This week (August 1 – 7) is World Breastfeeding Week and August is National Breastfeeding Awareness Month. With that in mind, it seems like a good time to look at the ways in which feminism and breastfeeding go hand in hand — and how, as we have addressed on RH Reality Check, our health care reform measures can and should support breastfeeding as a reproductive rights issue.
This topic is close to my heart as I am currently shooting footage for a short web video on breastfeeding and feminism, examining the ways in which we must see the promotion and encouragement of breastfeeding not only as a public health imperative but as a women’s rights issue – thus a feminist, reproductive rights issue. Why?
Breastfeeding is not simply a "choice" women make. It is not, as my first video interviewee Emily Taylor of the Carolina Breastfeeding Institute told me, "a simple choice between vanilla or chocolate ice cream, as people like to make it out to be." It is a decision women make based on a tremendous variety of factors including (but not limited to): the kinds of support from both health care providers and family a woman receives immediately postpartum, whether or not her baby is born in a "baby-friendly hospital" (of which there are only 83 certified in the entire United States), whether or not a woman’s workplace adequately allows for a woman to pump upon returning to work, what kind of maternity leave a woman is entitled to and whether she is even in an economic position to take advantage of the leave, whether or not the woman is single or married (yes, statistics show that single women are less likely to breastfeed than married women for a number of reasons), whether a woman has low milk supply, whether the woman’s culture of origin is supportive of or knowledgeable about breastfeeding, whether it is legal in a woman’s state of residence to breastfeed in public and on and on. Some of these factors are measured in the the CDC’s Breastfeeding Report Card for the United States – an assessment that measures five different types of breastfeeding support and tracks success based on these indicators.
Almost 64% of women breastfeed in the early postpartum stages but, after 6 months, only 29% of women are still breastfeeding.
For these reasons and more, newborn feeding is a feminist, reproductive rights issue.
Yes, I wrote newborn feeding – not just breastfeeding. As we talk about breastfeeding, we must also discuss all newborn feeding. No one wants to see women made to feel guilty for the choices made in the best interest of herself and her baby (and, by the way, least of all me. I did not breastfeed my first child for numerous reasons and the anxiety and embarrassment was overwhelming at times). If a woman is provided with all of the resources and support she needs to make a clear, informative decision about feeding, no matter what she decides – it is her decision. Yes, breastfeeding is a public health issue, as evidence points to the clear health benefits for both mother and child when a mother breastfeeds her baby for at least 6 months, optimally for one year. However, the focus for society – what society should and needs to concern ourselves with - is the societal/legislative/cultural changes that need to be made in order to give women and babies the best chance for the greatest health outcomes. This is not about examining individual women’s decisions (much like abortion) – it’s about nothing short of a public health overhaul that must occur for the sake of mothers and babies. But it cannot happen without buy-in and significant assistance from the feminist and reproductive health and rights movements.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Carolina Breastfeeding Institute organizes and hosts the annual Breastfeeding & Feminism Symposium annually. The symposium holds at its core these four principles:
- Breastfeeding is a public health imperative and an important aspect of reproductive health, as well as a reproductive right and a social and biological process;
- Women must have the right to self-determination to breastfeed freely and without constraint;
- It is important to re-orient the paradigm in which breastfeeding is viewed as a "lifestyle choice" to a paradigm in which it is a "human right" and a "social justice issue" so as to ensure the social, economic and political conditions necessary to promote success; and
- Women’s decisions to breastfeed should not result in the loss of their economic security or any rights or privileges to which they are otherwise entitled.
None of these can realistically occur without fighting for women’s equity in U.S. society.
As it stands now, in this country, the early stages of breastfeeding are too often miserable, exhausting, and confusing and keep women isolated and frustrated. In addition, too many women are left unable to balance their work and home life because of lack of supportive workplace policies.
The thing is campaigns like National Breastfeeding Awareness Month, while certainly helpful, still put the onus on women to make a choice to breastfeed based on the health benefits to baby and mother, leaving them to navigate an extremely difficult time with varying levels of familial and societal support. And, of course, most mothers do want what’s best for their newborn babies’ health. But in addition to campaigns like this one, let’s examine the multi-tiered changes that must be made. Newborn feeding is a feminist, reproductive rights issue and until we all work together in order to integrate legislative, cultural and health changes into the mix, working towards women’s equality in this country, not much will change.