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Artillery Row

Misappropriating motherhood

La Leche League and the pornification of breastfeeding

In 2009 I trained as a breastfeeding peer supporter. To be honest, I was not a very good one. I’d never found breastfeeding physically difficult, but struggled with the emotional and political baggage. I worried constantly about the delicate balance between encouragement and judgement. In the back of my mind I feared involvement in something regressive, traditionalist, oppressive. We were supporting women, yes, but weren’t women more than just this? 

As a new mother, I was anxious not to be diminished by motherhood. Even the term “mother” felt a bit, well, not me. I’d insist I was the same unique person I was before, only I happened to have kids! At the same time, however, I couldn’t help feeling impressed at what my own body, so long despised, had achieved. Made people! Fed them! Helped them grow! This was not nothing — why should I pretend otherwise? Weren’t female bodies, so often judged for being less than doll-like, actually amazing? 

The tension was unsettling. The liberal feminism I had bought into told me that the specific capacities of the female body had to be downplayed, lest they be held against you. Make too much of what you have just done, demand too many concessions, even dare to feel a little pride in it all, and that’s it — no more world of the mind for you! 

It is extremely difficult to create and maintain environments in which exclusively female experiences, especially those relating to reproduction, can be respected, supported and celebrated. Anything female bodies can do that male bodies cannot has been sold to women as evidence of our supposed inferiority — our baseness, our alignment with the beasts of the field — or else it is presented as all that we are and all that we can do. As Adrienne Rich wrote in Of Woman Born, “no wonder that many intellectual and creative women have insisted that they were “human beings” first and women only incidentally, have minimized their physicality and their bonds with other women. The body has been made so problematic for women that it has often seemed easier to shrug it off and travel as a disembodied spirit”.

This is the historical and cultural context in which any form of network for pregnant women and mothers comes into being: one in which we are granted multiple incentives to be alienated from ourselves, and by extension, the unique relationship we have with the children we bear and feed. Female-only networks centred on female-only experiences challenge patriarchy’s understanding of male experience as the default human experience, yet the narrative that surrounds such networks is that they are conservative, threatening to rob women of the chance to be ‘equal’ in the sense of indistinguishable from men. 

The problem articulated by Rich in 1976 has hardly been resolved in the age of Pornhub. Indeed, in certain circles — ones which nonetheless claim to be feminist — one could be forgiven for thinking that the only options open to today’s female humans are the following: centre femaleness in your definition of “woman”, and be a passive, leaking brood mare; unsex yourself by whatever means possible (linguistically, surgically), and have a shot at being an (unsexed) person; prioritise a porn-addled man’s idea of what a woman is (tits, holes), and thank him for liberating you from all that ugly, mumsy stuff — dependency, connections, biology itself. 

The shame many women feel surrounding breastfeeding is multi-layered: are you “good” at it? Is your baby getting enough sustenance? Do any difficulties indicate that you are a bad mother? Should you do it in front of other people? Have you made yourself undesirable? Are you disgusting? To whom, after all, does your body belong? None of this is new, but add to it the influence of queer theory, the global porn industry and an academic feminism built for “disembodied spirits” alone, and what space remains in which to validate the uniqueness and challenge of breastfeeding, or even to speak of it? Only one in which any mention of female-specificity is excised. 

It does not surprise me that La Leche League International, the global non-profit organisation for the promotion of breastfeeding, has embraced what it calls “trans inclusion”. This is despite the fact that by doing so they have endorsed an ideology which enforces the very alienation and prioritisation of the male gaze which make breastfeeding much more fraught for so many new mothers. As the writer Milli Hill has pointed out, capturing organisations focussed on female-specific experiences is the ultimate way for trans activists to coerce people to behave as though “there is no connection between female biological processes and being a woman”:

Birth writers, breastfeeding experts, antenatal organisations and midwifery colleges; if [the trans movement] can get them all to say, ‘It’s not just women who have babies’, then a citadel has truly fallen.

And how it has fallen! It has not been enough to engage in linguistic policing to mask the fact that on the contrary, it is just women who have babies. If you are serious about denying women any female-exclusive experiences and relationships — and by god, trans activism is very serious about it indeed — you have to go further. LLLI has duly obliged, falling in line with the claims that not only is breastfeeding not exclusive to people who wish to be called women (even if all of them are female), but that male people can breastfeed too.

The adoption of gender-neutral terminology within breastfeeding support is neither kind nor inclusive

Not all LLL members have gone along with this. Last week it was revealed that six trustees of the British wing of the organisation have been suspended for objecting to “pressure to abandon mother-only breastfeeding services”. These members have now made a whistleblowing report to the Charity Commission on the basis that the organisation is no longer acting in the beneficiaries’ interests. These whistleblowers are, of course, absolutely right. They represent the kind of breastfeeding supporter I wish I had been.

The adoption of gender-neutral terminology within breastfeeding support is neither kind nor inclusive. It endorses the myth that terms such as “female”, “woman” and “mother” are belittling — when applied to female humans — and can only be granted any dignity when opened up to males. Any breastfeeding woman who cannot bear the words “female” or “mother” being applied to her is not rejecting conservative gender norms; rather, she is incapable of imagining such terms outside of a patriarchal context. Instead of demanding all women use language which panders to self-alienation, a female-centred support group should be helping all women not to feel diminished by femaleness and female connections. 

Even more worrying is the drive to normalise biologically male people “breastfeeding” babies. In a deeply disingenuous post from 2020 titled “Breastfeeding without giving birth”, LLLI tells us that “women have breastfed babies they did not birth throughout history”. This is true. Sometimes the reasons they have done this have been altruistic and community-focussed; at other times, the practice has been exploitative, with marginalised women feeding the babies of privileged women rather than their own. We are not meant to notice the gaping leap from this to therefore it’s totally fine for men who claim to be women to drug themselves in order to get the “validation” of breastfeeding, regardless of any physical risks to the baby or the way in which this reduces an infant to a prop to indulge a fetish. We are meant to choose between “you must only breastfeed a baby that you have birthed yourself” and “anyone of either sex should be able to breastfeed a baby if it makes them feel good”, with no in-between (the in-between being co-operation between women, without the involvement of self-centred men). 

One might wonder why some activists within LLLI would countenance favouring the demands of trans activists over the welfare of mothers and babies. I suspect they are a minority — as is the case in so many captured women’s organisations — but a very vocal, threatening and well-backed one. If one goes back to the question “does validating the female body make me less human?”, I can imagine a splitting off in two directions: on one side, there are the feminists who recognise that there is nothing degrading, dehumanising or limiting about femaleness, and on another, there are the women who still mistakenly believe liberation lies in conflating womanhood with femininity, something that can be put on and shrugged off at will. That the latter have essentially rubber-stamped a definition of “woman” that is shaped by the male gaze — and therefore pornography — is incredibly destructive. The logical conclusion of this line of thinking is that women can be built and dismantled at will. Just add and remove breasts, holes, hormones. There is no holistic understanding of a woman as a human being with her own embodied reality, existing in relation to others, because that involves telling men there are some things they can never have. 

Women who choose the female definition of “woman” have, for years, been chastised as conservatives and bigots. Meanwhile those who favour the male-centric, porn-inspired definition pose as empathetic, inclusive, progressive. They are anything but. To the porno-progressives, a female body is not what it does and feels; it is whatever a man wants it to be, right up to the point at which he can be it, should he so wish. Likewise, a woman’s relationships with others must be determined by men; if a man cannot bear a relationship that excludes him — which the mother/baby dyad necessarily does — then it must be disrupted and denied. 

All of this is ultra-traditionalist, and all of it is a feature of the supposed queering of breastfeeding support. The reason so many fail to notice this is that porno-progressivism feels edgy and challenging, and maybe it is, to some men. As far as women are concerned, it is dehumanising and exclusionary — just as patriarchy always has been.

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