Within decades, American women suddenly seemed to lose the ability to adequately feed their babies, just as infant formula hit the market. Doctors continued to push breastfeeding, but cultural perceptions changed, and with them the social construction of femininity. Rather than being a symbol of maternalism, breastfeeding seemed incompatible with femininity — or, specifically, with white upper-class femininity. Breastfeeding didn’t mesh well with ideas of delicate, refined white women; it was too animal-like, too uncivilized. As Lepore relates, by the early 1900s, a study in Boston found that 9 out of 10 poor mothers breastfed, but only 17% of wealthy mothers did.
By the 1950s, only 20% of mothers nursed their children. Then, ideas about motherhood changed once again; suddenly comparatively privileged, white women were drawn to movements that advocated breastfeeding. Formula came under increased scrutiny. And so continued the ongoing cultural debate over breastfeeding, motherhood, and proper femininity.
Right now it seems new and not so new mothers in many countries are assaulted from all sides by differences of opinion, sometimes from people who have never breastfed a baby and from some who never will. Everyone has an opinion and a stance, because everyone seems to think it affects them in some way.They take it personally, connect themselves to an act which currently has nothing to do with them, but seems to drag up long and deeply held feelings, reactions and views. Do those who view a mother feeding her baby discreetly in a public place react according to whatever their own experience has been of breastfeeding? Do those who want to punish mothers for doing what is best for their baby, who want babies to be fed in filthy public toilets, to deny pleasant and comfortable facilities to mothers and parents and who tut-tut over the ‘indecent’ exposure of a few millimetres of female flesh when their society promotes near nudity in advertising and other forms of female exposure are acceptable, have a very personal problem with how they themselves were fed as babies? If we looked into their personal histories, those parts of life that are thought by many to be so unimportant, birth, babyhood and early childhood, we might find sad tales that have formed people who envy, deny others, oppress and judge harshly. They are surely the last people to have an opinion we can rely on to be sound when it comes to babyhood, motherhood and the expression of those two through the very intimate, loving and bonding act of breastfeeding.
In the country I live in, it is illegal for anyone to discriminate against a woman who is breastfeeding (or pumping breast milk) because the law has enshrined it as a ‘protected right’. It is legal to breastfeed a baby anywhere the baby needs feeding and that includes restaurants and public places. Anyone who verbally abuses a breastfeeding mother or who lays a hand on her can be charged with Assault. That is as it should be and I doubt there are few if any charged.
It is good to see increasing discussion on this important area and hopefully in time there will be less argument, less uncomfortableness for those who find it uncomfortable for whatever reasons and much better provision for those who need it. It is long overdue.