Breastfeeding and feminism: what conflict?

This article is by guest writer and regular commenter, Amy McCabe. Amy alerted us recently to the radio show in which the radio “personality” announced that he would murder his wife and dispose of her body by putting it in a suitcase in the basement if she was still breastfeeding a child when it was three years old. She is passionate about the topic of breastfeeding for reasons she explains within the article.

The recent Times cover and related articles seemed to spark a debate that puts breastfeeding in direct opposition to feminism. As a feminist and nursing mother (of a 20 month old!) this baffles me, particularly since I see many ways in which breastfeeding helps mothers, as well as a number of ways feminism can help breastfeeding moms.

The two main reasons I’d argue breastfeeding is good for mothers are:

  1. It is so much cheaper than formula, which can easily cost in the thousands of dollars for some families.
  2. Breastfeeding has been proven to improve the immunity of the nursed infant, which not only means healthier children (the most important part) but also cost saving for mothers in terms of medical expenses that you just don’t have.
  3. Breastfeeding *can* be a form of birth control. For some women (not all) breastfeeding stops menstruation and thus prevents fertility. It can be used as a form of birth control and, in some societies (and relationships) where women are barred access to birth control, it is the only form of birth control women have access to. It is also relied on by some women that respond poorly to other forms of birth control. (It is important to note that while this works very well for some women, it doesn’t work at all for others. It seems to depend on individual women’s bodies.)

The three above are the most proved benefits to breastfeeding. Some research has also suggested that breastfeeding decreases a women’s risk of cancer, increases infant IQ and emotional intelligence but, in all fairness, more studies need to be done (particularly to rule out other possible causes, since women who breastfeed tend to be richer and have higher IQs).

On a personal note, I’ve also found breastfeeding to be easier than formula feeding. I can have my son nursed and back in bed long before I would have been able to heat the water and put together a bottle. It means I didn’t need to worry about packing bottles, finding a place to warm a bottle or any of those concerns when I went out with him as a small baby. Despite the idea that nursing makes you “chained to your child/home” I found it made it easier to go out of my house with him and I didn’t come across any hardships going out without him. I nurse for many reasons, but the biggest factor is how much easier it makes my life as a mom with a career.

Many of the common goals of feminism help nursing mothers. They are:

  1. Paid maternity leave. In the US many mothers return to the US before their Federally protected 12 weeks because they simply can’t afford to not return to the workforce. Close contact with your infant is needed in those early months to establish a milk supply. Mothers who return to work at 6 weeks post-postpartum are much more likely to lose their milk supply and thus their ability to nurse their child.
  2. Improved protection for pumping at the workplace. One of the reasons I’m still nursing is because I was able to pump at work. New York State has some awesome laws and my workplace was supportive. Not all states protect women’s right to pump. Women need to pump not just for milk to feed their child when they’re with other caregivers, but also to keep up their milk supply. Also, nursing mothers who don’t express milk routinely become engorged, which is very uncomfortable, and risk infection. (At 12 months, I was able to phase out pumping at work because my son was on solids and able to drink cows milk at this time).
  3. Better protection for nursing in public. Again I’ve benefited greatly from New York state law, which not only has strong protections for breastfeeding mothers, but women are legally allowed to go topless (though they rarely do). By allowing women to nurse in public, you encourage women to both have the freedom to do what they wish while also being able to feed their child when needed. Asking mothers to use rest rooms to nurse is…well would you want to eat in a public bathroom?
  4. Counter the idea that breasts are only for sexual (male) pleasure. This argument leads to the perception that breastfeeding mothers are pedophiles and that breastfeeding is shameful, embarrassing and must be hidden.
  5. Finally, advocate better post-postpartum care for women, particularly (as far as breastfeeding is concerned) better trained lactation consultants, midwives, obs and pediatricians. Breastfeeding may be natural, but it doesn’t always come naturally. In many hospitals, lactation consultants are poorly trained or, worse, trained by formula company reps who have a financial interest in preventing women from breastfeeding. There are a variety of issues that can arise early on with familiar simple solutions, but without enough properly trained medical professions, these often problems go unaddressed forcing women to abandon breastfeeding.


  1. says

    I’m always amazed at the amount of energy people have when it comes to demonizing bodily functions, but then I remember: it’s misogyny fueled. That’s what it all comes down to: women’s bodies, and stuff women do with their bodies, and stuff men do to women’s bodies (or are doing to other men’s bodies when they should be doing them to women’s bodies).

    And I’m also pissed at the people who are making it seem like there’s some conflict between feminism and breastfeeding. I don’t even understand where that’s coming from. People who think feminists just want to be men, and therefore breastfeeding isn’t compatible with the image? I’m honestly confused here, LOL.

  2. Patrick McGraw says

    I think it’s the well-known feminist hatred of babies and motherhood. That’s the only possible reason they want women to have access to birth control, abortions, or pursuing a career.

  3. Amy McCabe says

    I think some of the argument is based on people that don’t really understand feminism and/or breastfeeding. It can (and I’ve seen it) cause issues with feminists that don’t know any of the benefits of breastfeeding for mothers and perhaps feel women are being pressured to make use of their bodies for another. I’ve also seen breastfeeding moms believe feminism only applies to women with careers or women without children. Both are, of course, false. Thenyou’ve got a number of people out there that are neither feminist nor lactivists/nursing moms who think all of the above.

    The fact is, a large percent of mothers do nurse at first (I’ve forgotten the statistic or where to find it, but it was startlingly high-I’ll have to look) but very, very few are still nursing their child by 6 months. I suspect the drop off begins fairly early. If it is because mothers only desire to nurse for a short period, that’s fine, but I suspect it has more to do with a society that is actively hostile to nursing.

    I also wonder if that hostility is based, at least in some part, to the fact that it involves women making use of their own bodies for something other than male sexuality? I mean, the fact that there are a number of people that view breastfeeding as perverse and an act of pedophilia really says something. It would correlate with the attitudes I’ve observed towards pregnant women’s bodies and pregnant women and their sexuality.

    I remember, very clearly, seeing this pregnant woman in a bikini playing happily at the beach (and I was jealous of her apparent high energy!) But my family was complete grossed out. I thought it was beautiful, whereas they thought in was completely inappropriate for her to be wearing something like that while pregnant.

  4. says

    Amy, that actually clears up the cognitive disconnect for me. Thanks!

    Amy McCabe: I also wonder if that hostility is based, at least in some part, to the fact that it involves women making use of their own bodies for something other than male sexuality?

    I think this is a huge part of it, much bigger than people want to admit. Because if we admit that most of it all boils down to this, then we’re admitting that we believe as a society that women are just things for men to fuck. But that is the truth of it. That is the fundamental truth that’s at the bottom of all of it. It’s why not engaging in certain beauty rituals is seen as an act of hostile aggression against men rather than just something a woman chose for herself. Because servicing the male gaze is our calling in life, not shaving our legs (for example) is seen as falling down on the job rather than a simple aesthetic choice. We owe men shaved legs, and breasts that exist only for them, and wombs that aren’t in use by babies. It’s in our contract, apparently.

    And most women agree.

  5. Patrick McGraw says

    I like the idea of referring to breasts as “baby food spigots” whenever talking about breastfeeding.

  6. says

    Patrick McGraw,

    I don’t – that reduces the woman to someone whose purpose is to serve babies. Replacing “men” with “babies” isn’t an improvement.

    Why do breasts need a new word for a different purpose? Why can’t they just be breasts?

  7. Patrick McGraw says

    Sylvia Sybil,

    Good point. The term is an attempt to point out the absurdity of regarding anything involving breasts as sexual, but it has other sexist connotations as you noted.

  8. says

    Amy McCabe,

    I think you’re right on all counts. Society, including other women, can be, and often is, hostile to nursing mothers (my wife, Megan, took flak from her female friends for nursing our daughter), and the medical community’s insistence on treating pregnancy as an “illness” also tends to limit public perception of what pregnant women are capable of doing (as in, they should be able to do whatever they want, within reason; I still agree that pregnant women probably shouldn’t consume alcohol). Megan was rock-climbing and bouldering up until she was 8 months pregant (until it became too hard for her to cling to the holds). Pretty much everyone at the gym thought it was fantastic, but if we told anyone who wasn’t a climber, there were some hostile looks (the whole, “that isn’t safe for your unborn child” reaction). Similarly, playing on a beach in a bikini shouldn’t even warrant a second thought!

  9. says

    Dan: I still agree that pregnant women probably shouldn’t consume alcohol

    I guess that depends on what you mean by “shouldn’t”. If you’re talking about personal decisions, then yeah, it’s best to avoid it. But we know that a whole bunch will cause damage, and one sip is perfectly fine (which is why I always cringe at sitcoms when everyone learns of a secret pregnancy ‘cuz Momma won’t toast someone – it’s not fricking Kryptonite) and research into the matter is severely restricted because hello human rights violations! So where that line is drawn is uncertain.

    If you’re talking “shouldn’t” like there should be legal or social consequences (I’m thinking of that TV show “What Would You Do”), then I disagree. The person’s rights are more important than the fetus’s, including the person’s right to ingest potentially harmful chemicals. Even if we assume one sip will damage the fetus irreversibly, it’s still that person’s choice. I never should lose any of my civil rights, whether by law enforcement or by social stigma, simply because my uterus put up the “No Vacancy” sign.

  10. says

    Sylvia Sybil, another consideration in ANY form of the “shouldn’t do while pregnant” argument is that science is always learning and unlearning, so we will probably never be absolutely sure what chemicals can or can’t hurt a fetus. Therefore, I think both socially and legally, this just needs to be left up to the mother.

    But let’s also not forget: second-hand smoke isn’t good for fetuses, but we’ve consistently put the rights of smokers ahead of the rights of, say, pregnant waitresses and their fetuses. We’re only just beginning in some cities to ensure that people can work in smoke free environments. So, you know, the people who want to judge or have legal repercussions for pregnant women who ingest [whatever] really need to address that bit of hypocrisy first.

  11. says

    Sylvia Sybil,

    Point taken. I was referring to personal decisions, not legislatively imposed restrictions, although there is enough social engineering / societal pressure around this issue that women generally do refrain from drinking while pregnant. While binge drinking is probably not a good idea, a casual drink here and there isn’t likely to cause any long term effects; as you pointed out, the research into the effects is limited. Even though I happen to work for a government, I’m definitely in the small government camp: the government should not be placing restrictions on people’s rights and choices (within reason: there are laws on the books about drinking and driving because of the threat to the rights of others, etc., etc., but in truth, you can’t regulate stupidity).

  12. says

    Dan: Sylvia Sybil, …but in truth, you can’t regulate stupidity…

    Before I dig myself too deep a hole here, the quote from my earlier comment (above) was directed at the notion that most levels of government attempt, in some manner or other, to restrict / limit personal choice through legislation (thereby removing personal responsibility for actions that may be taken). It was NOT referring to the discussion at hand, which was the ‘should women consume alcohol during pregnancy’ thread.

    While some legislation is understandable (i.e., laws regarding drinking and driving), some is just plain bizarre, and legislation should not be used as a hammer in place of common sense, and should not be used as an attempt regulate general human stupidity. Similarly, societal pressure should not be used to shame women for the choices that they make while pregnant and on the post-partum environment (such as breastfeeding, etc.).

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