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How baby formula trapped women We need to embrace the new feminism of scarcity

Is this baby deprived? Credit: Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Is this baby deprived? Credit: Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images


May 20, 2022   6 mins

There are few topics that provoke the same depth of feeling among new mothers as breastfeeding. Is breast best? Should formula feeding mums be criticised? This acutely sensitive debate came roaring out of the posset-stained and sleep-deprived world of new motherhood onto the front page recently, as a shortage of infant formula has gripped the United States.

Along with debates about manufacturing, distribution and regulatory capture, the situation has reignited the never-ending debate about whether or not breastfeeding has a moral dimension. Is formula feeding selfish and lazy and liable to reduce a baby’s IQ and give them lifelong obesity? Is breastfeeding a noble sacrifice?

Wherever you land in these bitter arguments, somehow the modern inventions that increase women’s freedom never seem to be seen as morally neutral. And it’s growing increasingly clear that this contest over the meaning of technology has implications for women well beyond how babies are fed.

Much of the autonomy — especially bodily autonomy — women take for granted in the modern developed world is not delivered by feminism, so much as it’s rationalised by it. The freedom itself is an effect of technologies that mitigate, substitute for or otherwise even out physical differences between the sexes.

We’re barely into a 21st century that so far is marked by pandemic, inflation, fragmenting supply chains, rising energy costs, global instability and concern over the ecological costs of developed-world lifestyles. In that context, the thorny question of tech and women’s freedom cuts across Left and Right in ways that are only just becoming apparent.

When I talk about “technology”, I don’t mean an iPhone that unlocks when I present my face to its camera. I mean those things so much part of everyday developed-world life they’re part of the backdrop. We don’t routinely think of nappies, washing machines, birth control or formula milk as “technology”. But they are all based in science and engineering, produced in high-tech factories, distributed via complex global supply chains.

You’d think this would be value-neutral. It’s not, though, for such technologies have social impacts too. For example, the Sixties wasn’t the first age to see men and women challenging restrictive social codes: the 19th century also had a “Free Love” movement. But earlier such movements could do nothing about the asymmetrical risks involved in casual sex, which could be relatively consequence-free for men while threatening women women with unplanned pregnancy and then (assuming she survived childbirth) the question of what to do with the baby.

Not unreasonably, regardless of what free-thinkers and radicals said in pamphlets and meetings, most ordinary communities went on strongly encouraging women to insist on commitment before having sex. It wasn’t until a tech fix for this asymmetry — reliable birth control — became available society-wide that wider social norms started to shift. At that point, commitment-free sexual pleasure became a feminist issue: Germaine Greer declared in The Female Eunuch (1970) that women are “not naturally monogamous”, while Erica Jong’s 1973 bestseller Fear of Flying dreamed of an equal female right to the “zipless fuck”.

A vast amount of the subsequent social fabric, from marriage and parenting norms to dating culture, are downstream of the tech that enabled the sexual revolution. And if you took the tech abruptly away, it’s likely that many people accustomed to post-Pill norms would struggle until the culture adapted.

In a similar way, the norms of developed-world mothering are difficult to uncouple from widespread availability of formula. It saves the lives of babies who might have starved in a pre-formula era; it’s a plan B for mothers who, for whatever reason, find breastfeeding hard (and it is hard); it grants a measure of freedom and flexibility that’s unavailable to a mother breastfeeding exclusively.

As such, it also impacts the wider social fabric. This has many upsides, but hasn’t come cost-free. The existence of formula milk means even new mothers are able to work outside the home, a fact that shapes not just social expectations but also the economy. It’s perhaps no surprise that in the US, where there’s no statutory maternity leave, one in four mothers returns to work a mere two weeks after giving birth; and those American mothers at the bottom of the economic ladder, and thus least likely to have an employer with generous maternity leave policies, are the most likely to use formula.

According to some conservative American feminists, though, this is by no means the most consequential tech fix, either in terms of its contribution to bodily autonomy or in its downstream social impact. The legal scholar and pro-life campaigner Erika Bachiochi argues that this dubious honour goes to legal abortion: a technology and social change whose contribution to female autonomy has been immense – as has its downstream impact.

In her 2021 book The Rights of Women: Reclaiming A Lost Vision Bachiochi argues that even as legalising abortion increased women’s autonomy, it also reduced the pressure on men to take reproductive responsibility: for example one famous study shows that shotgun weddings all but disappeared after legalisation. Additionally, placing sole reproductive responsibility on the pregnant woman eliminates any need for society more generally to provide any kind of compassionate safety-net.

Small wonder, then, that three out of four American women who have an abortion give poverty as the reason: a tech fix for sometimes gruelling social and economic difficulties. Anyone who spends more than a few minutes on “Shout Your Abortion“, a website dedicated to normalising the practice by telling women’s abortion stories, will see how ambivalent many women were in practice about the choices that were open to them, and the one they took.

This dilemma feels all the more concrete since the recent US Supreme Court leak, that suggests judges are poised to overturn America’s nationwide right to legal abortion. Much has been written since by pro-choice feminists defending abortion access as a cornerstone of women’s freedom. And in the same sense as formula and birth control, it’s a technology that does indeed grant women greater freedom. But more broadly even than changes to marriage and sexual mores, Bachiochi argues that its wider social impact makes abortion a Faustian bargain for women, by placing placed mothers permanently on the back foot.

For in making the right to terminate a pregnancy a cornerstone of freedom and thus personhood, she argues, feminism embraced a male-standard idea of what people are as the default: unencumbered, atomised, free of caring obligations. Normalising this individualistic idea of what a person is has left everyone with caring obligations (ie especially mothers) structurally disadvantaged, even as it legitimises undervaluing and underpaying those who do caring work.

And even as caring work is structurally undervalued in an economy predicated on tech-enabled freedom, women are then castigated for choosing the ‘less caring’ tech fix – or blamed and scorned for their vulnerability when the tech is no longer available. The singer Bette Midler epitomised this attitude when she tweeted in response to the formula shortage: “TRY BREASTFEEDING! It’s free and available on demand.”

An even more callous Midlerism drips from every right-winger who has ever banged the drum for ending abortion access, while showing zero interest in the wider social context in which women opt to abort. This might mean improving perinatal healthcare access or social safety nets, incentivising paternal responsibility, or even advocating for a less hypersexualised society. But with the honourable exception of Catholic feminists such as Bachiochi, and a handful of post-liberals, American conservatism seems keener on leaning wholesale into the tech-enabled freedom and individualism consistent with a world where abortion is legal – just with an exception where women’s bodies are concerned. Examples are legion, but one that caused particular outrage amid the Dobbs furore was a video clip showing (male) members of New York’s Fire Department crowing: “you have no choice [
] not your body not your choice, your body is mine”.

Given such an unforgiving backdrop, it’s understandable that many feminists prioritise defending abortion (or formula) over fighting an uphill battle to transform every other social factor that makes dependent babies and caring obligations such a frightening prospect for so many women. All other things being equal, I can see how a tech fix might seem women’s only option in a truly pitiless predicament.

But if the Right is hopelessly confused on technology and freedom, oscillating between wanting to ban gender surgeries and abortion and calling for us to colonise Mars, the Left is equally muddled. This progressive cognitive dissonance over technology and women celebrates tech’s liberatory upside, while hand-wringing guiltily about its innumerable ecological costs. Disposable nappies, for example, make up 30% of all landfill waste and take 500 years to decompose. Formula milk has a carbon cost. And the contraceptive pill many otherwise eco-conscious feminists rely on for sexual liberation is a disastrous pollutant.

Tech-optimists argue that we can fix all this with more tech. More likely, say the doomers, that in the future more of us will have to manage without – a prospect the current formula shortage is doing nothing to dispel. If the doomers are right, who will pick up all the labour-intensive domestic work currently eased by technology? Of course it’s possible that climate change will do what half a century of feminist activism never achieved, and level the still wildly uneven burden of housework between the sexes, but I’m not holding my breath.

In any case, regardless of what happens with formula supplies or US abortion law, it seems more than likely that these are not the only technologies that seemed to promise a level playing field between the sexes in the twentieth century, only to grow scarcer in the twenty-first. For even if Left and Right are differently muddled as to which liberatory technologies they defend and which they decry, the overall portfolio of such technologies is indisputably less certain than it seemed even a decade ago.

If I’m right, a women’s movement fit for the 21st century will need to work out what it means to defend women’s interests (and especially those of mothers) in a world with far fewer labour-saving devices, and potentially far less reproductive autonomy. Not a feminism of ever-increasing material abundance and freedom, but a new feminism of scarcity.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Rob Schwartzman
Rob Schwartzman
2 years ago

How can a “women’s movement fit for the 21st century
 work out what it means to defend women’s interests” if it and our political leaders and courts can’t define what a “woman” is? I write this not in a sarcastic or cynical way but with seriousness.

J Hop
J Hop
2 years ago

My first baby would have died without formula after I got mastitis and my milk stopped coming in. I fed my second but it was the most excrutiating pain ever because she never latched right no matter how many Leche League visits or doctors and I started loathing my baby. She was just a source of pain for me. Cut my wrists and after a week in-patient there was no more milk. Did well after that and no problems. People told me I was a failure and my baby might as well be killed if I couldn’t breastfeed her. I didn’t want to fail again.
I get your point and I love being a parent but this whole breastfeed or die shite has to stop. Women should embrace motherhood, as I did, but the natural, stay at home thing can be just as festishized and made glamorous as the career cat lady stuff too.

Zac
Zac
2 years ago
Reply to  J Hop

I’m so sorry that happened to you and your baby. You’re not a failure.

An important part of planning for a future where our relationship with technology is bound to be different is to understand how undeniably beneficial in isolation particular technologies are, and that there’s no room for militant binaries without paying attention to the wider context.

Mary’s great at articulating the point without giving red meat to “breastfeed or die” people.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
2 years ago
Reply to  J Hop

You are right, there are strong currents in society telling us what to do; not just offering suggestions but instructions.

Individuals and couples mostly figure out how to solve the challenges that they face, not least as parents.

My wife was initially distressed at not being able to breastfeed our daughter but what do you do?

Breastfed or not our daughter has been a delight to us throughout her life and is a splendid independent young woman.

Mathilda
Mathilda
2 years ago

It feels like I get my mind blown with new perspectives every time Harrington writes something. Brilliant and much appreciated!

Jon Guy
Jon Guy
2 years ago
Reply to  Mathilda

I agree. In particular, Mary’s remarks resonated with me about the hypocrisy of the American right towards the social safety net in a world with greater restrictions on abortion. We must do better.

David Smith
David Smith
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Guy

Ridiculous.
The “American right” is far less hypocritical than “American progressives”. And we have far more common sense than you.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Smith
James Sinclair
James Sinclair
2 years ago

Is it just me, or is associating a woman’s personal decision whether to breast-feed or use formula, with the politics of left or right sheer lunacy?

Last edited 2 years ago by James Sinclair
Sam Sky
Sam Sky
2 years ago
Reply to  James Sinclair

The thing is that politics seems to have shifted from public policy and government to decisions about a person’s life and different dispositions. I don’t think the rise of social media and the narcissitic way in which many people increasingly feel their personal opinions and decisions are incredibly important is unrelated.
Unplugging yourself from the insanity is a very good in my opinion. Enjoy a book. Spent time with your family. Focus on your work and hobbies, whatever they are. Enjoy the food you enjoy and have learnt to cook without being screamed at by hordes of angry vegans.
One of things that annoys me about Mary Harrington pieces is that she preaches this kind of mental hygiene but her whole way of talking and writing betrays a very online millenial who is neurotically analysing every possible fad in ‘identity’ and lifestyle.

Last edited 2 years ago by Sam Sky
Sheila Dowling
Sheila Dowling
2 years ago

In the USA the biggest problem is the lack of paid parental leave. Usually, maternity leave in the USA is about 12 weeks long — that is, if you’re eligible for it (and many people in the U.S. aren’t). Through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the federal government guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for the birth of a newborn or adopting a child.
If most mothers are only eligible for 12 weeks unpaid leave at best, babies are going to need formula. The formula shortage is a symptom of the demand caused by the lack of maternity leave. It is not really an argument about breastfeeding v. formula.

Lori Wagner
Lori Wagner
2 years ago
Reply to  Sheila Dowling

Exactly. We don’t have much of a choice.

David Smith
David Smith
2 years ago
Reply to  Sheila Dowling

It is way too simplistic to say that formula use is based on mothers needing to return to work due to lack of maternity leave beyond 12 wks.

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
2 years ago
Reply to  Sheila Dowling

I think what Mary is saying is that the existence of technological solutions such as formula impacts the way we think about political policy and social attitudes to things like maternity leave and caring work in general. If we didn’t have reliable infant formulas the idea that so many women would be returning after 12 weeks to the workforce would be insupportable. Society would have to be adapted for most women to stay with their babies a lot longer, some women might even end up working as wet nurses.

Last edited 2 years ago by M. Jamieson
David Smith
David Smith
2 years ago

This author’s reasonable points are lost in her ridiculous caricature of the “right wing” stance on abortion.
I am a pediatric specialist and I am surprised at the author’s willing mis-characterization of those speaking against abortion. I take a compassionate approach to anyone in a crisis pregnancy while avoiding the prevailing pro abortion narrative that this is the best and only option.
Pro-Lifers are often heavily involved in supporting women in crisis pregnancies and pushing for changes that support motherhood.
I suspect the author thinks that raising any concerns about responsible contraception, and avoiding high risk lifestyles isn’t supporting women.
The issue of formula vs breastfeeding is not a political left/right issue and pediatric specialists have long moved past moralizing about it
The author should just admit to her liberal bias and not pretend she can fairly represent a conservative viewpoint.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Smith
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  David Smith

I wouldn’t consider myself as particularly left or right, but in America it does seem to be a more common set of opinions on the right that is anti abortion while also largely against state support in the form maternity leave, free healthcare etc. On one hand they want to force a pregnant woman to have a baby she might not want or have the means to raise, while also being against offering her any assistance to raise the baby once it’s here. From the outside it seems to be a rather contradictory set of opinions

Last edited 2 years ago by Billy Bob
David Smith
David Smith
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

That is a simplistic view of politics that one might expect to see in a college freshman class with students who have little life experience and think there are no down sides to over reaching government solutions to every problem.
Anyone with any nuance can see that one can hold a political world view that favours less government control and regulation (which actually harms families) while believing that individuals, families and local communities are more effective at recognizing needs and responding to them.
After working in medicine for 20 years, it is my impression that maternity leave is fairly widely available but sometimes the larger (ostensibly progressive) corporations apply pressure for mothers to return earlier than what is best for her and the baby.
The commenter has swallowed the left narrative while thinking he is neither left or right;

Last edited 2 years ago by David Smith
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  David Smith

You haven’t actually replied to anything I’ve said, merely spouted off what appears to be a largely generic response to anybody who questions your worldview.
Do you not think it’s selfish politics to force a women to have a baby she neither wants or can afford, then offering little to no support once she does?
Also just because the companies in your field offer basic maternity leave doesn’t mean it’s widespread. Most of the developed world looks after new mothers with free healthcare and paid maternity leave written into law. Americans seem wholly reliant on the goodwill of their employers, which as you say can be abused by pressuring women to go back to work before they’re ready

Richard Gasson
Richard Gasson
2 years ago

Initially I was going to read this article, until I noticed the author. MH is always, always worth a read. No exception today.

Roberta Perkins
Roberta Perkins
2 years ago

Loved this article. So intelligent. Thank you.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
2 years ago

“If the doomers are right” – I mean, for me this is doomer as poseur, picking social media friendly topics. I seem to recall a real doomer, W.D. Hamilton arguing anyone who had to have a caesarian section should be sterilized, on humanitarian grounds, because when civilization eventually collapsed (as he thought it inevitably would), the genes that prevented non-caesarian births would be so widespread as to cause untold suffering in populations who had reverted to more primitive tech. Try popularising that in social media!

Last edited 2 years ago by Sam Sky
Anne Humphreys
Anne Humphreys
1 year ago

What this article (and some comments) miss is that breastfeeding requires a culture that knows how to breastfeed. In much of the West that has been lost. With the result that women frequently struggle alone and “fail” to breastfeed- that’s the word they often use. Yet this is not their failure; it happens because they were not given the practical support and skilled knowledge that it takes to breastfeed. As a result they (sensibly) stop breastfeeding, because other things have to be prioritised – mental health, physical wellbeing, bonding with the baby. It makes me bitterly sad that again and again women blame themselves instead of our culture and our generally ignorant health services.

I have worked for over 20 years supporting women with infant feeding. I have seen the pain, supported many many women on their feeding journeys. I have seen how much better supported women from other cultures often are. For them breastfeeding is much more possible, because of this.

As a society we are losing breastfeeding year by year, and with it the possibility of optimal health for future generations. Most women now mixed feed; in other countries (including in Europe) this is not the case. It would indeed be “an uphill battle to transform every other social factor” to change this so that British women who wished to breastfeed were actually able to do so.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

“…Much of the autonomy … women take for granted in the modern developed world is not delivered by feminism, so much as it’s rationalised by it. The freedom itself is an effect of technologies…”

It’s nice to find a humanities oriented writer who gets this. And it’s not just about autonomy for women; the whole of humanity is driven in a direction that is not determined (long term) by social, societal and humanist ideas, but by two other things: technological advance and human demographics. These two are also of course intertwined, in ways that are not fully clear. The ‘human’ ideas come and go, but only ‘grip’ when the technological backdrop allows.

The question though, that really interests me is, is if the direction that human discovered or created technology takes, has any element of choice, as in choice by the agent in place for the play-out by that pattern at this moment in time, viz, humanity. Note that humanity was not the agent via which the pattern played out for a very very long time – humanity has only just appeared on the scene. In evolutionary timescale terms, if we scale the timeline since life appeared to 24 hours, humanity has been around for less than 30 seconds. And the idea that any of the agents prior to humanity had a choice in the play-out is clearly ludicrous, so I’m asking why does humanity think we have choices?

There is only one mitigation to this that I can see: humanity appeared, and the pattern changed instantly, so perhaps this time *is* different after all.

“What really interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the World” – Albert Einstein

Last edited 2 years ago by Prashant Kotak
Sam Sky
Sam Sky
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I mean, humans avoiding going extinct in the last ice age when other animals probably went extinct. The flexibility that large cognitive capacity gives can be useful for adapating to changing circumstances.

R Miller
R Miller
2 years ago

I am really perturbed that nowhere in this article is there any reference to the fact that some babies in the US have already had to have operations to insert tubes into their stomachs so that they can be fed, because they are at serious risk of starving. I suspect that many new mothers in America aren’t particularly interested in reading pointless but oh-so-erudite screeds about feminism and women’s autonomy. They are too busy driving for hours to find a store that might still have the thing they need to keep their children alive.