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Would Better Formula Further Feminism? I'm Not So Sure.

There’s an opinion piece in the New York Observer this week called It’s Time for Feminists to Stop Arguing About Breastfeeding and Fight for Better Formula by Stephanie Fairyington. In the piece, she talks about how she and her girlfriend are contemplating having kids and how they will not breastfeed when they do.

Ok. Fine. No one is saying they have to. Well, except maybe Mayor Bloomberg who launched the Latch On NYC initiative in New York area hospitals to encourage women to breastfeed by increasing breastfeeding education and making it harder to get formula in hospitals. I’m a little conflicted over that initiative myself because it seems like any mom who asks for formula is going to get a lecture instead of respect for her choices but we still have to see how it plays out in real life. However, Ms. Fairyington is much more adamant that it’s a nanny-state move designed to shackle women to their babies, to the detriment of their careers, their co-parent’s relationship with the baby, and feminism as a whole.

Ms. Fairyington’s central point is that encouraging breastfeeding so strongly simply because it’s natural detracts from women’s right to make decisions regarding their bodies. As she puts it:

The notion that “breast is best” simply because it’s natural sounds ringingly similar to the arguments made by pro-lifers and even contraception opponents, all of which begin with the same basic premise: women should be shackled to their corporeal destinies. Your body is designed this way — to get pregnant, to bring an embryo to term, to nurture life — therefore you must submit to its dictates.

She then goes on to argue that instead of promoting breastfeeding, we should make formula a better food source so that it can be considered an equally valid feeding choice. (She also makes the point that not all workplaces are friendly to breastfeeding moms. Though that may have been true before, there are recent laws in place that make it easier for moms to nurse and work.)

I got to the end of the piece and had two thoughts. The first was that yes, we probably do need better baby formula. Making any food source for any population better is always a good goal. My second thought was that Ms. Fairyington is talking from a place of incomplete knowledge because she has neither been pregnant or parented.

I know. I know! I sound like a tongue-clucking asshole who’s saying “Oh sweetie, when you have a baby of your own, you’ll feel differently!” I hate that! But, it may be true. Nothing in my experience has been as transformative as becoming a mother and I know I threw some previously held positions out the window after I got into the weeds of parenting and my perspective changed. It’s easy to be academic about everything baby-related when babies are simply academic. But when it’s your baby in your arms? Well, suddenly everything gets really REAL, ya know?

As for her point about breastfeeding being anti-feminist, I resent that implication because this? Right here? This mom raising two kids to respect all people, regardless of gender, race, ability, religion, or sexual orientation? This woman who knows the issues facing women, talks about them publicly and, oh yeah, VOTES? This is what a feminist looks like, yo. My breasts having nothing to do with it. Breastfeeding is just a personal choice.

I think that Ms. Fairyington is just one of an increasing number of voices in a breastfeeding backlash that’s rising out of some of the overkill the pro-breastfeeding movement has been guilty of. French scholar Elisabeth Badington’s book The Conflict made waves this spring when it talked about breastfeeding and attachment parenting as being regressive choices that limit women’s autonomy and feminism as a whole. It appears from the references in Ms. Fairyington’s piece that there is at least a trickle of like-minded literature and film coming along in its wake. The backlash side of the breast versus bottle argument is likely to get strident and engage in overkill, too, which won’t do anyone any good. At least not in America where our support for working mothers is crap no matter what we feed our babies. We have insufficient leave policies, daycare that costs too much, and unequal pay for women in the workplace that persists no matter what advances come along in formula or breastpumps. Those are the things that need to change to really help women.

I certainly respect Ms. Fairyington’s opinions on nursing versus formula. I’m sure she and her girlfriend will make the best decisions for their family when the time comes. But in the meantime, I think she’s trying to make a primary issue out of a secondary point. The cause of women’s rights in and out of the workplace won’t be improved by better baby formula in place of lactivism. It will be improved by women working together to demand better treatment for themselves and their children.

Read more from Rebekah at Mom-in-a-Million, The DC MomsThe Broad Side
Follow Rebekah on Facebook and Twitter too!

Photo credit: photo stock

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