This same subject sparked some renewed voices in the breastfeeding/formula feeding debate, and it's being framed in an interesting way that discusses connections (or lack thereof) between breastfeeding and feminism.
The Feminist Breeder has a post titled "Why I'm a Feminist AND a Lactivist" that explains her view:
I absolutely support a woman’s right to choose to feed her baby formula, but I absolutely do NOT support the drug company’s “right” to be in the delivery room, handing out products that are only designed to stand between the mother and her breastmilk.She also calls out feminist Jessica Valenti for a post she wrote explaining her view that "refusing to give mothers access to formula is not 'baby friendly' or helpful--it's shaming and in some cases could be very dangerous."
Some back and forth debate ensued, including Valenti's response and then The Feminist Breeders re-response, which also included pertinent discussion pieces from Alison Stuebe's post "What Does Feminism Have to Do with Breastfeeding" on Breastfeeding Medicine and Penny Van Esterik's post "Breastfeeding: A Feminist Issue."
I agree with TFB that breastfeeding is a feminist issue, and I wholeheartedly agree that formula marketing doesn't belong in maternity recovery rooms. At the same time, I am sympathetic to Valenti's feeling that she was shamed for using formula and that shaming women for their decisions is not a very feminist response (though I don't think there was any of this individual shaming in TFB post).
I think AHodges, one of the commenters on TFB's post, makes an excellent point:
I don’t disagree that formula companies are unethical, but I do disagree with the implication that women are so easily manipulated and persuaded. Either women are intelligent enough to make informed decisions for themselves (which you seem to think is true when it comes to making decisions about pregnancy and birth), or they are too vulnerable and hormonal to make good choices.What's at the heart of this comment is the third-person effect, a mass media theory that suggests people see persuasive ideas as being more persuasive (manipulative) for other people than for themselves. So, someone may look at some manipulative advertising for a women's diet pill and say to herself, "I'm smart enough to see through this charade, but there are many other women who will be tricked by this. They should be protected."
Is there a third person effect when it comes to formula marketing? Perhaps. There are many women who successfully breastfeed even though they were offered free formula in the hospital (myself among them). I did, however, feel vulnerable and frustrated which manifested itself as a temptation to use the formula that felt somehow endorsed by medical professionals because I received it in a medical setting. However, suggesting that other women are not smart enough to see through the marketing ploys puts everyone on the defensive, and it clouds what's really at the heart of this issue.
As Stuebe points out " the ultimate link between breastfeeding and feminism is that in a truly equitable society, women would have the capacity to fulfill to pursue both their productive and reproductive work without penalty."
What's ultimately at stake--at least for me--in advocating to get the marketing out of the hospital room is that marketing is one of the ways we create cultural norms. I am frustrated that breastfeeding is not a cultural norm. I know that many women who formula feed feel attacked by the breastfeeding community, and I think that's not only unfortunate, but actively undoing the progress we're attempting to make. However, the fervor of support for breastfeeding among a vocal minority (myself among them, too) might be distracting us from the fact that there is not this kind of support from the culture as a whole.
When a formula company-sponsored gift bag is placed in the hands of every woman who gives birth (including the ones who explicitly declare they are going to breastfeed), the message is that formula is the norm. The context of this message is not the same as the context of a coupon in a magazine ad or even a sample sent directly to the mother's house by the formula company and it's certainly not the same as a television commercial or a radio promo that can be shut off or ignored. This sample is given in the context of a medical setting--a setting where health is supposed to take center stage. Giving formula in this context helps elevate formula feeding to the default choice, and that has, in turn, created a culture where breastfeeding is not as valued.
It is not okay to attack women's individual choices for what is best for them and their families. But we have to be able to separate micro-level personal attacks from macro-level cultural ones.
I, for instance, went back to work when my daughter was seven weeks old. I could feel personally attacked when I hear people advocating for maternity leave policies that guarantee women six months off. This article, for instance, argues that women should not go back to work before the baby is 12 weeks old because it is a crucial time for milestone development and these "are crucial times that parents need to be an active part of."
Could I take offense? Sure. I could feel like this article is claiming I'm not a good parent because I wasn't "an active part" of my child's life. But this article is not about me or any individual woman's choice; it's about a cultural norm regarding women's paid maternity leave.
Furthermore, I whole-heartedly believe that I would make the same choice again. Even if I were offered six months of leave, I would very likely have returned to the office around the same time. I was ready to get back to work. I love my job, and I missed it. I truly think that I am a better parent because of the level of fulfillment I get from my work. That does not mean, however, that I don't value better maternity leave policies. I recognize that my personal choice has little bearing on the overall culture surrounding motherhood. I feel it is my responsibility as a feminist to advocate for better choices and better treatment for all women, whether or not those are choices I myself would make.
Finally, we have to realize that getting personally defensive about a macro-level discussion is exactly what those in charge of the systems of power are banking on. If women fight among themselves over when (or if) we should return to work and how we should feed our babies, we don't have time to confront the systems that limit our choices and deny us equality when we make them.
And that's why breastfeeding is a feminist issue.