Breastfeeding and Feminism - The Issue of Our Time

Breastfeeding: The Feminist Issue of Our Time

Why is breastfeeding the feminist issue of our time? Let’s start by defining feminism. According to Merriam Webster, feminism is “the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes;” the first known use of the word feminism was in 1895.
Widespread concern for women’s rights dates to the Enlightenment, the European intellectural movement of the 17th and 18th century; in 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft’s, A Vindication of the Rights of Women was published. In 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention called for full legal equality with men, including full educational opportunity and equal compensation. The Woman Suffrage movement gained momentum after this meeting but women in the US did not gain the right to vote until 1920. This was the first wave of feminism.
The second wave of feminism occurred in the middle of the 20th century when feminism addressed the limited nature of women’s participation in the workplace and the confinement of women to the home. At the end of the 20th century, a third wave of feminism arose to challenge middle-class white feminism and to broaden the goals of feminism to include equal rites for all people regardless of race, creed, economic or educational status, physical appearance or ability, or sexual preference. We are part of this third wave or perhaps the beginning of a fourth.

Breastfeeding in public is an issue of social equality of the sexes and equal rites for all people. When we talk about breastfeeding in public as if the breastfeeding mother and infant must be allowed to breastfeed in public, it begs the question of whose public it is anyway. Doesn’t the public space belong to the breastfeeding mother as much as to everyone else? When we talk about breastfeeding in public as if a woman’s right to breastfeed in public is dependent on the approval of those around her, we are doing the same thing we did to our black citizens when we told them they could only eat at “approved” lunch counters.
When instructor Adrienne Pine breastfed her baby in front of her class on the first day of the semester at American University, coverage of the issue focused on the indignation of a few of her students rather than on the rights of Ms Pine and her child. As long as we treat breastfeeding mothers and infants like second class citizens, breastfeeding will be a feminist issue.

Breastfeeding at work is even more illustrative as a feminist issue. If feeding one’s baby the milk of one’s species is a basic human right, then professional women have more of this human right than their blue-color sisters. A professional woman with an office can negotiate bringing her baby to work or can pump in her office. A blue-collar breastfeeding mom cannot even ask about break time to pump, much less have a place provided to do so, without fear of the reprisal of losing her job.
Only thirteen states protect a woman’s right to pump at work, and only five of these have an enforcement clause. And, while the Affordable Care Act’s provision for workplace pumping is laudable, it has limitations and workers may still face the burden of asking for breaks. Breastfeeding women who work remain second class citizens as long as their rights have to be negotiated.
In recent months, we have seen article after article extolling breastfeeding and attachment parenting as anti-feminist, but the apologists have it wrong. Breastfeeding is the feminist issue of our time because women who breastfeed do not have equal rights, either in public or at work.
I increasingly hear young women say that they are afraid to nurse in public, when it was a non-issue for those of us who breastfed back in the day. In the last ten years, the media has whipped us up into a frenzy about breastfeeding in public, and emboldened the minority of people who give a damn about it. The vast majority of people support and are in favor of breastfeeding and of breastfeeding in public.
The minority license to trump the legitimate rights of the majority, and particularly of breastfeeding mothers and infants, makes breastfeeding a feminist issue. Breastfeeding is the feminist issue of our time, and perhaps the fourth wave of feminism, because it is in the breastfeeding arena today that women must continually justify their legitimate behavior and defend their rights.
Peggy O'MaraPeggy O’Mara founded Mothering.com in 1995 and is currently its editor-in chief. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has lectured and conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League International, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four.