Is Breastfeeding a Feminist Activity?

08.03.12 Combining work with breastfeeding


What does it mean to be a feminist? It means kicking the can down the road so other women can live their best lives. Whether you identify as a feminist or not, you’ve absolutely benefitted from the work other feminists have done on your behalf. If you’re a pregnant mother who will return to work after your baby is born, you have a radical feminist opportunity coming your way – breastfeeding.

A hundred years ago (more or less) women like Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul fought for American women’s right to vote. They recognized that only when women claimed their full rights as American citizens would they be able to dramatically improve their lives.

Later, Margaret Sanger fought for American women’s rights to use birth control, plan their families, space their children and reduce their chances of dying in childbirth and living in poverty. Later still, Eleanor Roosevelt brought women’s working conditions and civil rights to the forefront of American politics and little by little, women gained respect in society and the workplace.

Eventually, working women themselves kicked the can. During World War II, they replaced men on factory floors, offices, banks, schools and hospitals proving women were valuable to the economy, essential to the workforce and capable of combining work with marriage and motherhood. When the war was over and soldiers wanted their jobs back, women who battled to continue working advanced women’s rights to work outside the home.

Women in the 60s and 70s challenged society to accept that women could choose their own lifestyles, including non-traditional careers. Broad-shouldered career women of the 80s and 90s proved women were just as effective in the boardroom as men and demanded that women didn’t have to tolerate sexual harassment on the job.

Strong women have made great strides in establishing women’s equality in society and the work place, but we have a long way to go. The women’s rights movement is far beyond proving women are just like men. We’re not. We’re women and we have unique and exceptional societal and familial roles. Having the same rights as men isn’t anywhere near enough. Sure, we do the same jobs men do. We carry our own weight, earn our own living and stand on our own two feet, but we also do things men will never do. We have the babies and breasts.

Unlike women in the 60s who were fired for getting married and prohibited from working during pregnancy, women today work right up to their due dates. Thanks to the work of earlier feminists, we have a right to maternity leave and a job to go back to when that leave is over. But, once maternity leave is over, (and for most American women that’s a measly twelve, unpaid weeks), we have to either give up breastfeeding or hope to keep it going by pumping at work, on breaks, in the bathroom and under the scrutiny of coworkers and bosses who often resent accommodating lactating breasts on the job.

That’s why many American women breastfeed for only a few weeks to months instead of the full year recommended by The American Pediatric Society and World Health Organization. No one disputes it’s the best way to feed a baby and most moms start out intending to meet that goal, but without the right support and infrastructure, breastfeeding while working is incredibly difficult. Sure, many employers and coworkers are supportive, but far too many resent that breastfeeding mothers need extra breaks and privacy to pump and a place to store the milk. Seriously, that’s all it takes to successfully combine breastfeeding with work.

That all-too-common lack of support is why, for many working mothers, breastfeeding is a luxury, not a right. It’s why many women switch to formula. They want to breastfeed, know it’s best for their babies and far more affordable for their budgets, but they have to work and breastfeeding on the job isn’t easy for many American women to do. Breastfeeding shouldn’t be an elite privilege extended only to women who either work at supportive workplaces or stay home with their babies. It should be a right that every mother can choose if she wants to.

That’s where mothers delivering babies now come in. Whether you identify as a feminist or not, it’s up to your generation to take charge of women’s rights from here and part of that will be making it possible for women to work and be mothers without suffering reprisals on the job. How are we going to accomplish that?

  • By educating people about the benefits of breastfeeding.
  • By insisting all babies (who are the next generation of employers, employees and citizens after all) have access to the best care and nutrition.
  • By demanding employment policies support all breastfeeding mothers- not just on paper but in practice.
  • By being generous and supportive to your own employees and coworkers who breastfeed.

It’s going to require women and men (Dads want the best for their babies too) to make a fuss, dig in their heels, endure the stink eye and insist on respect. It’s going take to legions of working mothers to commit to breastfeeding and pumping on the job, no matter what. It’s not going to be easy, but then, none of the rights we’ve achieved as women came easily.

If mothers like you kick the can forward, our daughters won’t have to make the same difficult choice mothers have to make today – to breastfeed or to work. Women can do both. Now’s the time to make it as natural and normal as it is for women to vote. Being a feminist today means kicking that can with our breasts.

Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? Email it to and it may be answered in a future blog post.

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