Why Breast-Feeding Isn’t the Bugaboo

A new book by Elisabeth Badinter argues that “natural” motherhood is enslaving women. But breasts aren’t to blame

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In The Conflict, a provocative new book that was a best seller in Europe and is predictably making waves in the U.S., leading French intellectual Elisabeth Badinter argues that women have become newly enslaved by biology — more specifically, by their breasts. The ideological pressure to nurse a child — in the name of all that is natural and good — has had the nefarious effect of keeping women in their place, at home, far more effectively than any maneuver men might dream up. “Sexist men can celebrate: we will not see the end of their reign any time soon,” writes Badinter. “They have won a war without taking up arms, and without having said a word. The champions of maternalism took care of it all.”

Badinter argues that if women were to stop breast-feeding and give their babies formula from bottles, their economic and social status would rise. The critical counterattacks have been fierce. Among them, that Badinter sets up a false dichotomy between motherhood and feminism. And that Badinter has a whopping conflict of interest: she holds a controlling stake in and is the board chair of the p.r. and ad agency Publicis, which represents formula makers Nestle, Similac and Enfamil.

But the biggest problem with her argument is that it doesn’t stand up to reality. Larger and more complex factors are at play in the status of women.

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In France, according to 2002 statistics cited by Badinter in her book, only 50% of women breast-fed at birth — and the rate plummets within weeks. Women’s employment rate, at 60%, is among Europe’s highest.

But this likely has more to do with robust paid parental leave, a guaranteed return to jobs and nursery programs rather than breast-feeding. Irish women have been the most resistant to breast-feeding, with only 34% of new mothers doing so. According to Badinter’s reasoning, their economic status should top that of French women. But it doesn’t. Irish women have a lower employment rate of 57.8%.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., data released by the CDC in 2010 show that 75% of women breast-fed their babies, but the rates for breast-feeding exclusively plummeted to about 35%. The employment rate for American women is 64%.

The last time the U.S. was engulfed in a battle over breast-feeding was in the 1950s, when mothers were encouraged by formula companies and pediatricians to bottle-feed their babies. But the emancipation from breast-feeding did not mean that women flooded the workplace. Clearly, far greater forces than breasts were at work, including a postwar economy that meant husbands made enough money so wives could stay home and other barriers for middle-class women to enter the workforce.

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From time to time, we read about enclaves in Brooklyn or the Bay Area where mothers are so judgmental, so fierce in their insistence on breast-feeding, that they will drop the girlfriend who binds her bosom before a year is up. This is rare. And in spite of Badinter’s claim that naturalist cultures keep children tied to their mothers’ breasts for far too long, only once in my life have I seen a child stroll up to his mom, unbutton her shirt, undo her bra and reach for a sip. Just once.

One more important factor Badinter ignores: sober-minded naturalism — which involves cloth diapers, homemade, organic baby food and other laborious activities — is also a response to anxiety about the chemical stew in which we are now awash. Mothers today have to be the EPA, the FDA and the USDA. Extensive medical research on endocrine disrupters’ entering our children through creams, shampoos, toys, foods and plastics — including baby bottles — is the real ticking time bomb in our midst.

Most women are clever enough to drift past the manuals and figure out what works for them. More power to all of us. Let’s not blame our breasts for the other societal issues — like unequal pay, lack of day care and having to protect our babies from toxins — that are holding us back.

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