Is Breastfeeding feminist or not ?
In a report made public last Tuesday, the Academy of Medicine recommended breastfeeding and longer postnatal maternity leave. I was wondering what feminists thought of this. Are they furious about more pressure on women ? Not really. They are, in fact, quite divided over the issue.
My first reaction was to telephone Héloise, my feminist friend, who has been an active member of Tumultueuses (a French feminist forum) for a short while. At the other end of the line, she is annoyed about the temptation to confuse women with ’milking cows’. She is not at all against breastfeeding, but denounces a « current pro-breastfeeding climate » :
« What irritates me the most is that society doesn’t realize that it is long, that it is our bodies and that we have the right to do what we want with them. The reality is that breastfeeding takes five hours a day and that it hurts. So it really needs to be a choice. »
In 2006, Libération published an article that surprised me (« Ce sacro-sein allaitement »). Brought up to the the tune of « breastfeeding is brilliant and good for the baby’s health », I was surprised to discover women who were complaining about the way society views them.
« Being seen as an animal »
Ok. So are feminists denouncing all the pressure on women to breastfeed ? It’s not the case for Marie-Sophie, a journalist colleague and feminist :
« It sees to me that if you want to breastfeed, it’s a fight. You have to justify yourself, accept being seen as an ’animal’, have the strength to go to work with your express machine or stay at home for many months and be frowned upon by the company you work for. »
« Of course it amuses colleagues when you have to leave work at six o’clock for the evening feed. »
At the Family Family Planning Center, Anne, a feminist counselor, completely shares this view. In her opinion, the pressure comes from all sides :
« The image of the bad breastfeeding mother is quite present all the same. How many times do you hear ’What do you mean you breastfeed in public ? Aren’t you ashamed ? ’ »
This irritates Marie-Sophie all the more :
« People are very shocked if a breast is revealed in the street. Nobody bats an eyelid at naked women on advertising billboards, however. »
Anne explains that she felt her feminist friends were judging her nevertheless :
« Being feminist and having a child is not so easy. My friends would say to me, ’You’re a feminist and you’re breastfeeding ? What the hell are you doing ? »
Breastfeeding as a victim of the Vichy government
Claude Didierjean Jouveau works for The Lèche League, an association which provides information and support to breastfeeding women. In 2003 she published an article in the journal Spirale on the relationship feminists have with breastfeading.
« The relationship between feminism and breastfeeding has never been simple and has varied considerably depending on different eras and countries, » she explains in the article, before going on to evoke activists at the beginning of the last century who were favorably inclined towards breastfeeding and those who came in the wake of Vichy and who opposed it.
« The Vichy government’s high praise of the idea of mothers and housewives (’Work, family, country’) accompanied by such a regression in women’s rights makes it easy to understand why they ’threw the baby out with the bath water.’ »
Today, Claude Didierjean Jouveau feels that on a societal level, « it is true that the idea that breastfeeding is better has the edge. » In concrete figures, The Leche League estimates that 64% of French babies are breastfed.
Whatever their choice, women still feel pressure, either way. Anne, from the Family Planning Center concludes : « No matter what we do, we are a bad woman, a bad mother and a bad feminist. »
Translation : Fiona McCann
Photo : A pro-breastfeeding demonstration in Brazil (Paulo Santos/Reuters).
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