Have women been tricked into giving up real power for “empowerment” through childbirth and breastfeeding?


Imagine for a moment that you were a men’s rights activist (MRA). You know the men I mean, the ones who are whining about Femi-Nazis and how white men such as themselves are victims of discrimination.

Imagine that you felt profoundly threatened by women who were smart, talented and powerful. How might you convince them to cede their power to you?

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]What’s the difference between convincing women to compete over who has the whitest laundry and convincing women to compete over who has the most elaborate or the most outrageous breastfeeding photo shoot?[/pullquote]

I know! You could trick them into give up real power by replacing it with faux “empowerment” through childbirth and breastfeeding, the very things that left women powerless for all of human history. And you could call it “natural parenting.”

You don’t have to imagine it; that’s what’s been happening to women for the past few decades. Within the natural parenting movement the word empowerment is promiscuously applied to reproductive functions. Women claim to be empowered by unmedicated birth or by birth at home; women claim to be empowered by extended breastfeeding, tandem breastfeeding, breastfeeding photo shoots and breastfeeding stunts. I’ve been pondering for years how women can be empowered by bodily functions and then I realized that such “empowerment” is a way to convince women to stop reaching for real legal, political and economic empowerment.

The entire industry of natural parenting is dedicated to convincing women to relinquish real power in exchange for the faux “empowerment” of emulating their foremothers who were little more than chattel.

Betty Friedan wrote about the feminine mystique. A Wikipedia synopsis explains some of her central claims:

Friedan shows that advertisers tried to encourage housewives to think of themselves as professionals who needed many specialized products in order to do their jobs, while discouraging housewives from having actual careers, since that would mean they would not spend as much time and effort on housework and therefore would not buy as many household products, cutting into advertisers’ profits.


Friedan interviews several full-time housewives, finding that although they are not fulfilled by their housework, they are all extremely busy with it. She postulates that these women unconsciously stretch their home duties to fill the time available, because the feminine mystique has taught women that this is their role, and if they ever complete their tasks they will become unneeded.

Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique launched the feminist movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s, which dramatically increased the power of women.

The philosophies of natural parenting — natural childbirth, breastfeeding and attachment parenting — have replaced the stifling feminine mystique with the equally stifling vaginal mystique and breast mystique. Now instead of competing with each other over who has the whitest laundry and thereby ceding the wider world to men, natural parenting has women competing with each other over who had the longest unmedicated labor and who breastfed the longest … thereby ceding the wider world to men.

It’s a brilliant sleight of hand when you think about it. Don’t try to steal power back from women; manipulate them so they’ll give up power voluntarily. It’s not an accident that women are being encouraged to find their empowerment in forgoing epidurals and breastfeeding three year olds. Women who feel empowered by using their reproductive organs aren’t likely to challenge anyone for real power.

If anything, the vaginal mystique and the breast mystique are even more restrictive than the feminine mystique of the 1950’s. At least back then, women owned their own bodies. The 1950’s emphasis was on the perfect home; the contemporary emphasis is on women enduring severe pain in childbirth, ceding their breasts to their children for years at a time, and ignoring their own needs for fulfillment outside of motherhood.

It’s a neat trick, but we don’t need to fall for it. As someone who had “natural” births, breastfed four children, and gave up medical practice to stay home with them, I know how fulfilling childbearing and childrearing can be for some women in some situations. But fulfillment and empowerment are two very different things. Women are not empowered by unmedicated birth and extended breastfeeding; they are disempowered … and that’s the point.