“Women united in close circles can awaken the wisdom in each other’s hearts.” ~The 13 Indigenous Grandmothers (via The Girl God)
I agreed to serve as a faculty mentor for a Breastfeeding and Ecofeminism independent study class that started yesterday. Since my husband and I also recently finished our Breastfeeding Mama in pewter, I felt inspired to create this little message…
The Politics of Breastfeeding: When Breasts are Bad for Business by Gabrielle Palmer
Milk, Money, and Madness: The Culture and Politics of Breastfeeding by Naomi Baumslag M.D. and Dia Michels
Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism by Irene Diamond
This is going to be so much fun! How lucky I am to get to do stuff like this! This is the course description we worked on together:
This course explores the cultural, social, and political environment surrounding breastfeeding in the United States through the lens of eco-feminism. We will examine global cultural attitudes compared to the United States, scientific research of the benefits of breast milk, marketing and advertising of artificial milk, and the sociocultural context surrounding infant feeding as a public health issue. This course emphasizes critical and varied perspectives on breast and bottle feeding; as well as the ways in which gender, race, and socioeconomic class affect women’s choices in breastfeeding. The birth-breastfeeding continuum will also be explored. We will study the aspects of ecology, spirituality, and feminism as well as many other perspectives supporting this holistic human experience for the well-being of the planet.
I wrote up some nifty course objectives as well:
- Contextualize breastfeeding as a public health issue both within the sociocultural environment in the United States and cross-culturally.
- Describe why breastfeeding is an ecofeminist issue—make connections between human treatment of the “world body” and the female body.
- Articulate the systemic and structural context in which breastfeeding takes place in the US. (Describe the political and economic influences on infant feeding in the US and frame the issue within a broad cultural context extending beyond the concept of personal choice.)
- Address the charge of “essentialism” with regard to breastfeeding in the context of feminist theory.
The student found me because of my past article on this subject…
Breastfeeding is a feminist issue and a fundamental women’s issue. And, it is an issue deeply embedded in a sociocultural context. Attitudes towards breastfeeding are intimately entwined with attitudes toward women, women’s bodies, and who has “ownership” of them. Patriarchy chafes at a woman having the audacity to feed her child with her own body, under her own authority, and without the need for any other. Feminism sometimes chafes at the “control” over the woman’s body exerted by the breastfeeding infant.
Part of the root core of patriarchy is a rejection of the female and of women’s bodies as abnormal OR as enticing or sinful or messy, hormonal, complicated, confusing…. Authentic feminism need not be about denying biological differences between women and men, but instead about defining both as profoundly worthy and capable and of never denying an opportunity to anyone for a sex-based reason. Feminism can be about creating a culture that values what is female as well as what is male, not a culture that tries to erase or hide “messy” evidence of femaleness.
However, precisely because of the patriarchal association of the female with the earthy and the physical, feminists have perhaps wanted to distance themselves from breastfeeding. This intensely embodied biologically mandated physical experience so clearly represents a fundamental difference between men and women that it appears to bolster biological reductionism. Yet in so doing feminism then colludes with patriarchy and itself becomes a tool of the patriarchy in the repression and silencing of women and their leaky ever-changing, endlessly cycling bodies: these bodies that change blood into food and bleed without dying and provide safe passage for new souls upon the earth. Sometimes the issue of a woman’s right not to breastfeed is framed as a feminist “choice.” This is a myth, made in the context of a society that places little value on women, children, and caregiving. It is society that needs to change. Not women and not babies.
Last week I read a relevant article from Amy Glenn…
For the first time in human history, the female breast is nearly completely separated from its primary mammalian function. Rather than supporting the healthy development of our limbic lives, breasts are pornographically used to market a multitude of products. Why is the breast’s primary lactating function deemed strangely controversial today?
Despite the efforts of breastfeeding advocates, consider that mainstream news publications and talk shows feature mothers who nurse toddlers as cultural oddities…Our own society’s rupture from the wisdom of ancient ways is the true cultural oddity.
I applaud the efforts of public health advocates seeking to reconnect to the ancient wisdom of our female ancestors. Friends and family need to draw a fierce circle of protection and non-interference around the nursing mother-child dyad…
If it were up to breastfeeding advocates, federal legislation mandating paid maternity leave would exist everywhere. For nothing pressures a new mother to give up nursing more than struggling to meet the financial needs of her family. While teaching in Colombia, my employer was obligated legally to give me three months of paid maternity leave. Yet, if I had been working in the US at the time, it would have been up to my employer to determine the status of my maternity leave. The US stands alone as the only developed country without legally mandated paid maternity leave. This directly connects to our woeful breastfeeding rates…
Glenn read Palmer’s Politics book and it changed her perspectives on the systemic influences surrounding breastfeeding women:
In particular, Palmer’s connections between poverty and breastfeeding moved me. Over the last century, the purposefully deceptive marketing ploys of infant-formula makers have left tragedy in their destructive wake. For example, when promoting artificial milk in the developing world, companies dressed their representatives as medical professionals who claimed that their products were better than breast milk. Poverty stricken and largely uneducated mothers were persuaded to spend a large percentage of their household’s monthly income on the artificial milk powder that was considered best. To prolong its use, they often diluted the powder further reducing any nutritional value. In addition, these mothers lived in areas with poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water. Palmer describes how hundreds of thousands of babies died. At times, I had to put the book down as angry tears washed through me.
Choosing to move beyond the painful disconnections of our culture, I do my best to support the breastfeeding mothers I meet. Our world must move beyond separating baby from mother, self from breath, and bodies from hearts.
I also read with interest an interview between Jeanette McCulloch of BirthSwell and Paige Hall Smith, a speaker at the 2013 Breastfeeding and Feminism conference, which makes some additional points about the relationship between income and breastfeeding rates:
PHS: The connection between women’s status and breastfeeding leads to a number of interesting ideas. We know from other research that both education and income are positively associated with breastfeeding outcomes. More research on why this is the case would be useful, particularly given that higher income is also associated with women’s employment. We also learn in this study that in those states where women have greater control of reproductive choices, and those where they are more likely to vote, also have higher breastfeeding rates. Since none of these are indicators that are directly implicated in breastfeeding success, we have to conclude that something interesting is going on in the climate of these states that makes a difference for women.
It makes sense that women who have higher status have more ability to manage their own time and resources (such as adjusting break times at work, taking additional maternity leave, determining the flow and location of their work) which may lead to higher breastfeeding rates. They may also have more authority at home and at work, which translates into greater ability to actualize their own decisions. Breastfeeding, like the ability to control one’s fertility, can be seen as a form of reproductive autonomy.
The relationship between women’s status and breastfeeding remained even when we controlled for available state-level breastfeeding support, such as access to IBCLCs, peer support like La Leche League, and baby friendly hospitals. One possible interpretation for this is that the breastfeeding support measures we have in place are ones that provide more assistance to higher status women than they do to lower status women. We need to think critically how our measures are affecting different populations. In general we found that clinical indicators of breastfeeding support had more impact on breastfeeding than did policy measures. This could have been because currently there insufficient “trickle down” from policy to women’s lives.
On a related-to-breastfeeding note, but moving off the topic of breastfeeding and ecofeminism, Mark and I also have a brand new nursing mama pendant that will be unveiled at the launch of our new collaborative business on February 1st! We’ll have a series of product giveaways, a free digital kit, and a new discount coupon as well. I’m so excited!
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