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Is Breastfeeding & Staying At Home Parenting Anti Feminism?

Prior to having children, I wouldn't really call myself a feminist.  Sure I thought women should have equal workplace rights, pay and so on - but really that's as far as it went.  If I'm honest I also quite like chivalry; men opening doors, carrying a heavy bag and so on - which I'm sure to some directly undermines the "feminist movement" as this article discusses.

Yet more recently the discussion surrounding feminism has fascinated me, that people with very different and even directly opposing views can both consider themselves feminist.  And even more recently still how this seems to have become an almost buzz word as a tool in the "parenting wars".

The Globe and mail this week reported:
"Sling-wearing. Co-sleeping. Extended breastfeeding. Ms. Badinter ( French feminist and philosopher) believes that these popular, labour-intensive practices, part of the attachment parenting model, cast women as mothers above all else. In her view, the Betty Drapers of the past have not evolved, but have been remade into glowing Earth Mothers pressured to embrace their biology: “Their increased responsibility for babies and young children has proved just as restrictive, if not more so, than sexism in the home or the workplace,” she writes. “The best allies of men’s dominance have been, quite unwittingly, innocent infants.”
"Ms. Badinter sees co-sleeping, a big part of attachment parenting, as an additional limitation to a woman’s freedom - and to her relationship with her husband or partner, who is often relegated to the couch for months."
Now perhaps the most important point to note about Ms Badinter's comments, is not actually related to feminism - but to the fact that Elisabeth Badinter’s billion-dollar PR company "Publicis" represent Nestlé's breastmilk substitutes.


The second point to note is Publicis also appears to be the go-to agency for the infant formula industry’s other major players as well, including Abbot Laboratories (Similac) and Mead & Johnson (Enfamil) as this webpage discusses.

So to summarise, Elisabeth Badinter’s job is to increase sales of baby formula.


But Elisabeth isn't the only person to voice such an opinion, I've heard other feminists make the same claims (which is perhaps what inspired the latest PR ploy?)

The Wiki description of Feminism is:
"Feminism is a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women.[1][2] In addition, feminism seeks to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment."

Right, but what about choice?

Isn't feminism about empowering women?  That they alone choose how to use their body and mind?    Surely telling a mum she can't stay at home, breastfeed and raise her family if she wants to is just as bad as her being forced to?  Having to go to out of the home to work is as restrictive as not being allowed?  If mum is the main earner, dad may choose to stay home or both partners may work part time.  Nowadays a whole range of different family setups exist, based on the needs and wants of each unique family.  If a woman wants to "be a mother above all else" (to quote Badinter) why shouldn't she?   If she was chairman of a multi million pound industry "above all else" would that suit?

If that's feminism, I'm glad I never fully subscribed!

The reality is that women get pregnant and lactate - men don't.  That's not political but biological - and no amount of campaigning will change it.  We also know that human milk is the normal food for a human infant, and that alternatives aren't as good.  Yet a mother is letting down the feminist movement if she is able to give her young their intended food, and wants to (and is in a position to) stay home with her children?  What about mothers who want to stay home, but can't because financial circumstances don't allow?

What about tackling employers to support women to express at the workplace, so they can choose to work AND feed their child?  What about women who breastfeed, co-sleep and work, either by pumping or by continuing to breastfeed when they are with their infant?  Where do they fit into this feminist mission Badinter speaks of?

Yeah, that sort of feminism wouldn't increase sales of formula though would it?  Let's not forget breastmilk substitute's heyday was during the Second World War,  when National Dried Milk was celebrated for liberating mothers from the constraints of breastfeeding so that they could help with the war effort.

But, in 1939, Nestlé was exporting condensed milk to Singapore and Malaysia as ‘ideal for delicate infants’, though it was banned in the UK for causing rickets and blindness.  Even then it was all about profit (read more here. 60 years later, Dr Cecily Williams said:
‘Misguided propaganda on infant feeding should be punished as the most miserable form of sedition; these deaths should be regarded as murder.’
What's changed?

A 2004 report found:
"The use of infant formula costs the lives of an estimated 9,335 U.S. babies each year."
Yet still manufacturers are allowed to advertise and in the US give free formula samples out at birth.

It seems to me the propaganda continues.  Claims that men are relegated to sofas because the mum is "mothering" rather bizarre.

My other half is a huge co-sleeping convert as he got shed loads more sleep (in our bed!).  A baby is pretty small, not like another adult squeezing in?  I have known dads who have headed off to the sofa, but their partners have at times been bottle feeding.  A restless baby at 3am can exist regardless of how they are fed or where they sleep.

Ultimately if you have to get up and make a bottle as per the DOH recommendations, with baby sometimes crying whilst you do so - how is this more workable for anyone than rolling over and feeding baby from the breast whilst dozing?  I rarely meet a mum who has both breast and bottle fed successfully who claims the latter is easier - the vast majority confirm it's oodles more work.  Sterilising, making up feeds, having to buy and carry everything around.

The role of a mother is often undervalued in society.  Ask a mum what she does and often you will hear "just a mum" (to differentiate from a work outside the home job) - just a mum?  Indeed a mum on Facebook recently discussing the fact that she worked full time, made the comment that the women in her family were strong and independent and should be applauded for that.  Which lays heavy implication that women who choose not to do so are neither.  A mum some years ago stated she worked to set a positive role model for her children, others are asked do they not get bored staying at home?

Perhaps we have come full circle with the feminist movement; our ancestors fought to work, and women today are at times fighting for the right not to - yet ultimately the respect for women and freedom of choice, seems as illusive as it ever was...


  1. win. this blog post is win. thankyou :)

  2. Amen! I'm a feminist in that I believe women should have that choice. My MIL chose to work and my FIL stayed home. I choose to stay home. And really, shouldn't feminism celebrate what we can do as women?! We are unique and play an important role.

  3. @susan: YES! yes yes!
    i have never understood the idea that to be a good feminist you have to be a man, or like a man. i am sorry but yes biology does in fact rule at times. we (women) give birth and lactate. men can not. shouldn't that be celebrated and honored and looked on with wonder? if you want to have babies giving birth to them and than raising them is all part of the joy. (even if you adopt you still have to be present and nurture them just like a biological child).

  4. I agree it is about choice...I am a wahm, I co-sleep, babywear and breastfeed...I do these things because I chose to. It is almost as if Ms Badinter is trying to suggest that I was coerced into mothering this way...which I find an insult to my intelligence!

  5. The whole formula industry is massively anti-women. Read The Politics of Breastfeeding. How many women do you think are in the top positions in formula companies?

    I do think it's important to have choice and (unpopular on this blog, I know,) I believe one of those choices should be to use formula, in a country where the healthcare system means that the risks are small, but let's not kid ourselves that formula was invented so that women could have freedom from the "burden" of breastfeeding. If it was, and women truly had an equal say, there would be a lot more research into ingredients of formulas, it would be sold at cost price and there would be no branding or advertising, just different make-ups for problems such as reflux or CMP intolerance, with a couple of variations on "normal" to account for babies' preference. It would not be distributed in countries where the facilities do not exist to make it up properly, in fact, it would be distributed in liquid form as a precious and lifesaving medicine to these places. Healthcare professionals would be educated in breastfeeding support the world over and would be able to fully support and inform women in whatever their choice of feeding method, breast, bottle, or a mix.

    As an aside, it's utterly ludicrous to suggest women are "coerced" into parenting in an AP way, because it's very much outside the mainstream/"norm" of parenting, in mine and many other womens' experience.

    In fact, I think that parenting (specifically, discipline) in a respectful way is a crucial part of raising a child who will respect others and expect to be treated with respect, not try to get their own way by being stronger, or using force.

    The mail is pretty hysterical and terrified of anything vaguely feminist, as though it was some kind of threat. Because of course we all know equality for all is, like, the most threatening thing anyone could ask for in the world.

    1. The product you speak of, respectfully raising, sounds like a Generic pharmaceutical product. The kind you get in a pharmacy. With a prescription.

      Yes, what a perfect idea for how to provide formula!

    2. I don't think it should be prescription-only. That means that a doctor gets to decide whether you have a "good enough" reason to use formula, which I think is wrong. But generic, yes, exactly. It shouldn't be something that is used to make profit, that is utterly wrong. The only thing the proceeds should go towards is to research safer, better ingredients and manufacturing processes, and to fund safe distribution to places where there is a real risk it may be used incorrectly. And breastfeeding support :D

  6. Also, I love this.

  7. Thank you for this post. I often 'justify' staying home by explaining how difficult it was for us to have a child, and how I changed my mind quite dramatically from how I felt when I was younger. However, what I should say is that I feel empowered (and lucky) to be able to raise my child, with no 'reasons' for doing it. But, like breastfeeding, I always take care to not offend those who choose another option. Breastfeeding is best, that is a proven fact. I'd love to cite studies that show having a mom (or dad) at home is best as well. I don't know, but my gut feeling is yes.

  8. I read that Badinter is the Chair of the Board of the PR firm that represents Nestle. Conflict of interest, anyone?

  9. Excellent post. I've discussed the topic of breastfeeding and feminism before, so I'll just copy and paste that here:

    Is infant feeding a feminist issue? There are compelling arguments which suggest so. The act of breastfeeding provides stunning evidence of women’s physical prowess and their contribution to the economy and human welfare. When we hand over the feeding of our babies to formula companies, we relinquish some of our power as women. As Palmer has maintained, “the production and aggressive promotion of commercial formula took power away from women and gave it to industry. Industry got richer and women got poorer.”

    Instead of commonly being seen as a roadblock to women’s empowerment, breastfeeding should be seen as a facilitator of it. As Van Esterik remarked in her essay, “Breastfeeding: A Feminist Issue”, “Conditions supportive to successful nurturing, are conditions which reduce gender subordination generally by contradicting negative images of women and emphasising the value of women's reproductive work.” In other words, to disvalue breastfeeding is to disvalue women.

    The BBC has contended that “All mothers produce breastmilk”. If, for sake of argument, we concede that 98% of women can produce sufficient breastmilk (Baby Friendly UK) yet less than 3% do so exclusively until 6 months (Unicef), this means that at least 95% of women are unnecessarily surrendering their baby’s health to the will of multinational corporations such as SMA and Aptamil. As I said in my article, '15 Formula Company Tricks', the primary purpose of these companies is not to do good or even provide useful products. Rather they have a statutory duty to put the needs of their shareholders first, which makes profit their prime concern.

    When we consider that the highest ranking executives of formula companies are men (Aptamil/ Cow&Gate - Mr. Jan Bennick; Heinz - Mr. William Johnson; Hipp - Mr. Klaus Hipp; Wyeth/SMA - Mr. Rober Essner), we begin to see the injustice from a gender perspective. Women have a gift that is highly valued in evolutionary terms (that of single-handedly birthing and nutritionally sustaining human infants), yet their competence in delivering this gift has been undermined by men.

    Furthermore, a common conception of formula is that it aids a woman’s economic mobility through strengthening her role in the workplace. She is no longer tied to a dependant infant and can instead pass a bottle of formula to grandma and return to being economically active. However this perceived benefit is negated by the fact that formula fed children are significantly more likely to fall ill, and numerous studies have shown that a child’s illness commonly results in the mother rather than the father taking time off work (Journal of Early Childhood; Weimer.J; Nursery World; Mother and Baby; Working Mums Magazine). Thus when a woman is taking more time off work she is seen as a burden by her employer. This does not strengthen the role of women in the workplace. Consequently women of childbaring age are viewed as liabilities. This is not to mention the strain on employers caused by their employees sick children results in lower incomes for working families, thus reducing income tax revenues which pay for government programs and services that benefit everyone.

  10. I too blogged about this for International Women's Day earlier this year


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