(WOMENSENEWS)– When the women’s movement began in the 1960s, childcare at public events became a commonplace for the first time. We could be more socially, politically, artistically active even when we had children. Breastfeeding, natural childbirth, and other awareness of our bodies’ functions and possibilities were again on the agenda—along with thinking and protesting!
Yet as the years passed, we were repeatedly told that the road to liberation, especially in industrial countries, had to pass through paid work outside the home. (Many of us had been there for years.) One manifestation of the dominance of that perspective was the enormous feminist resources and energy that went into the pro-abortion movement. Most of us agree that the right to refuse a pregnancy is vital, but choice does not end there. The right to have children and to have economic and other support to enable this, was rarely a feminist demand. It was at times problematic to get active support for the struggle by Third World women, and in the United States by women of color and the poorest of white women, against forced sterilization.
Not only sexism but racism played a part in discrediting breastfeeding. Women in Third World countries often have no access to clean water for formula. Thus for their babies, formula feeding may be a death warrant. Yet if women are considered physical as opposed to thinking beings, then women of color in nonindustrial countries are even more likely to be demeaned by doing biological work. Further proof of this “backwardness” may be how long many babies are breastfed, how much time they spend next to their mothers’ bodies, and no doubt how happy they are with this arrangement.
Such sexist and racist stereotypes are based on trusting “scientific experts” over “backward” women who believe “old wives’ tales;” what is manufactured, labeled, and advertised versus what a woman’s body produces. It is an indication of how, and how much, what passes for science is prioritized; we are encouraged to distrust what generations of experience have taught us nature can do, and which the most disinterested science confirms.
The book [“The Milk of Human Kindness”] demonstrates that, ironically, breast milk has the lowest economic value where it has the highest social and life-supporting value, in the Third World. This grotesque disparity parallels the 1995 study on the economic costs of global warming, which calculated that one life in industrial countries was worth fifteen lives in Third World countries. One commentator said: “By placing such a low value on the lives of most of the world’s people, they seem to endorse the economics of genocide.” Doesn’t the same apply to the devaluing and undervaluing of breastfeeding described here?
Why do women who contribute by producing the whole workforce have to plead for maternity leave that would allow them to recuperate from childbirth, get to know their children and their children to know them, and feed babies the best possible food?
Why are such basic and humane demands so controversial? What qualifies those who favor formula to deny the overwhelming evidence and individual personal experience that favor breast milk?
The wealth of information assembled here also strengthens the case for acknowledging women as perhaps the greatest producers of food. The individual production and one-to-one delivery of breast milk often goes hand in hand with subsistence farming on small plots of land “too small to count,” perhaps with a few chickens, a goat or cow, and individuals’ endeavors day in day out which benefit mainly those with little political clout or social status. Entire communities are surviving on that work—up to 80 percent of the food consumed in Africa is grown by women almost all outside the market. Are those of us who spend long hours of every day in this work also “too small to count?”
Not long ago we wrote:
A rural woman in Africa may have a toddler on her back as she sows, hoes, harvests, grinds, prepares, cooks and cleans up, on top of spending up to five hours a day collecting the water and fuel for cooking (and then is somehow supposed to find the time for a little small enterprise). A rural woman in the U.S. may be out in the fields or in the garden, making sure the children and the pets are safely away from the machinery, keeping track of the load in the laundry and the pie in the oven while considering how the new calf is doing, or even how to keep the farm in the family’s hands as her neighbors are losing theirs—and figuring out how to possibly console them for their loss. Meanwhile, statistically speaking, these two women in Africa and the U.S. are considered “economically inactive.”
Between breastfeeding and agricultural work, women are feeding the world!
In making this new and powerful case for acknowledgement of and support for breastfeeding, the case is also made for support for all mothers. This must include women who are combining waged work and breastfeeding. But while the status of mothers is central to the status of all women and girls, almost all women of every age are doing unwaged caring work, and all this work must be recognized.
Counting, valuing, acknowledging, and supporting (including with wages and pensions) unwaged and low-waged care giving—beginning with breastfeeding — opens the way for more choices for women, and fewer penalties for the biological burdens which fall to us.
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Selma James is a women’s rights and anti-racist campaigner and author. She founded the International Wages for Housework Campaign in 1972, and in 2000 she helped launch the Global Women’s Strike. She coined the word “unwaged,” which has since entered the English language.
For more information:
Sex, Race and Class-The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952-2011 (Common Notions):