(See below for link to article)
I wrote this article first as a talk – and probably it ‘reads’ better as a talk – for a conference called “Feminism and Breastfeeding.” It feels to me like we’ve been trying to put those two things together for a long time, without great success.
The standard American version of feminism argues that women can do everything, just everything, no limits. Which means women can be all that men are: engineers and firefighters and physicians and soldiers and Supreme Court Justices and airplane pilots and Presidents. All of it. Yes we can.
If that’s the feminism that you are pursuing, then almost inevitably anything that is ‘unique’ to women seems like a barrier we have to overcome. Yes, even with our big breasts and smaller shoulders, we can be firefighters! Yes, even with our menstrual hormones we can be airplane pilots! Yes, even with our emotional depth and our empathic qualities we can be oncologists! Whatever – nothing about our female bodies will interfere with our real achievements.
That is, of course, overstating to the point of being silly, but I do think that’s the basic argument of American feminism: women can be just like men. It doesn’t give us a lot of space for the things that women’s bodies can do that men’s cannot – like being pregnant, giving birth and breastfeeding.
There are other feminisms, other places to stand when talking about a better world for women. It is possible to actively value women’s potential, the bodily capacity to create and nurture the next generation. But it’s hard to do that and not fall into the anti-feminist trap, the argument that women ought to be doing the nurturing and leave the rest of the world to men.
That’s the tricky place I’ve been standing all these years: trying to value what women do as women, trying to make space for men to be more like women, more nurturing, more care-giving, doing more of the mothering of their children and the children of the world. But it’s not an easy argument to be making in a society that basically views the care of young children as unskilled labor.
And so we end up with a fraught relationship with our ability to breastfeed our babies: if we celebrate it, we tend to fall off into the anti-feminist side, asking women to spend their time being traditional mothers. But there is something there to celebrate – it’s really quite a lovely and interesting system for baby feeding. A recent article by Hannah Rosin in the Atlantic, (April 09) “The Case Against Breastfeeding,” revisited the issue. She did a hard backlash against all the ‘breast is best’ propaganda, and some of her points are well worth thinking about. But – and I found this charming – she ended her article by saying she would continue to nurse her baby basically just because it’s a lovely thing to do.
In this talk, I found myself arguing with all these people who – like me – want to encourage breastfeeding, but are pissing off the Hannah Rosins of the world. The arguments they keep pushing are all about how good it is for babies, how healthy, prevents this and that, healthy for mothers, yadayadayada. Not markedly persuasive – there are lots of healthy things we’re not doing, and this is short sighted anyway. They could, as I point out, create a technologically superior milk than we’ve got now, and then what?
So I’m asking the breastfeeding advocates to try to figure out just what it is that they so value about breastfeeding, to try to figure out what we’re celebrating. And realize that all our arguments, all of what breastfeeding means, occurs in a context, and that if we don’t think about that, if we don’t place ourselves in the right context, we’re not going to be encouraging women to breastfeed. And that’s sad because…… well, it’s a lovely thing to do._______________
Read the article here.