If you consume contemporary feminist media, you’ll quickly notice there’s no shortage of feminists marking down breastfeeding as an act of oppression. Mothers who breastfeed are told we’re siding with the patriarchy by participating in this maternal act, that we will “not work in any meaningful way” so long as we’re breastfeeding, and that lactation itself is some sort of internalized sexism. To some feminists, our lactating breasts are just plain wrong.
Meanwhile, mothers are fired from jobs for breastfeeding. We’re kicked out of public spaces and shamed across the internet for breastfeeding. We’re told by family, friends, and ignorant providers that we’ll fail anyway and it’s not a worthwhile use of our time. We’re told breastfeeding is the best thing for our babies, but denied the time, support and resources we need to make it work. We are often forced to choose between breastfeeding and employment, and our desire to breastfeed is quite often the collateral damage of being the only industrialized nation in the world with zero paid maternity leave. We are told we’re not breastfeeding enough, or we’re breastfeeding too much. We are blamed when it doesn’t work, and shamed when it does.
With a billion dollar infant formula industry keeping politicians in their back pocket, unethical and predatory marketing practices go completely unchecked. Over the last 50 years, infant formula marketing has led an aggressive campaign to convince women and their families that we cannot be trusted to feed our babies without use of their product. This marketing message becomes fact when our hospitals and doctors, who receive incentives from the formula companies, push formula and dole out inaccurate breastfeeding information. These messages become fact when those hospitals feed our premature babies infant formula instead of safer, healthier donor breastmilk. These messages become fact when we’re forced to return to work before breastfeeding is established or denied the right to express our breastmilk on the job. They become fact when society shames women who breastfeed their babies whenever, wherever they’re hungry.
Our culture has made it clear to women: either you can be a breastfeeding mom, or you move freely through the world, but you can’t do both. To me, this battle for our right to unencumbered bodily autonomy falls under the most fundamental principles of feminism.
Analogously, feminists would not tolerate people being shamed for menstruating. We would not tolerate an industry that makes billions of dollars a year capitalizing on that shame. We would not tolerate our healthcare providers accepting incentives to toe that party line. We would not tolerate work places that make it difficult or impossible to tend to our menstruation. We would not tolerate a legal system that allows women to be fired for menstruating. So why are so many feminists content to perpetuate that same discrimination toward lactating women?
I, for one, am not, and I have developed a manifesto to outline the ways in which I will use my privilege, power, and voice as a feminist activist to level the playing field for families so they make make real choices about the way they feed their babies.
I will recognize that breastfeeding is a public health issue, a human rights issue, a civil rights issue, and a feminist issue.
I will trust that women can handle non-judgmental scientific information regarding the benefits and risks of all infant feeding methods, and will not shield them from best available evidence.
I will remember that non-judgmental, evidence-based information about infant feeding is NOT an attack on the way I feed my baby, and that those who DO attack are not speaking for the movement as a whole.
I will support a mother (and father) no matter how they choose to feed their baby, whether by breastfeeding, exclusive pumping, donor milk, formula, or any combination.
I will recognize that the “choice” in infant feeding is a privileged concept and that many mothers may not have the support, time, means, resources, or education to make a fully informed choice, and that needs to change.
I will acknowledge the staggering statistic that only 6% of the births in the United States occur in “Baby Friendly” hospitals, which means that in 94% of births, women are facing well-known barriers to breastfeeding from the moment the baby is born, and that needs to change.
I will remember that breastfeeding women have a lower risk of female cancers, diabetes, depression, and other illnesses than non-breastfeeding women, and their babies have a lower risk of obesity, diabetes, asthma, gastrointestinal problems, and other illness.
I will also remember that donor milk and/or formula can save both a mother and her baby’s life when breastfeeding is not right for them.
I will recognize that medical professionals often have little to no training or education in breastfeeding or lactation in general, which often leads to bad advice and sabotaged nursing relationships, and that needs to change.
I will remember that, despite the various state laws protecting a woman’s legal right to breastfeed anywhere she is otherwise authorized to be, women are constantly harassed, humiliated, shamed, and/or removed from public spaces simply for breastfeeding their babies, and that needs to change.
I will remember that, despite the perceived public judgment against formula-feeding mothers, no one has ever been kicked out of Victoria’s Secret for bottle-feeding their baby.
I will recognize that, in America today, Breastfeeding is a radical act. With only 16.3% of mothers nationwide meeting the AAP minimum guidelines for breastfeeding, formula is still the mainstream and most accepted form of infant feeding, and that needs to change.
I will remember that, despite the various state and federal laws protecting a mother’s right to pump breastmilk at work, some employers and/or employment situations make this task difficult or impossible, and that needs to change.
I will recognize that partners play a major role in the success of a breastfeeding relationship, and give them due credit when they help a mother reach her breastfeeding goals.
I will hold partners and family accountable for participating in the work of breastfeeding in any way they can.
I will work to promote access to donor milk so mothers have another option beside formula if breastfeeding is not right for their family.
I will acknowledge that not everyone who breastfeeds identifies as a woman, and that my views must remain inclusive of all people.
I will use my power as an activist to fight for a woman’s right to evidence-based breastfeeding support, the right to breastfeed in public unencumbered, the right to express milk when she is away from her baby, and the right to feed her baby by other means if breastfeeding is not the right feeding method for her family.
If you agree with this manifesto, please comment and share….