Women have such power. Credit: Getty

June 8, 2023   5 mins

My eldest son is currently in the middle of his GCSEs. I’m not worried about the results, though, because I breastfed him.

Babies who were breastfed “get better GCSE marks” apparently. Get in! I did this for all three of mine! To be fair, it’s not why I did it, which is just as well, since the science upon which this is based turns out to be shaky. Moreover, one of the key outcomes of this sort of reporting doesn’t make breastfeeding any easier, it makes women who have bottle-fed feel bad.

If it looks as though mothers are being shamed, that’s because they are. At a time when feminists fight to articulate why femaleness matters, stories such as this back up the idea that any appreciation for female bodies will be used against us.

I didn’t choose to breastfeed out of some desire to meet standards of feminine compliance — if anything, that was something I feared. I believe that the feeding relationship is unique, and that it matters, like pregnancy and birth, in relation to women’s social and political status. I know this might sound contradictory if one is simultaneously asserting that women should be free to choose not to do it. How can you value something only a woman’s body can do without suggesting this is what all women should do? But this is a trap into which so many of us fall, and which “breastfeed for GCSE grades!”-style reporting only makes worse. It doesn’t represent the truth of what breastfeeding is and means.

When we strip it away from narratives of duty, breastfeeding is not at all feminine. Nothing to do with femaleness — actual femaleness — really is. To be honest, I often found it comical. There was the time my middle son turned his head at an inopportune moment, making me projectile squirt milk across Costa Coffee; the time I was so feverish and exhausted, I became convinced my electric breast pump was playing the theme to Byker Grove; those months when my youngest son favoured one breast, leaving me shrivelled on one side, engorged and enormous on the other (it felt like a metaphor for something, though I could never decide what).

I don’t miss feeling my body was not my own, those moments when — usually pumping, not feeding — I feared I had become the patriarchal non-person: woman as animal, the very image of femaleness so often dreaded by adolescent girls (is that all you want to be, some beast of the field?). I do miss the connection, the utter bizarreness of my body’s responses, that sudden awareness that no, this did not make me a lesser human. How could I ever have feared that? Just because I was experiencing something men didn’t? Women are terrorised out of appreciating the magic of our own bodies — we’re terrorised out of using words such as “magic” — by the constant threat of dehumanisation.

“The ancient, continuing envy, awe and dread of the male for the female capacity to create life,” wrote Adrienne Rich, “has repeatedly taken the form of hatred for every other female aspect of creativity.” Now, more than ever, women and girls are told that if they wish to be considered full human beings, with complex inner lives, they must set aside any politics focused on the female body. A million misreadings of de Beauvoir’s “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman” — or of the phrase “biology is not destiny” — are deployed to suggest that the way to liberate women is to liberate the concept itself from any association with the bodies of menstruators, gestators, lactators. That sort of “inclusive” language reduces one half of the human race to pure function and leakage.

Like pregnancy and birth, breastfeeding cannot be compared to anything else. It is extraordinary, yet because only female people do it, it is often ridiculed, treated with disgust or aligned with women’s subordinate status (unless male people can contrive a way to simulate it, whereupon it becomes a miracle worthy of a victory statue). “Breasts,” wrote Mary O’Brien in The Politics of Reproduction, “have been sometimes flaunted, sometimes flattened, understood as sensual tit-bits rather than as purposeful instruments of nurture. All the while, men have fashioned their world with a multiplicity of phallic symbols which even Freud could not catalogue exhaustively.”

When I breastfed my children, I still bore the scars of a complex relationship with food, flesh and femaleness. With my first two babies, part of me was still obsessed with the idea of not getting “captured” by maternity. I feared getting sucked into what Naomi Wolf described as “a primordial soup of femaleness … the unbounded, unidentified matrix out of which new life comes creeping”. “But I’m an individual!” I’d protest. “A proper, unique person in my own right!” It took me until the birth of my third child, when I was already in my forties, to understand the way in which uniquely female bonds are disrupted by this terror of being forced to hand back one’s “human” card. We would rather deny the specificity of our embodied relationship with our own children than risk being written off as some mindless blob of reproductive matter.

Yet the men who would write us off, won’t change their minds. Look at the treatment of any woman who pushes back, even in the mildest way, against the idea that femaleness is socially and politically irrelevant. How quickly her status crumbles; how soon she’ll be told she’s a biological essentialist who thinks all women are baby making machines. Denying what our bodies can do will not save us. Recognising it might.

The pride women take in their female bodies ought to be a collective one. It should not be reliant on individual experience — my child might do slightly better on WJEC English Literature Paper 1 because I was getting my tits out in Costa Coffee in 2007 — but on an understanding of ourselves as the sex class with the capacity to create life.

It pains me to know I will now get the “oh, so you think all female people are fertile?” or “what about women who don’t want children?” or “my mum’s had a mastectomy, are you saying she’s not a woman?” treatment. But this is where we are: intelligent people feigning stupidity rather than countenance that female people should ever be bonded by collective pride at that power to gestate and birth. On the other hand, no one has a problem with shaming us because we can’t breastfeed.

Rich wrote of her belief “that female biology — the diffuse, intense sensuality radiating out from clitoris, breasts, uterus, vagina; the lunar cycles of menstruation; the gestation and fruition of life which can take place in the female body — has far more radical implications than we have yet come to appreciate”: “Patriarchal thought has limited female biology to its own narrow specifications. The feminist vision has recoiled from female biology for these reasons; it will, I believe, come to view our physicality as a resource, rather than a destiny.”

This is feminism, not flight from the body, nor fear that our own bodies do not measure up. We’re the reason men had to pretend they were gods. It’s about so much more than GCSEs.

Victoria Smith is a writer and creator of the Glosswitch newsletter.