Do feminists consider breastfeeding to be liberating or oppressive?


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?

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The issue is biological essentialism.[/pullquote]

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.