Breastfeeding and Feminism

After having Isabel, I became fascinated with breastfeeding. The whole thing is a pretty amazing process, and some of the components of breast milk are beyond compare. However, I soon discovered articles from “feminists” arguing that birth, breastfeeding, and the associated period of fairly intense parenting that a newborn requires are oppressing; career crushing, even.

I consider feminism to be, at its core, the right of a woman to choose. For some, that is the right to choose to work 16 hours a day to break through the “glass ceiling.” For others, it’s the right to choose to procreate and fulfil a biological and physiological imperative, if she desires – or not, if she doesn’t. To choose to breastfeed (if you can call it that breastfeeding a choice”¦ it rarely is, but that’s another topic for another day), to fulfil a normal, natural, reproductive right: it’s not anti-feminist because the mother wants to – dares to – do something motherly and feminine.

The aforementioned articles shun breastfeeding as an unwanted obligation keeping women at home, tied to the sink, etc. Something for the hippies with hairy armpits. Something that condemns women, forces that glass ceiling lower and lower. Bottle feeding, it’s argued, frees these women up to return to the work force, go to their parties, be “independent”(as much as you can from a newborn baby?). The wondrous invention of formula allowing women to do what they choose. It all makes sense when you look at it that way, but”¦

When you consider that the entire formula and baby food industry is built up on the perception that mother’s milk is deficient, that there’s not enough of it, that the mother isn’t good enough to deliver it “¦ going right back to the origins of formula when male doctors pushed it on mothers as a “superior” option. How is this anything other than a feminist issue?

When a woman is desperate to “get her body back,” to return to “sexy,” to “be her husband’s again”; a bodily image derived by the media, by stick-thin models, and over-paid magazine editors; the idea that we are the property of the male (in heterosexual relationships, obviously) and have to be “good enough” for him again. How is this anything other than a feminist issue?

When a woman sits inside her local library, mall, hairdresser, restaurant, on public transport, and is asked to move on because she dares feed, comfort, settle her breastfed baby”¦ when her rights are violated simply because she happens to be female and happens to have been born with breasts that produce milk. How is this anything other than a feminist issue?

Many women realise when they become a mother is that they must live with perpetual guilt. Guilt driven by the media, industry, baby “gurus,” parents, and non-parents alike. Guilt over how they discipline their child, dress their child, over whether or not they work to support the child(ren), where and how the child is educated. And of course, above all, guilt over the method of feeding. How is this anything other than a feminist issue?

I may not be versed in the many complexities of the feminist movement. I have never read a book by Germaine Greer, and I occasionally shave my legs. However, I believe in women’s rights, and I believe that feminism is as much about supporting breastfeeding as it is about supporting women’s rights to not breastfeed. So when you tell me – when I read – that you don’t or won’t breastfeed because you’re a feminist, I tell you fine. Whatever you choose. But I breastfeed, and I supporting breastfeeding, because I’M a feminist.


Jem is a 20-something mother, web developer, blogger, and PHP ninja from the UK. This is a cross-post originally posted July 7, 2011 on

13 replies on “Breastfeeding and Feminism”

Oh, I have opinions about this!

I’m currently beginning my second year nursing my daughter with no plans to wean. Breastfeeding is a *totally* feminist act. What in the world is feminist about convincing women that their bodies can’t do what they’re supposed to do? Naturally, formula should be available to those women who want it. But equalizing child care and career options should be about better maternity leave, better daycare options, and more flexible work schedules rather than promoting artificial milk that *across populations* results in poorer health outcomes.

That said, it’s true that when a woman is nursing, it is very difficult for child care to be equitable. People will say things like, “Oh, the father or non-nursing partner can help bathe the baby, dress the baby, cuddle the baby, whatever.” But the fact is that when a baby is nursing, that baby tends to prefer the nursing parent, and the responsibility for bed time and sleep issues tends to fall on the nursing parent. I haven’t figured that one out yet, unfortunately.

That lack of equality in the duties drove me crazy too, and I think that it what so many women see as the un-feminist side of breastfeeding (and child-rearing in general).

But as my son grows, the dependance on me as sole nurturer is disappearing. There are so many things that he would rather do with his dad, or with his grandma, or with his friend next door, or with his teacher at preschool. In a few years, my husband will be taking him on fishing trips, and I will be left all alone for days. (!!!!) Parenting isn’t zero-sum. It does take sacrifices, and at times those sacrifices fall more heavily on the mother. But not always, and not forever.

Support women is the key point, for me, anyway. A lot of women aren’t actually suppported in either choice; they’re forced (in both directions).

QoB’s quote has some good points which relate back to yours, i think, that of support. And also, information. There needs to be so much more.

Damned if you, damned if you don’t is pretty much my feeling on breastfeeding. But my struggles aren’t necessarily the norm, i’m aware. However, i think the debate needs to be careful where women proclaim loudly that others have been lied to on the count of not being able to make enough or any milk. Breasts, like every other part of the body, are capable of not functioning properly or of being abnormal (for want of a better word).

. Breasts, like every other part of the body, are capable of not functioning properly or of being abnormal (for want of a better word).

Yes, indeed.
The blog post I linked to was talking about some very specific statistics about breastfeeding initiation rates -v- women still breastfeeding at 6 months: her point was that there is probably nothing at all wrong with the ability of most of those women to breastfeed just fine, if they were properly supported.

Oh yes, the drop off in breastfeeding over the initial weeks and months has significant links to lack of support. My feeling is that it is to the detriment of women (and their partners, indeed) to neglect the minority of women who aren’t capable or to brush them aside, as so often happens.

It’s true that some women can not produce milk, or do not produce enough to support the needs of their babies. I think it is a huge deficiency that these women aren’t given information that might be beneficial to them. Women that do not have a large enough milk supply can use supplemental feeders, and there are tools and techniques available for women who want the bonding experience of breast feeing but do not make milk. That these women do not fit into the ‘majorities’ at either end of the spectrum is no reason to marginalize them. Every woman has the right to choose the manner in which she will feed her child and should be fully educated about and supported in her decision.


Another great blog post on breastfeeding and feminism is here:

Get mad that we have no paid leave to help support the breastfeeding relationship. Get mad that moms aren’t being given free breastpumps, lactation consultants, and healthier food. Get mad at a system that puts Girls Gone Wild tits on the cover of every magazine, but bans breastfeeding pictures on Facebook. These are the issues that need our attention as mothers, or as feminists, or simply as women with brains. But perpetuating the myth that women are incapable of utilizing their own biological functions won’t get you any respect from me. I believe women are capable. Give them the tools. Give them the time. Give them the respect they need.

I never felt myself to be more of an active feminist than when I nursed my son in public.

I hate the guilt heaped upon mothers for their decisions on childbirth and rearing. No feminist should add that guilt for lack of understanding. We have choices in all aspects of our life, and we respect the rights of women to make their own decisions, in their own circumstances.

I have to laugh about breast feeding in public! With my first daughter I would NEVER feed her in public. I would go to the car or a restroom or (gasp) make her wait till we got home. With my second I would nurse her in public, but I would be so swaddled in covers and draping you’d think I was a pile of rags. By the time I had my son I realized I didn’t give a crap what the public thought, that my state protected public breast feeding, and that I didn’t have the time or energy to be discreet. One occasion jumps to mind when the whole family was shopping in Target and my son was hungry. I got him to latch on, then carried him in one arm while I pushed the shopping cart with my other hand as I continued shopping. Mr. Nevada (who was herding our daughters) asked “Are you okay with this?” I responded, “Let someone try to stop me!”

That reminds me of one of the first times I nursed in public. I was wearing my son in a mai tai style carrier, so he was just held right up to my chest. He was still so tiny that his head didn’t even peak put the top. With a nursing top, I could latch him on and no one but me could see that he was nursing. That is, no one could see until some nice old woman at Target asked, “Is there really a baby in there?” and peeked. She smiled and patted my arm and said I was doing a great job. I beamed.

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