Breastfeeding women seldom make history

The future is female. Vector hand drawn quote.

Analyze a list of most influential women in history and you could reach a startling conclusion:

Breastfeeding women seldom make history.

Many of history’s most powerful women had no children. But even those who were mothers did not spend time breastfeeding; they hired wet nurses or they used formula. Otherwise they would not have been free to rule, or to create, or to compete.

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Is breastfeeding better for babies or better for the patriarchy?[/pullquote]

You’ve probably seen this quote on T-shirts or tote bags or bumper stickers and it was put there to highlight a truism: the women who make history are the ones who break the rules.


Because the rules in most societies are designed to constrain women, to prevent or erase their accomplishments, and most importantly, to keep them in the home where they cannot compete with men. Being “womanly” is hedged around with so many prescriptions that those who aspire to womanliness will remove themselves from the world of political and economic power.

Fortunately, there were women who recognized that both law and society conspired to deprive women of power and they fought back.

A major transformation occurred within my lifetime. Like most women of my age, I was taught how to be “ladylike” during my childhood and being ladylike inevitably meant removing myself from academic and economic competition with men. Ending up at an legal, economic and political disadvantage to men was not a side effect of the pressure to be ladylike; it was a critical feature in a patriarchal culture.

In 2019 women can no longer be controlled by pressure to be “ladylike.” So now we are trying to control them by pressure to be “motherly.” Motherhood is hemmed around by more rules than ever, rules that not coincidentally end up rendering women at a legal, economic and political disadvantage to men. That’s not a side effect of the contemporary ethos of intensive mothering; it’s a critical feature in our patriarchal culture.

Consider the message that society sends women about breastfeeding. “Breast is best” — it could not possibly be more stark. But breastfeeding places significant physical, psychological and economic burdens on women. And that’s the point. It certainly isn’t because breastfeeding is particularly beneficial.

Ever since the 2007 publication of Joan Wolf’s Is breast really best? Risk and total motherhood in the National Breastfeeding Awareness Campaign there has been slowly rising awareness that nearly all of the benefits claimed for breastfeeding are based on scientific evidence that is weak, conflicting and riddled with confounding variables.

…The NBAC [National Breastfeeding Awareness Campaign] and particularly its message of fear, neglected fundamental ethical principles regarding evidence quality, message framing, and cultural sensitivity in public health campaigns. The campaign was based on research that is inconsistent, lacks strong associations, and does not account for plausible confounding variables, such as the role of parental behavior, in various health outcomes. It capitalized on public misunderstanding of risk and risk assessment by portraying infant nutrition as a matter of safety versus danger …

As the scientific paper, Is the “breast is best” mantra an oversimplification? noted:

In recent years, an increasing number of researchers, physicians, and authors have begun to question whether, in the United States, the benefits of breastfeeding children are exaggerated and the emphasis on breastfeeding might be leading to feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and anxiety among mothers …

After detailing an extensive scientific review of the literature, the authors concluded:

The evidence for infant breastfeeding status and its association with health outcomes faces significant limitations; the great majority of those limitations tend to overestimate the benefits of breastfeeding. Nearly all evidence is based on observational studies, in which causality cannot be determined and self-selection bias, recall bias, and residual confounding limit the value or strength of the findings.

Indeed, as I have repeatedly noted, the predictions of breastfeeding researchers — that increased breastfeeding rates would lead to lower mortality of term babies and reduced incidence of various diseases and conditions — have utterly failed to materialize.

But that hasn’t stopped breastfeeding researchers from doubling down by finding ever more arcane “benefits” (the microbiome! epigenetics!) and by creating ever more restrictions for women.

Consider this recent piece in The New York Times, Breast Milk Is Teeming With Bacteria — That’s Good for the Baby. In case you didn’t get the message, the subtitle pounds you on the head with it: Breast-fed milk may nourish a baby’s microbiome in ways that bottled breast milk can’t.

Obviously, if you want to be a good mother, you must feed your baby breastmilk.

But you can still work, right? You can just pump your milk.

No, no, no!

Moreover, breast milk seems to be rich in beneficial bacteria only when it comes directly from the mother’s breast — not even when the same milk is pumped and delivered later by bottle.

Good mothers must stay home and breastfeed! Who could have seen that coming?

You would never know from the irresponsible NYTimes piece that the research is so preliminary that it is unclear its findings are either real or clinically relevant. The studies involve only tiny numbers of subjects. Moreover, it is entirely dependent on two unsubstantiated beliefs of breastfeeding researchers that 1. differences in the gut microbiome of breastfed and bottle fed babies are meaningful and 2. we can assume that the differences mean that breastfed babies are getting a benefit and bottle fed babies are not. To date, there is no evidence for either of those assumptions.

But that’s not the point. Breastfeeding has received so much cultural support NOT because it is particularly beneficial for babies. The pressure to breastfeed is like the pressure to be ladylike. It’s not about what’s good for babies or mothers. It’s about keeping women immured in the home.

The next time someone tells you something is best for babies, consider whether that claim is just another way to keep women from seeking the same legal, economic and political power as men. In other words, it is really better for babies, or better for the patriarchy?

Breastfeeding women seldom make history. That’s not a coincidence.