Written by Ruth Bratt

In The News

The witches of breast milk: pitting women against women

We don’t all have to agree with each other, says Ruth Bratt, but let’s not fall to infighting.

breastmilk witches

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

There’s a headline to get your back up. In the Telegraph, an (actually quite calm and considered) article about breastfeeding had the headline: Is this proof the witches of breast milk are wrong after all?

What an image it conjures up. You can see them flying down the road towards you on their broomsticks of self-righteousness, these witches of breast milk, their pendulous dugs spraying overflowing milk from their teats, breast pumps and a gaggle of self-flagellating women with cracked nipples in their wake.

And it’s understandable that women who feel they have been guilted into breastfeeding and told they are not bonding properly with their child if they don’t, would cheer and crow as the “breastapo” as the same writer calls them, are proven to be wrong and that breast milk might not have any advantage over formula. HA! In your warty faces, breast milk witches!

The problem with this is that once again, women are pitted against, or pit themselves against, other women. Why “breast milk witches”? It’s not just women who promote the ‘breast is best’ campaign, but it’s women for whom the special vitriol is reserved. What about the breast milk warlocks?

I have no strong feelings about boob v bottle – do whatever works for you and your baby would seem, to me, to be the best route – but I do have strong feelings about the way women are placed in opposition to one another at all turns. It’s not surprising women have different views from one another. We are, after all, half of the population of the world. Half of the population of the world doesn’t agree about anything. But the problem for women is that as we struggle for equality, we are effectively set against each other.

It’s partly, I believe, to do with definition. Women are still defined by their reproductive state, in a way that men are not. Mum v not-mum; breeder v not-breeder. Women are still defined as ‘childless’ or ‘working mother’ or ‘mother-of-one’ etc. When was the last time you heard a man referred to as a ‘working father’? That’s just the status quo right? But when a woman who has children works, that’s something to be discussed. When a woman doesn’t have children, that’s something to be discussed. It’s still not the norm – nothing, it would seem, is the ‘norm’ for women.

“Women disagree – oh, those harridans, they can’t organise themselves, they can’t agree among themselves, how are they supposed to be trusted with the vote? With equal pay? With equal power and representation?”

So, we have mums v not-mums. And then within those groups there are further divisions – breastfeeders v bottle-feeders; don’t want kids v can’t have kids, and so on and so on. We are defined by other, by the patriarchal view of women, by the male gaze. We are defined by our reproductive system and the male view of that system, and until that changes, we will continue to be pitted against one another.

We can’t even really agree on what feminism is – is it about equality? (Well, yes it is actually, let’s just agree to agree on that.) Feminists don’t agree with one another – they never have. That’s not new. The suffragettes had splinter groups and infighting – and a lot of women who fought against getting the vote.

And it’s OK for people not to agree. As long as it doesn’t play into the hands of those who seek to oppress. Men disagree – that’s healthy debate. Women disagree – oh, those harridans, they can’t organise themselves, they can’t agree among themselves, how are they supposed to be trusted with the vote? With equal pay? With equal power and representation?

Women denigrating other women cannot strengthen other women. It can only serve to strengthen those who seek to define narrowly, when experience is wide. Women disagreeing with other women is wonderful, but it appears it is hard to do that without falling into the language which belittles and lowers other women to raise ourselves up. As we are forced to justify our choices, our lifestyles, we are forced to put down other women who make the opposite choices.

“It’s not just women who promote the ‘breast is best’ campaign, but it’s women for whom the special vitriol is reserved. What about the breast milk warlocks?”

Just look at how many times a woman is called selfish for not having children. Then how many times a woman is called selfish FOR having children. And what it shows is that until we are defined by ourselves, by our experience and not by the other, by the outside view of our experience, we will continue to be held down. Women must and should and will disagree.

But to suggest that women are “witches” because they have an opposing view is unhelpful. Individual choices are just that, and should not be used as a stick to beat women with. A woman’s decision to breastfeed or not is not a universal choice or a universal talking point, or universal to all women. As feminism becomes more powerful and more talked about in the media, it becomes something to use against women; actually something to use against everyone, male and female. Let’s not use it to create division – let’s refuse that.

In the meantime, if you want to breastfeed, do it. If you don’t (or can’t) don’t. Refuse to feel guilt. It’s not something to feel guilty about. Everyone has an opinion about how you should live your life, but everyone has an arsehole and you don’t want to see or hear from them. Refuse to be drawn into attacking other women for having an opposing view. And don’t take it all so personally. Healthy debate is a necessity. Name calling is not.

@ruthbratt

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Written by Ruth Bratt

Ruth is an improviser, comedian, actor, writer and the short half of double act Trodd en Bratt. She is rapidly becoming a middle class cliche who likes to bake and knit. Ruth is in Showstopper! The Improvised Musical currently in Edinburgh and about to embark on a West End run. www.theshowstoppers.org