Breastfeeding and Feminism

 |  Parenting, WTF

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 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-feminism 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 higher and higher. 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 mother isn’t good enough to deliver it … going right back to the origins of baby milk 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, hairdressers, 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 support breastfeeding because I’M a feminist.

Jem Turner +44(0)7521056376

13 comments so far

  1. Stephanie said:

    As a 20 year old girl trying to be a roboticist (and someone who believes in feminism), I thank you for this post. I think that what you say about feminism is the easiest to understand.

    Up until now, I always thought that it was about breaking down double standards that kept girls from the career I want. For me, it’s about been about showing traditionalists (*cough*parents*cough*) that it’s perfectly fine for me to be strong-willed, robust, and ambitious.

    And even after reading your interpretation, I can still say that I’m a feminist and go on doing as I please, all the same. =D

  2. Hanna said:


    I suspect that I'm a funfeminist (and proudly so!). omy. But for me feminism is about choice and not letting age old stereotypes to be only model how to live my life. And I agree with you breastfeeding is feminist issue. Women's breast are such taboo even if they are talked and seen all the time! But somehow I find that it is everyone else but the owner of pair of boobs controlling the use of them.

    I do what I want with them and I don't deserve to be shamed for having breasts.

  3. Lauren said:

    Unfortunately many people have misinterpreted feminism as being anti-feminine. As someone who strongly identifies as feminist one of the most exciting things about going to university was the chance of meeting like minded people (we don’t exactly have feminist groups on my council estate). I expected a supportive group of people, encouraging women to be who they want to be and accepting everyone whilst challenging social norms. Instead I have been told I’m “buying into the patriarchy” by wearing dresses, and that whilst I don’t shave I shouldn’t defend women who choose to “infantile” their selves by doing so. It quickly becomes a competition of “I’m less feminine than you” which in its self is a disgustingly sexist way of saying anything traditionally associated with women is wrong and unless we take up the traits associated with men we’re brainwashed by society.

  4. Veronica said:

    You, and only 3 other women I know have taken the breastfeeding route. I see how those friends babies are, and how formula fed are…. hands down breastfeeding is way better!

  5. Angela said:

    I just also love how a woman cannot be independent ad be married, or have children, or GOD FORBID choose to stay home with her kids. I overall hate that feminism has become about being better then men, rather then equals, or how a woman should never “chain themselves down”. I always thought feminism was about men and women being equals and being able to choose what is right for themselves as well.

  6. Stephanie said:

    Man, I think you’re hanging around the wrong feminist circles! I’ve become rather active in the feminist community, and I can tell you that few if any of my feminist friends believe having children or choosing to breastfeed or anything like that is a bad thing. People in my “circle” of friends hate people who police others – those who shame people for breastfeeding and those who shame people for not breastfeeding alike. At the end of it, it’s important for the mother to make an informed decision on what she needs to do for her health and that of her infant’s, and the negative and nasty opinions and judgments of others should have no bearing on that.

    Regarding feminists who believe that to be feminist means rejecting being feminine… that’s horse shit, and any modern feminist will tell you the same. That’s the clap trap of older feminists who thought they had to behave more manly in order to be equal – but isn’t that playing into the patriarchy anyway? The bottom line is, whether you are more feminine or masculine, that is your choice, and you should be whatever you want to be to be happy. (That is a lot of “to be”s).

    Anyway, I think a lot of people in the feminist community I’m part of would really enjoy this post. Would you be interested in having it cross-posted at an online magazine for women I work for? The link to it is my URL. I think it would be well-accepted there, and we love having contributions on mothering as a feminist.

  7. Vera said:

    This is the exact reason why I’ve always maintained that I am anything BUT a feminist. Sure, in some cases I’d like to be equal to men (i.e. most people think I’m technologically challenged just because I’m a woman)… but in other cases I’m perfectly fine with being all “pampered” and feminine.

    In any case, excellent article. I think a lot of people would benefit from it :D

    • Hanna said:

      I do have traits that are stereotypically considered feminine, doesn’t stop me being feminist. To be honest I’m kinda bored with gendered traits. What really makes something feminine and something masculine. I personally think it would be time to look past this kind of simplistic and old fashioned division.

      I also like “pampering”. But I like being pampered because the person who pampers me likes *me*, not because I’m woman and it’s his duty to make me feel like a woman.

      So no, I don’t really get your problem with feminism.

  8. Clem said:

    Wow, yeah, I would never say that breastfeeding is anti-feminist at all! I agree with you – feminism is about pushing for equality for both sexes and for allowing women to make their own choices. Saying that certain choices are invalid seems to be condescending and insulting a woman’s ability to make decisions FOR HERSELF, which is decidedly anti-feminist.

    Honestly, people who say things like that are the reason that feminism is seen as dirty and shameful and horrible and anti-man and all those things.

  9. Julie said:

    I entirely agree with you (well, except for not having a baby). It saddens me when people set aside some aspects of life ONLY because they have been traditionally expected of women. Feminism should, as you said, be about the right to choose just what you want to do, and not about conforming to an ideal that opposes tradition in every aspect.

    When you have a child, you want to give it what’s best. Sure, you won’t be able to work and party all the time, but, guess what, it’s not just about your own little self anymore: you’ve made the decision to bring another human being into the world, so now take care of it.

    The idea that women should never have a job other than being mothers is a social construct, but women being the one with boobs (mmmm, boobs) isn’t. Breastfeeding is about giving yourself to your child (erm, not sexually…), it’s about devotion and love, and I think that’s a wonderful thing to do in a world of such selfishness.

  10. Claudia said:

    Wonderful. I agree 100% – feminism was and still is the fight for the right to choose whatever you want to be and do with your life. It’s not about being forced to do anything, and I know lots of mothers who would argue that they did feel forced to go back to work for whatever reason and that they wish they could be home with their babies. I am also a huge proponent of breastfeeding :D

  11. Mumblies said:

    I was fortunate in that when you and your siblings were born I did not have to go out to work as your Dad earned enough to keep us so I had no problems regarding pressure to return to work. This then meant that I had plenty of time to spend on you all when you were babies. I don’t know if I’m a feminist or not, I always had ideas about what I thought were the ‘right way’ which I presume I got from my own mother and what she taught me. As she fed me and my brothers until we self weaned when you all arrived the thought of bottle feeding never entered my head. I firmly believe that every woman changes once she becomes a mother, not only physical changes to her body but also her mindset. It alters the way you see things and how you look upon life in general when you are not longer just responsible for yourself but now a teeny person to keep safe and nurture. Julie hit the nail on the head where she said ‘Breastfeeding is about giving yourself to your child (erm, not sexually…), it’s about devotion and love,’ The child never asks to be born the parents made that choice. Therefore in my eyes the parent owes a debt to raise that child to the best of their abilities; to feed them and keep them safe and warm and loved until such time as they are able to be independant and take care of themselves, and subsequently their own offspring whereupon they in turn then become the parent and so the cycle continues.
    I believe that every woman should be free to make her own choices, that includes how she raises her children with (hopefully) help from her partner. I believe that we are all equal and that each and every one of us has the right to choose their own path. What may be perfect for one, is not necessarily the same for another and no-one should have the right to dictate to another how they think things should be done. As you know Jem I think you are both doing a wonderful job in raising Izzy and as it is clear to see that she is a happy contented super smart toddler with a superior intelligence compared to so many of the same age as her. With your and Karl’s guidance and good education at school she will ultimately become even better than you ;) Stick to your guns as they say… you truly are amazing!