Breastfeeding and Feminism

This post comes from Dr. Paige Hall Smith, Director of the Center for Women’s Health & Wellness and Director of the CWHW Program to Advance Gender Equity, and  Associate Professor of Public Health Education. Smith holds appointments in the Department of Behavior and Health Education and the Department of Maternal and Child Health at UNC Chapel Hill. Dr. Smith received her MSPH and Ph.D. from the School of Public Health, UNC Chapel Hill. Learn more about the 7th Breastfeeding and Feminism Symposium.

Is breastfeeding a feminist issue or a regressive practice that holds back mothers who seek to make their mark on the world?  Feminists have different ideas about this but my view, when I had my daughter and was working as an assistant professor on the tenure track, is that I should be able to breastfeed if I want to. Why should I have to feed my daughter cow’s milk instead of milk that my own body made? I was lucky.  My department head had recently become a grandfather and was sympathetic to my needs to “balance work and motherhood” and my colleagues didn’t seem to mind when I put a “do not disturb” sign on my door that had image of a breastfeeding mother.

But many women are not so fortunate. Their workplaces do not provide them the time and space to pump or feed their baby, and co-workers and bosses are not supportive. Many women are still not given good information on breastfeeding by their OB-GYN’s or pediatricians and doctors still flood their offices with marking materials provided by formula companies (pens, and calendars and such). Many women are frowned at by others if they attempt to breastfeed in public spaces, which they must do if they are not to be isolated at home.

Recent legislative advancements have the potential to improve the social climate for women who want to breastfeed. The health care reform act now requires employers (of 50 or more) to provide women with time and space to pump: this legislation focuses on hourly employees. You can read more from the U.S. Department of Labor site. In 2011 Surgeon General Regina Benjamin issued the “Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding” with the goal of making breastfeeding easy for women by putting forward “specific steps people can take to participate in a society-wide approach to support mothers and babies who are breastfeeding. This approach will increase the public health impact of everyone’s efforts, reduce inequities in the quality of health care that mothers and babies receive, and improve the support that families receive in employment and community settings” (p. iii in the Call to Action). For more information about breastfeeding in general visit the U.S. Office of Women’s Health and the Office of the Surgeon General.

Despite these advances most women in America face many different obstacles to breastfeeding. These difficulties, combined with the public health advice for women to breastfeed, have led many feminists to question the value of breastfeeding and the scientific evidence.  Our view is that rather than elevate the value of formula over breastfeeding we need to change the structures in society that make it difficult for women to both be a mother and be employed.   In fact, our view is that breastfeeding is low in our society because the status of women, particularly mothers, is low and that improvements in women’s status will lead to improvements in breastfeeding.

Since 2005 the Breastfeeding and Feminism Symposia has brought together academic scholars, practitioners, activists, and policy makers from the United States and abroad who are interested in considering feminist perspectives to address breastfeeding as a health priority for women and children.  The symposia have focused attention on how public health approaches to breastfeeding must go beyond promoting health to include serious consideration of the realities of women’s lives, which are complicated by gender, race and class inequities that feminists seek to change.  Though these symposia we seek to identify how we can improve the social, economic, political and cultural environment that enables women to breastfeed and continue their participation in social, economic, community and political life.

Our 2008 symposium resulted in the thematic issue of the International Breastfeeding Journal on Breastfeeding and feminism: Reproductive health, rights and justice.  Later this year a book based on the 2010 symposium will published by Rutgers University Press [Smith, PH, Hausman, BL, Labbok, MH, Beyond Health, Beyond Choice: Breastfeeding Constraints and Realities].

The theme of the 7th Breastfeeding and Feminism Symposium is Considering Women in Advancing the Surgeon General’s Call to Action.  Presenters, from the US and other countries, will describe discuss the ways in which we can implement programs, policies, research or other actions that engage women, empower women, build upon and value women’s knowledge and experiences, and keep women’s needs and gender issues at the forefront as we advance the call to action.

About Kaitlin Legg

Former Program Assistant at the Susan B. Anthony Institute for Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Rochester.
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1 Response to Breastfeeding and Feminism

  1. Dave says:

    I must also mention the possibility of the child developing a food allergy. Wheat and soy from formula should be a concern. I feel it best for both mother and child.

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