Can women be empowered by mothering philosophies designed to subjugate them?

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In the good old days, women knew their place: in the home, repeatedly pregnant, breastfeeding, and in continual proximity to their children. They wouldn’t dare compete with men since they didn’t have the time or energy to do so.

In the past century, for the first time in history women in some countries achieved a measure of legal and economic equality. Even that tiny bit is too much for some; a backlash ensued. On the Right, that backlash took the form of religious fundamentalism. If you believe in God, when He supposedly wants “good” mothers to stay home, repeatedly pregnant, breastfeeding, and in continual proximity to their children, it’s hard to refuse.

Being “empowered” by a philosophy designed to oppress women represents the ultimate in submission to misogyny.

That was never going to work on the Left, where belief in religion has been waning; so opponents of women’s equality created their own form of fundamentalism — belief in the perfection of the natural order. When Nature supposedly wants “good” mothers to stay home, repeatedly pregnant, breastfeeding, and in continual proximity to their children, it might be difficult to refuse.

Natural mothering — natural childbirth, breastfeeding and attachment parenting — were created explicitly to control women. Grantly Dick-Read (a fundamentalist and eugenicist) made it abundantly clear that his philosophy of natural childbirth was designed to pressure women into having more children. La Leche League was explicit in its purpose on founding (by religious traditionalists); the philosophy of “mothering through breastfeeding” was created to keep mothers of small children from working. William Sears (a religious fundamentalist), the man who created the philosophy of attachment parenting, initially made no secret of the fact that he believed his philosophy was vouchsafed by God as His preferred method for organizing the family.

Which raises the question: can women be empowered by parenting philosophies explicitly designed to oppress them?

Can women be empowered by refusing pain relief in labor on the say-so of a racist, misogynist?

Can women be empowered by exclusive, extended breastfeeding, because a group of women who wanted to force them out of the workforce told them it was the best way to mother?

Can women be empowered by a philosophy of parenting that goes so far as to tell women to “wear” their babies so they can never enjoy a moment’s solitude?

But wait! I hear natural parenting advocates invoking Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood.

Sanger was also a eugenicist and was explicit in her belief that birth control could be used in “the process of weeding out the unfit [and] of preventing the birth of defectives.”

Her views were every bit as vile as those of Dick-Read:

In reading her papers, it is clear Sanger had bought into the movement. She once wrote that “consequences of breeding from stock lacking human vitality always will give us social problems and perpetuate institutions of charity and crime.”

As appalling as are Sanger’s ugly views, there is a crucial difference. Sanger never viewed birth control as a method of controlling women’s behavior; Dick-Read always viewed natural childbirth as a method of controlling women’s behavior so as to keep them immured in the home.

Of course, women are free to refuse belief in the necessity of natural childbirth, breastfeeding and attachment parenting, aren’t they?

Not exactly. In order to ensure compliance, advocates of natural mothering have taken children hostage. They’ve declared, usually in the absence of scientific evidence, that children benefit from being mothered in the same way our ancient foremothers cared for their children.

Nature “designed” women to give birth vaginally without pain medication; ergo pain relief, interventions and C-sections must be “bad” for babies, at a minimum interfering with their ability to “bond” to mothers.

Nature “designed” women to breastfeed exclusively for extend periods; ergo formula, even “just one bottle,” must be “bad” for babies, at a minimum interfering with their ability to “bond” to mothers.

Nature “designed” women to maintain constant physical proximity to their children; ergo putting a baby down, using a stroller, letting a baby sleep in a crib must be “bad” for babies, at a minimum interfering with their ability to “bond” to mothers.

Are you sensing a theme here?

I am and it amazes me that many otherwise thoughtful women are not.

Don’t midwives like Sheena Byrom and Hannah Dahlen understand that natural childbirth is a method created to oppress women, forcing them to endure excruciating pain for the “benefit” of their babies?

Don’t lactation professionals like Amy Brown and Melissa Bartick understand that “mothering through breastfeeding” is a philosophy dreamt up to oppress women by forcing them out of the workforce?

Don’t attachment parenting advocates understand that it is a worldview promoted by a religious fundamentalist in order to force women to live dependent upon and subservient to men, “as nature intended”?

That doesn’t mean that women can’t make the choice to have unmedicated childbirth, to breastfeed, and to practice attachment parenting if that is what they feel is the best choice for their families. Similarly women are free to choose to wear a burqa or be subservient to their husbands.

Natural mothering is as empowering as wearing a burqa or creating a marriage where the husband rules the wife. Being “empowered” by a philosophy designed to oppress women represents the ultimate in submission to misogyny.

  • GeorgiaPeach23

    Update! My baby is six months old today and I started a fancy new job in a very fancy new career. He’s doing fabulously. We weaned off (mostly pumped) breast milk after his 4 month vaccines. He was just diagnosed with two mouth problems by a dentist after 5 other medical professionals failed to find a physiological reason why he didn’t nurse well. I’m grateful to Dr Amy, whom I read a lot of during pregnancy, because we never ever hesitated to supplement. I shudder to think what would have happened to our baby if I had been gung ho to EBF while doctors, LCs, and feeding therapists failed to determine his true problem for six full months.

  • fiftyfifty1

    Maybe I’m too literal and narrow minded, but for me to consider something to be “empowering” it has to result in actually getting more power. Not just a a feeling, not just an adrenaline rush. You can get those by snorting some cocaine. No, I mean actual power in this world where what I act, I get results. Any other type of “empowered” can kiss my ass.

    • MainlyMom

      Empowering is a fickle reaction anyway. If I do something like climb a mountain, I’m much more likely to end up humbled by the experience. But I find humbling experiences to be the ones worth chasing. Personality differences? Maybe because I already feel empowered in my life?

    • BeatriceC

      Personal empowerment is kinda weird. I agree with you for the most part, but I think we need a different word for a feeling that some people are trying to convey. I don’t think it’s empowering, per say, but something to be able to convey gladness that a combination of luck and perseverance, within the confines of best safety practices, things worked out the way the person wanted. That part about “within the confines of best safety practices” is important here, otherwise we get what we’ve got going now, with people glorifying unsafe actions for an ideal that’s never actually existed. I think there’s a lot of moms who are trying to convey that feeling but lack a better word. Of course there are others who are misusing it, but I think some people do use it because they don’t have a better option.

      In other ways, little things can feel very empowering. The realization that a man of my vet’s renown trusted me with a very young baby was very personally empowering. It’s little, and very personal, But that feeling of “hey, this dude who’s at the top of his field and has taken care of my animals for years has a high enough opinion of how I care for my birds to trust me with this very young bird” absolutely rocketed my self confidence up. Maybe that’s a slightly different definition of empowerment. I don’t know.

      • fiftyfifty1

        Exciting. Exhilarating. Confidence boosting. These are all lovely ways to feel and I wish upon all of us many experiences accompanied by these good feelings. And yet they ain’t the same as empowering. Empowering is when you get power.

        • fiftyfifty1

          Empowering:
          A good education
          In demand skills
          A thriving career
          Laws favoring your interests
          Influential connections
          Financial stability

          • Who?

            Yes this.

            The rest is just sales talk.

  • I guess that depends on what you mean by “empowered.” Choosing these things constrains further choices, yes, but is it wrong to say that women are not empowered if they are able to choose these lifestyles? After all, “[t]hat doesn’t mean that women can’t make the choice to have unmedicated childbirth, to breastfeed, and to practice attachment parenting if that is what they feel is the best choice for their families. Similarly women are free to choose to wear a burqa or be subservient to their husbands.”

    The obvious rejoinder is that women aren’t really freely choosing X; they’re brainwashed into X by others. But what we mean by “free choice” is something philosophers have been arguing over for centuries, and it’s wrong, I think, to automatically dismiss choice as the result of pressure or “false consciousness.” Certainly, limitations of power and cultural pressure CAN constrain choices–a teenaged wife in Afghanistan is not “empowered” to make choices about how she will live and give birth–but the same isn’t true for a wealthy, educated woman living in the United States.

    We can, I think, make a distinction between women who choose X for themselves and women who announce, “I have chosen X, and X is how you can be empowered, too. Any other choice is actually not empowering for you at all.” This may be what you’re getting at in your post, and I would agree that such an attitude isn’t empowering at all.

    • MainlyMom

      If natural mothering/staying home from the work force were a result of free choice, unhindered by social constructs, you’d see just as many men doing it as women. The further apart the male vs. female percentages are, the more you’re actually seeing the results of conditioning and societal pressure. Of course, knowing that 90% of women and men are responding to social pressure doesn’t tell you anything about individual men and women, so we’re all free to delude ourselves into thinking that we’re the free-willed 10%, and everyone else is the brainwashed 90%.

      • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

        Sort of on topic, I always liked the idea from the Eve Dallas book series ” in Death” that if one chose to be a stay at home parent (of whatever gender) that was considered a profession and you got a government stipend. If you chose to work in another profession there were government run creches staffed with professionals where your child would be happy and well care for. I know it’s just fiction but..

  • andrea

    Once you can get paid to oppress other women, I guess the oppression bit stops mattering. Ugh.