When thinking of the progress of feminism, most people immediately will quote improvements in equal pay, numbers of women in the workforce, rise of women in management, the state of the "glass ceiling," numbers of women CEOs, and other such statistics.
Certainly, very few women would put breastfeeding as high on the list of accomplishments or priorities of the feminist movement. And yet, for many women breastfeeding represents one of the most empowering experiences of their lives, and one which defined them as a powerful women and mothers.
While few would argue the notion that "breast is best" for babies (even formula cans print this on their labels, much as cigarettes include warnings about cancer), breastfeeding is often collateral damage in the "mommy wars," the over-hyped "battle" between women who work and those who stay home with their children.
In her excellent 2010 book, The War on Moms: On Life in a Family Unfriendly Nation (see my review in related links, below), Sharon Lerner shows how the upper-middle-class mommy wars are an unfortunate distraction from the reality of a systematic "war" on women and children through a lack of public policy that supports families. Lerner explores the reality that in fact the majority of American mothers often have little "choice" in the matter of whether to work and what sort or quality of care or education their children receive.
While many consider breastfeeding to be a personal choice, it actually represents a significant public health and public policy issue. Health care studies and recommendations describe breastfeeding as simply essential for the health of mothers and children. The economics and marketing ethics of breast milk substitutes have international health and human rights ramifications. Laws protect the right to breastfeed in public in most states, and national and state legislation may provide for the right to pump and store breast milk at work.
Breastfeeding is *not* anti-feminist. In fact, the lack of support for breastfeeding in maternity wards, workplaces and public spaces to fulfill the needs of both women's and babies' bodies is decidedly anti-feminist. Breastfeeding, simply, is what our bodies expect to happen and are designed to do after a baby is born. Breast milk is the only substance that babies bodies are inherently designed to accept after birth and for the first months of life.
Traditionally, "feminism" has seemingly been all about erasing differences between men and women with the idea that women have been held back in society. Certainly there is value and truth to this notion. But women have babies, and men don't! Women are designed to nourish those babies and babies are designed to grow best with mother's milk. Women are biologically "wired" to want to care for and be with their children after birth. Childbirth is a significant physical and emotional event that affects women profoundly and requires weeks or sometimes months of recovery. Any feminist agenda should support and celebrate this reality.
Feminism shouldn't attempt to sweep motherhood and children under the rug, but to change the notion of what "success" looks like for both men and women in a way that values families. Women's desire or need to stay home needn't be at war with the desire or need to work and access high-quality childcare, and breastfeeding can be supported on either path. Instead, all women should fight together for the economic support, workplace legislation and breastfeeding support for both rather than fighting one another and achieving success for neither.
(Another interesting book, even though I don't love the cover art!)