Both natural parenting and religious fundamentalism reflect fear of women’s emancipation


Arguably the greatest civil rights achievement of the 20th Century was the emancipation of women. For all of human existence, women had been relegated to secondary, nearly subservient, status. For the first time ever, some women in some societies were able to take their place alongside men, finally achieving political, intellectual and legal equality.

I lived through the culmination of the emancipation wrought by the “women’s liberation” movement. Even though it was the tail end of more nearly 100 years of advances, it is difficult to exaggerate the profound changes that took place between the 1960’s, when as a child I was told that women could not be doctors, through the 1970’s when as a high school athlete I was told that women did not merit uniforms or equipment, to the 1980’s when I entered medical school. Don’t get me wrong, gender discrimination did not disappear, but it became widely acknowledged as a bad thing, not an inevitability.

Profound social change does not occur without opposition or fear. In my view, both the rise of natural parenting and the rise of religious fundamentalism are due in part to backlash against the emancipation of women. And both function, explicitly or implicitly, to keep women in the home.

The natural childbirth movement was created explicitly in response to women’s emancipation. As I have detailed many times, most recently a few days ago, Grantly Dick-Read was painfully honest that he created the philosophy of natural childbirth as a way to keep women at home; only there could they find true happiness by fulfilling their biologic destiny, and then they would stop agitating for political, legal and economic equality.

While doing research for my forthcoming book I learned, to my surprise, that La Leche League and the lactivist movement were founded for similar reasons. In the book La Leche League:At the Crossroads of Medicine, Feminism, and Religion, Jule DeJager Ward explains that the La Leche League was:

…founded in 1956 by a group of Catholic mothers who sought to mediate in a comprehensive way between the family and the world of modern technological medicine…

[A] central characteristic of La Leche League’s ideology is that it was born of Catholic moral discourse on family life … The League has very strong convictions about the needs of families. These convictions are the normative heart of its narrative… The League’s presentations and literature carry a strong suggestion that breast feeding is obligatory. Their message is simple: Nature intended mothers to nurse their babies; therefore, mothers ought to nurse…

The idealization of motherhood reflects the place of Mary in Catholic popular devotion…

The League’s answer to the question “What should mothers do” is grounded in … the original faith community of its founders.

For those women, the contents of their Catholic faith and the existential question of motherhood are interdependent…

Just as Grantly Dick-Read created natural childbirth in opposition to women’s demands for emancipation, LLL channeled the Catholic Church’s opposition to women’s emancipation, in particular women’s desire to work for their own economic freedom. Breastfeeding, therefore, came to be viewed as part of the Catholic mother’s obligation to remain at home with her children.

Indeed, the founders of LLL were aware of the complementarity of their views and those of natural childbirth. In one of their first major meetings, in 1957, Grantly Dick-Read himself was the featured speaker.

Attachment parenting is a product of similar beliefs about women and families. Dr. William Sears, a religious fundamentalist and father of eight, is widely credited with creating attachment parenting. He certainly popularized it, but attachment parenting had its inception with The La Leche League.

But according to Peggy O’Mara, Editor of the defunct Mothering Magazine (now a website and message board):

Sears published his book, The Fussy Baby, with La Leche League in 1985, at a time when he was the most well known of LLL’s physician supporters. He is widely credited with coining the term attachment parenting and wrote a book on the subject in 2001. But, Dr. Sears did not invent attachment parenting.

Two young La Leche Leaders, Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker, were influenced by Dr. Sears and fascinated with attachment theory…

As Nicholson and Parker became increasingly steeped in research on the critical attachment period, they wanted to educate others, and, in 1995 they formed Attachment Parenting International.

So all three major components of natural parenting (natural childbirth, lactivism and attachment parenting) were created in direct response to women’s emancipation and their refusal to remain at home content with the traditional role of a mother.

It is not a coincidence, therefore, that natural parenting requires tremendous sacrifice on the part of the mother and only the mother. Indeed every element of natural parenting, extending to vaccine rejection and organic food, makes more work for mothers. Moreover, it is hardly a coincidence that the home is the heart of natural parenting. From homebirth to homeschooling, the natural mother never has to leave the house and certainly should never be employed outside the house when her children are small.

In my judgment, it is also not a coincidence that religious fundamentalism experienced a renaissance in the US in the wake of the “women’s liberation movement.” Religious fundamentalists root their opposition to women’s emancipation in their reading of the Bible. Many embrace the tenets of natural parenting. They cite religion as the reason why women must be subservient to their husbands and occupied entirely with their children, but the end result is that same: more work for mothers and no opportunity for women in the larger world.

That’s not to say that every woman who embraces the tenets of natural parenting is committed to perpetuating a patriarchal society, the type of society embraced by the founders of natural childbirth, lactivism and attachment parenting. Individual women make individual choices based on the needs of their families and their own desires. A woman can be a natural parenting advocate and a feminist, but it is important to understand that natural parenting was created, and is often promoted in direct opposition to feminism.

It’s not an accident that much of natural parenting, from home birth to home schooling, is centered on the home. Natural parenting, like religious fundamentalism, has at its heart the imperative to keep women at home and to promote the patriarchal status quo.