Breastfeeding: The Feminist Issue of Our Time


Why is breastfeeding the feminist issue of our time? Let’s start by defining feminism. According to Merriam Webster, feminism is “the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes;” the first known use of the word feminism was in 1895.


Widespread concern for women’s rights dates to the Enlightenment, the European intellectural movement of the 17th and 18th century; in 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft’s, A Vindication of the Rights of Women was published. In 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention called for full legal equality with men, including full educational opportunity and equal compensation. The Woman Suffrage movement gained momentum after this meeting but women in the US did not gain the right to vote until 1920. This was the first wave of feminism.


The second wave of feminism occurred in the middle of the 20th century when feminism addressed the limited nature of women’s participation in the workplace and the confinement of women to the home. At the end of the 20th century, a third wave of feminism arose to challenge middle-class white feminism and to broaden the goals of feminism to include equal rites for all people regardless of race, creed, economic or educational status, physical appearance or ability, or sexual preference. We are part of this third wave or perhaps the beginning of a fourth.




Breastfeeding in public is an issue of social equality of the sexes and equal rites for all people. When we talk about breastfeeding in public as if the breastfeeding mother and infant must be allowed to breastfeed in public, it begs the question of whose public it is anyway. Doesn’t the public space belong to the breastfeeding mother as much as to everyone else? When we talk about breastfeeding in public as if a woman’s right to breastfeed in public is dependent on the approval of those around her, we are doing the same thing we did to our black citizens when we told them they could only eat at “approved” lunch counters.


When instructor Adrienne Pine breastfed her baby in front of her class on the first day of the semester at American University, coverage of the issue focused on the indignation of a few of her students rather than on the rights of Ms Pine and her child. As long as we treat breastfeeding mothers and infants like second class citizens, breastfeeding will be a feminist issue.






Breastfeeding at work is even more illustrative as a feminist issue. If feeding one’s baby the milk of one’s species is a basic human right, then professional women have more of this human right than their blue-color sisters. A professional woman with an office can negotiate bringing her baby to work or can pump in her office. A blue-collar breastfeeding mom cannot even ask about break time to pump, much less have a place provided to do so, without fear of the reprisal of losing her job.


Only thirteen states protect a woman’s right to pump at work, and only five of these have an enforcement clause. And, while the Affordable Care Act’s provision for workplace pumping is laudable, it has limitations and workers may still face the burden of asking for breaks. Breastfeeding women who work remain second class citizens as long as their rights have to be negotiated.




In recent months, we have seen article after article extolling breastfeeding and attachment parenting as anti-feminist, but the apologists have it wrong. Breastfeeding is the feminist issue of our time because women who breastfeed do not have equal rights, either in public or at work.


I increasingly hear young women say that they are afraid to nurse in public, when it was a non-issue for those of us who breastfed back in the day. In the last ten years, the media has whipped us up into a frenzy about breastfeeding in public, and emboldened the minority of people who give a damn about it. The vast majority of people support and are in favor of breastfeeding and of breastfeeding in public.


The minority license to trump the legitimate rights of the majority, and particularly of breastfeeding mothers and infants, makes breastfeeding a feminist issue. Breastfeeding is the feminist issue of our time, and perhaps the fourth wave of feminism, because it is in the breastfeeding arena today that women must continually justify their legitimate behavior and defend their rights.


Peggy O’Mara  (101 Posts)Peggy O’Mara founded in 1995. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has lectured and conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League International, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four.



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13 thoughts on “Breastfeeding: The Feminist Issue of Our Time”

  1. I agree that a mother’s right to feed her child, and a baby’s right to be fed, where ever they are, should be protected and enforced. As a Canadian mother who breastfed all three of my children well into their second year, I think the fundamental reason why I was able to extended-breastfeed my children is because of the supports in place in my community and my country.

    I never faced the challenge of having to pump at work because under Canadian law I am allowed up to 50 weeks partially paid maternity leave. And because so many women are able to stay at home for the first year of their babies’ lives there are more women breastfeeding in public in my area. Yes, there are disapproving stares and the odd comment or two, but there are enough of us doing it that it is becoming the norm (at least with infants under 6 months old). And because we have tax payer supported community health nurse visits in the first few weeks post birth and access to lactation consultants, more of us are breastfeeding after encountering challenges that we may face.

    This is a feminist issue. But it is one piece of the puzzle. I believe the bigger issue is valuing women’s (and their children’s) overall health. I know this is a hot topic in the United States in the current political climate, but I believe that women shouldn’t need to fight for the right to breastfeed because they shouldn’t be faced with having to feed an infant at work. They should have the option of being at home and creating a strong bond without external pressures of work in the first important year of life. It is circular: the more women have the option to extended maternity leave, the higher the chance of breastfeeding; the more women breastfeeding, the more society is exposed to it in public; the more society is exposed to a natural way to feed an infant, the more there will be acceptance over time.

    But yes, given the current state of maternity leave and access to health care in the United States, this is an important feminist issue.

  2. I agree with Jennifer.

    I would also say that breastfeeding is a feminist issue because it is about choice and about being inherently feminine. As a women I should not be punished because I am utilizing my biological ability to nourish my child. I should have the freedom of choice to do this as needed, where it is needed.

    The really sad thing is that it is mostly women who create the biggest furor over public breast feeding. Society is so warped about women and feminism that even the women buy into it.

  3. I have been saying since having my first child in 2008 that this would be where the fourth wave rolled in. As a working mom dealing with issues such as being torn between my children, my desire to parent them as i see best and as a worker it became very clear to me that a new wave was here. This wave may have been here for a while but I think it took a while to realize people can not allow you to have a right when your body was created to do something, no one has the right to allow anything… It is simply just being. I became determined to speak up and not to have anyone feel that they were allowing me to do something that was not their’s to control. Educating women removed from the previous norm of the generations of nursing mothers before them and to support them is where healing this rift and empowering women begins in my opinion.

  4. Great article! I agree, but I also add that these days if feels like not just breastfeeding but mothering, motherhood, and childbirth are all the battlefronts for equality and womens rights. its as if our very biology is what is used as a place to control, condemn, confound, and confront women. It surprised me that while on one side of sex there is an attitude that a woman can do what she wants (although i know that depends on the community) on the other side there is so much other people have to say about what you can and can’t do. And so much control by the very systems society puts in place. I never expected so many strangers to have a say and control over what happened to my body or my childs. Its all rather invasive! I never expected so many strangers to have so much influence on me and my body and my life.

    Over and over I have been surprised at the many insidious ways womens bodies are used as fuel for philosophical debate.

    I do believe Maternity is the battlefront for equality of the sexes.

  5. As I may deduce, breastfeeding in the developed countries is a polemic issue, that’s why with all reason it’s a feminist issue, but in the Third World, it’s almost common to see a woman breastfeeding her baby in buses, restaurants, in all kind of public spaces. I have seen some faces of disapproval observing these scenes, as well as smiling faces but nothing more. Traditionally this was a very widespread custom that only was observed between women of low incomes. As the women were “progressing” this practice was discarded but at present, young moms are breastfeeding again in public as a form of empowerment and as a way of returning to the natural thing.

  6. Christy, you make an excellent point. It is in the public’s interest for breastfeeding to be commonplace as it is first and foremost a public health issue. I am in the UK, and here there are costs savings to be made in increasing breastfeeding rates – from the UK’s BFI website

    “Breastfeeding babies and their mothers are at lower risk of certain illnesses thus providing potential cost savings for the wider health care system. It was estimated in 1995 that the NHS spends

  7. Great article. I generally think that feminism was somewhat infiltrated by capitalism. So buying a product when our bodies make a better one for free was painted as choice rather than consumerism. Ultimately, feminismneeds to make sure that jobs that are traditionally women’s, such as raising children, are as highly respected as professor that are traditionally male. Women are trying to gain equality in a man’s world rather tthan trying to change it to a more equal world overall.

  8. IMO breast feeding is primarily a HEALTH issue. The PROVEN benefits of breast feeding makes it IMPERATIVE that most women breast feed. Breast feeding confers MANY benefits on the mother, the infant and society.

    If society does not like the mostly hidden display of a nursing infant in public, society has its values misplaced and needs to be straightened out. Does not EVERYONE appreciate that when they were nursing infants they payed little attention to the public? I would ask the public to please reverse this now.

  9. You do not mind taking advantage of the men in your life and publicly displaying yourself, away in Santa Fe NM; Go figure…

    You are the model mom right?

    I don’t think so as Bram and the rest of your kids smoke pot as you do and your friends support that?

    Model mom right?

    Um I do not think you should be publishing….

    Go Fish…

    My mom was an RN certified and qualified so do not lie to me?

    Love you:)

  10. “When we talk about breastfeeding in public as if the breastfeeding mother and infant must be allowed to breastfeed in public, it begs the question of whose public it is anyway.” – This is so poignant and true. I often feel some unease when breastfeeding in public spaces because I wonder if I’m making others uncomfortable. What a ridiculous thought! But I have it because our culture lately has been anything but welcoming of breastfeeding moms. I continue to breastfeed when and where I need to and hopefully the more we feed our babies, talk about breastfeeding, and provide a counter-culture to the mainstream one, we’ll continue to make progress towards equal gender rights.

    Thanks for a great post on this!

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