminist critics also point to the implications of breastfeeding’s emergence as a mandatory norm. Breastfeeding constrains women by placing them in a contradictory position. On one hand, the “maternalist” position is based on a gender stereotype that breastfeeding is a part of a woman’s nature, thus implying that literally every mother can breastfeed. On the other hand, the medicalization of childcare has decreased a woman’s autonomy, imposing a constant need for expert advice. Similar ambiguity is found in Wolf’s concept of total motherhood, stating that a mother is completely responsible for a child’s wellbeing, yet she is constantly exposed to expert advice about proper child- care practice. A mother is “naturally” competent and ignorant at the same time.

The academic feminists who insists breastfeeding is liberating are aware that of the irony of promoting traditionalist gender imperatives. They have tried to elide that contradiction by pretending to themselves and others that they are offering a third way.

A self-named third option in feminist theory dealing with breastfeeding claims to be “beyond choice”, that is, beyond the debate “formula vs. breastfeeding”… The “beyond formula vs breastfeeding debate” position focuses on constraints to successful breastfeeding, addressing breastfeeding and women’s economic, social, and political status. It is assumed that women are constrained by structural factors and that these factors should be addressed instead. According to Hausman, the constraints include lack of paid maternity leave, lack of support, the sexualization of women’s body…

But these academics are not “beyond choice,” since they have no doubt that there is only one correct choice.

…[T]he obstacles-based approach is usually implicitly pro-breastfeeding. Shifting focus to obstacles and support means that women would choose to breastfeed (“all woman will ‘naturally’ adore breastfeeding”), if they get proper support.

What do these academic debates have to do with the rest of us? Quite a bit as it turns out. The contemporary debate about breastfeeding promotion among laypeople echoes these academic discussions in nearly all details though many of the lactivists advancing them appear to have no idea they are parroting academic claims.

Those who make their money or derive their self-esteem from breastfeeding adopt the position that best promotes their livelihood and self-esteem. They argue that breastfeeding must be promoted aggressively for its health benefits despite the fact that most or the purported benefits have been thoroughly debunked as the results of extrapolation of poor research and failure to consider that the decision to breastfeeding in industrialized countries is determined in large part by educational and economic status. They insist that breastfeeding is liberating and empowering despite the fact that it is quite obvious that women throughout recorded history have found it to be neither.

The pro-choice feminists (I consider myself to be part of this group) are deeply concerned about the way that women have become invisible within lactivist culture. Women’s pain, frustrations and difficulties are viewed as meaningless when compared to the supposed massive benefits conferred on babies. We are equally concerned about the biological essentialism that is such as visible feature of contemporary lactivism. Lactivists appear to think that the fact that women are born with breasts means that they are morally obligated to use them. They conveniently ignore the fact that those same women are born with brains and are quite capable of using them to make the choice that is best for their children and themselves.

Many prominent lactivists writing for laypeople today, like Prof. Amy Brown or Kimberly Seals Allers, have metamorphosed (at least publicly) from pro-breastfeeding/anti-choice to “beyond choice.” They promote practices that “normalize” breastfeeding and remove structural barriers such as lack of maternity leave under the assumption that women all women would breastfeed and would enjoy breastfeeding if only they received more “support.” These prominent lactivists are trying to square the circle, acknowledging that many women can’t or don’t wish to breastfeed, but insisting that they could or would if only “constraints” were removed.

The divisive issue for both academic feminists and lay lactivists is biological essentialism. Those who consider breastfeeding to be liberating insist the existence of breasts produces both a moral imperative to use them and a sense of empowerment in using them. Pro-choice feminists view breasts as no different from uteri. Just because a woman has a uterus does not mean that she is morally required to use it for pregnancy. They trust women to make the choice of how to use her body that is best for her. And they recognize that any situation that replaces two possible choices with one obligatory choice is always oppressive.

  • Steph858

    The ‘beyond choice’ camp also demonstrates the tendency among middle/upper-class feminists to ignore problems which affect working-class women. A room to pump in, perhaps even the opportunity to bring her baby to work with her if she wishes – these are things to which well-off white-collar workers can realistically aspire. But would the ‘beyond choice’ers have been cheering on Larissa Waters if she was a construction worker and had been breastfeeding her baby on a building site? Would the benefits of Ms. Waters’s ‘liquid gold’ have outweighed the risks which anyone, let alone a baby, are subjected to in such an environment? Do they even make PPE (eg hard hats) to fit newborns?

  • space_upstairs

    I think the common ground of all who call themselves feminists is the notion that feminine-gendered people or activities should not automatically be devalued by society as inferior to masculine-gendered ones. So, mothers shouldn’t be seen as inferior to fathers, and beauty care shouldn’t be seen as inferior to spectator sport.

    The contentious point is whether it’s fine and good to pressure feminine-gendered people to perform feminine-gendered activities. Some would say it is, and it’s even ok to an extent to devalue the feminine-gendered person who doesn’t perform them, as long as the activities in question are highly valued by society and considered to make the person in question morally better, such as intensive motherhood or the diet-and-exercise aspects of beauty care.

    The other camp, to which I belong, would argue that even the most highly valued feminine-gendered activities are not essential to making the feminine-gendered person an over-all good person, and thus the pressure to perform these activities is problematic because it ignores legitimate and harmless (and potentially even beneficial) differences in temperament, values, and life circumstances between feminine-gendered people. Thus a woman who doesn’t breastfeed her children, doesn’t even want children in the first place, or doesn’t watch her weight is not an inferior person as long as she performs other highly valuable and morally positive activities more suited to her.

    Perhaps the first camp would argue that the second camp implicitly devalues the feminine activities and for that reason does not prescribe even the most noble ones for all feminine people, while the second camp often argues that the first camp takes too much liberty in devaluing certain feminine people who reject their favorite activities. I doubt that’s what either intends: the first camp just focuses more on the value of the activities and the second more on the people, but they’d probably all like for both to be valued consistently. I wish I knew which approach would definitely work better, but I don’t, so I support the one that, well, better suits me.

    • Zornorph

      I just really don’t bother judging other people very much. I mean, I don’t think a woman has to be performing some other ‘highly valued’ activity to make up for her not wanting children. If she wants to be a person who makes a marginal living and spends most of her time in sedimentary activities, that’s her life she’s living. Doesn’t affect me any.
      Guys get judged this way, too. Some are said to have ‘Peter Pan syndrome’ if they don’t want to ‘grow up’ and become responsible parents or businessmen. Again, I could give a hoot, I live my life and let other’s live theirs.
      I will say, with regard to your first paragraph, that mother are not generally seen as inferior to fathers, quite the opposite in most cases.
      I mean, if it’s my child or a close family member, I might encourage them to be a bit more ambitious, but as long as people are happy, why do they have to live their lives the way WE think they should? I know that I followed the path that society expected me to and it was only when I stepped off of that path that I found my real happy place. I’m not ‘supposed’ to want to be a single father, but having made that choice, I can’t imagine doing it any other way. And the heck with how anybody else thinks I should use my penis! 🙂

      • Sarah

        I don’t think mothers are seen as inferior to fathers, but I do notice that men are often praised for doing the bare minimum that’s just expected of a woman. In the UK at least. And the stigma to being a woman who doesn’t live with your children is much greater than that of being a man that doesn’t.

    • Sarah

      I think the third point there is to note that whatever women do with our bodies inevitably seems to be the focus of more attention and policing, and that our time and labour is devalued. And both camps engage in that sometimes.