You’ve (Not) Come a Long Way, Baby: Why feminism and lactivism make such a dysfunctional couple

You know those couples who seem completely wrong for each other? Like, so wrong that you find yourself sitting in a hotel bar the night before their wedding with the rest of the bridal party wondering if you should speak now or forever hold your peace, or just put on the green poufy dress and hold your tongue with a strategically-placed cocktail weenie?

Lactivism and feminism are kind of like that. Seductively intertwined, but fundamentally discordant.

Last year, when I was in the writing process for my forthcoming book, I struggled to find any feminist discourse about breastfeeding. Don’t get me wrong – there was plenty of cherry chapsticked lip-service out there; there’s a Breastfeeding and Feminism Symposium held at the University of North Carolina every year, and plenty of outspoken third-wave, young feminists for whom lactivism is a frequent blog topic. But the conversation was ridiculously one-sided, focusing on the male-dominated medical community which had provoked our bottle-feeding culture in the first place.

(Speaking of that assertion…Knocking women out for childbirth and convincing them that they were too “nervous” for breastfeeding was pretty shitty. But I also think there were plenty of women who were hankering for a safe alternative to breastfeeding, considering the historical prevalence of wet nursing. Even in the 70’s and 80’s, right before breastfeeding’s resurgence, I don’t think we can blame poor breastfeeding rates on a misogynist medical field. In a time when we had to fight tooth and nail for respect and opportunity in the workplace, formula allowed women to get back to work faster. I doubt that many of our moms/older sisters had the luxury to fight for pumping rights, when issues of equal pay and sexual harassment still hadn’t been resolved in any legal way, let alone in the real-world way…)

I have always felt that there were uncomfortable parallels to the abortion debate here, but I hesitate to bring it up for fear of things devolving into a pro-life/pro-choice free-for-all. But if we can put the politics of that debate aside for a moment, I do think it’s important to consider how the concept of choice has been co-opted by certain facets of the lactivist movement. If you try and argue that a woman should have a choice about whether or not she feeds her baby from her breasts, you will likely find yourself shot down quicker than you can say Betty Friedan. The typical lactivist argument is something to the effect that we cannot choose freely, because we are brainwashed by the bottle-loving society we live in, as well as the Big Bad Formula Companies; therefore, “choice” is an irrelevant concept in this context. (For a more nuanced and articulate discussion on this topic, check out this essay by breastfeeding advocate, scholar and author, Bernice Hausman.)

But really, I think there’s something else at the heart of this argument. Like this:

Are there women who should feel guilty for not breastfeeding? In my opinion, yes. If there is no medical barrier (disease, medication, or other conditions) barring her from breastfeeding; if she is otherwise capable of breastfeeding; and she knows that breastfeeding is what she ought to do… yet she still, knowingly, chooses to feed artificial milk… yes, she should feel guilty. Because in that case, there was a choice, a knowledgable choice not to do what she knows is best for her child. I think guilt is entirely appropriate in that case, especially (but not only) if harm results. I am also of the opinion that a woman who does not educate herself should feel guilty later on; if you’re bringing a baby into the world, you owe it to that child to make choices for it that will lead to a healthy life. A choice to formula-feed, all other things being equal, is not entirely the woman’s choice to make: she has, presumably, chosen to have that baby, and in doing so, she makes the choice to give the baby its birthright, the best she can provide.

Jan Andrea,

I actually applaud this article (although much of it seems like a regurgitated version of Jack Newman’s infamous guilt argument) because, while inexplicably offensive, at least it is honest. The writer does not mince words, nor couch her true feelings in pseudo-feminist diatribes about how poor, uninformed formula feeders have no choice. This, I can respond to; this, I can counter. It’s a lot harder to argue with a feminist throwing haphazard verbal darts about classism, racism or sexism. That kind of rhetoric scares other feminists out of intelligent discourse. And we need feminists to be addressing this issue, because it is getting entirely too Handmaid’s Tale-ish up in here.

In the past week, the conversation I’ve been waiting for finally began, thanks to the brilliant Jessica Valenti , (and a bunch of other semi-anonymous folks who’ve joined the threads of subsequent posts inspired by Valenti’s Tumblr piece). Women who have no stake in the breast/bottle argument are taking notice; young women who have yet to enter the Dark Wood of Modern Motherhood (where at every wrong turn you’re met by an angry gnome who hits you in the kneecaps with Dr. Sears’s Baby Book) may now be able to navigate that forest with some perspective and foresight.

Breastfeeding needs feminism, to ensure that women can combine motherhood with paid employment, and to protect us from the idiots who think nursing a baby in public is obscene, and yes, to shield women from misleading ads or societal pressures which might discourage them from attempting to nurse.

But formula feeding also needs feminism, to ensure that child-rearing and child-bearing are not synonymous; that women are not reduced to biological functions, and can maintain bodily autonomy; and to act as a watchdog group that protects against those who blame all of society’s ills on a mother’s non-compliance with breastfeeding recommendations.

I don’t disagree that women are often sabotaged in maternity wards, or that the current medical system works in ways that are detrimental to breastfeeding success. We need strong and vocal women to put a stop to this. But I also know that vast numbers of women (as evidenced by this blog and the numerous “bottle feeding support” pages cropping up on Facebook) are being coerced, scared, and guilted into breastfeeding, by medical and governmental authorities. Women are being given so many “reasons” to breastfeed – most of them ominous warnings about what could happen if they don’t – as if no one could possibly want to breastfeed, which is demoralizing and insulting, as well as kind of ironic in the colloquial, Alannis Morrisette-sense. Women are being told that they have been brainwashed and taken advantage of, insinuating that the only way to gain back their self-respect is to breastfeed. By presenting it this way, we can avoid the very real (and for some, very uncomfortable) truth that some women really don’t want to breastfeed (hey, y’all, I said SOME. I’m not contradicting what I said a sentence or two ago… some of us really want to nurse, others would rather not. Simple as that.) It’s been that way throughout history. And it’s okay. Just as it’s okay not to want kids, or to want to combine work and motherhood, or to not want to combine work and motherhood, or to home school your kids or co-sleep with them or feed them a vegan diet.

Feminism, to me, is about respecting every woman’s right to define what being a woman means to her. To HER. Not to you. You don’t have to agree with her, or like what she’s about, or want to have a slumber party and talk about how cute Ricky Schroeder is with her. Just don’t tell her what she should think, feel or do with her body, and you’re cool by me.

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.

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