Saturday, September 23, 2006

Am I a Feminist? Part II--Breasts

Background: Part I, Part III, Part IV

Ah, the bane of a woman’s existence, aren’t they? Those lactating machines, breasts cause all sorts of philosophical problems. Men don’t have them or the hormones that make them work. Men don’t face the daunting task of sharing their bodies with a hungry, greedy little human with a very underdeveloped pineal gland.

Women have them on top of having a uterus—which is a whole other story. A woman can chop out her uterus and deny her biological potential. A woman can chop out an embryo or fetus and deny the child’s biological potential. In a sense a woman can “neuter” herself if health or philosophy demands it.

Should a woman decide to actually use her uterus for its intended purpose and bear a child, she must suffer the indignities of pregnancy. No booze or drugs, weird cravings, abnormal digestive changes, softening and spreading, abstaining from the bad and adding more of the good. She must change her life.

Once the kid is out, though, things can go back to the egalitarian norm if she chooses to bottle-feed. The parents can switch “shifts”. They can take turns with sick days. They can each take unpaid leave for a while. They can both do laundry. They can both make dinner.

But if a woman chooses to breastfeed—for her baby and herself, the egalitarian thing goes flying out the window.

Breastfeeding is best for the baby. It is best for the mom. So much research proves it and more is coming. I’ll spare you the details. Let’s just accept that premise as fact.

But breastfeeding turns egalitarianism on its head. A man can’t do it. He can feed a baby a bottle of breast-expressed milk but that is not breastfeeding. It is bottle feeding breast milk. Not the same.

I happen to believe breast is best. The benefits economically, physically, psychologically, and nutritionally have such huge implications that the six-week leave thing seems absolutely insane. No other mammal leaves their offspring to be tended by others at so young an age (proportionately speaking). Children are flexible and malleable, but do we really know what we are doing to future generations by “out sourcing” such a fundamental thing as feeding and tending our children? (I lump tending in with feeding, because the physical act of feeding the child by definition includes tending them.)

Does a good feminist deny the biology in service to the egalitarian? Does she sell herself out when she submits to biology and stays home to nurse her child and later to care for her “private world” rather than nurse her own career and care for the “public world”? James Wolcott in his The New Republic essay titled “Mommies. Mommies. Mommies. Meow Mix.” quotes Linida Hirschman who thinks so:

Embracing one's inner housewife and admiring one's reflection in the glass ceiling, as Flanagan would have women do, is straitjacketing one's potential and submitting to a kinder, gentler purdah:

Bounding home is not good for women and it's not good for the society. The women aren't using their capacities fully; their so-called free choice makes them unfree dependents on their husbands. Whether they leave the workplace altogether or just cut back their commitment, their talent and education are lost from the public world to the private world of laundry and kissing boo-boos. The abandonment of the public world by women at the top means the ruling class is overwhelmingly male. If the rulers are male, they will make mistakes that benefit males. Picture an all-male Supreme Court. We may well go back there. What will that mean for the women of America?

Despite her subtitle, Hirshman's manifesto is not aimed at the women of the world, but at the upper stratum of intelligent, educated, affluent women who cast aside their college degrees to kiss boo-boos and keep their rugrats entertained. "These educated and privileged women matter. They matter because they are the most likely women to become the rising stars of the new economy--the future senators, deal makers, newspaper editors, research scientists, policy makers, television writers and movie producers, university presidents, and Supreme Court justices." When such women opt out, they cheat themselves and deprive the future of their full worth. Hirshman is particularly scathing about a Harvard graduate who sketches her life as a stay-at-home mom as a merry-go-round of painting, biking, writing letters to editors and elected officials, playing tag and climbing trees with the kids. "My correspondent's life does have a certain Tom Sawyerish quality to it," Hirshman concedes, "but she has no power in the world. Why would the congressmen she writes to listen to someone whose life so resembles that of a toddler's, Harvard degree or no?"

So an “educated and privileged” woman, a true feminist, works or else “cheats herself”. Why should anyone listen to this woman “whose life resembles a toddlers”?

My life resembles a toddler’s and I lack power at home. I’m not sure what to say to that. It is true that by relying on my husband's income, my (and his) economic wings have been clipped. We both must be far more careful financially because we rely on one income. Her premise assumes I couldn't work if I wanted to, but I could. While I choose to rely on him, he is choosing to rely on me for a whole host of other responsibilities beyond financial. He understands that he would have to pay for many services had I not chosen to stay home. He also knows, as do I, that there are some things Visa can't buy and care for a child like a loving (healthy, balanced) mother cares for her own child is one of them.

While I might not be making a ton of cash these days--thus diminishing my power according to Ms. Hirshman, I’m active in the wider world now more than ever. Technology has helped that. Through the Internet, through email, the stay-at-home moms I know are far from intellectual noodles. They are connected, intelligent forces for change.

What is the great thing about technology’s affect on motherhood? I could be connected while having a baby at my breast. How’s that for equality? I can have my baby and my business, too.

A mother of an autistic child friend of mine, a CPA, has founded from the bottom up an advocacy organization for parents. She is changing the world one family and one law at a time. Does the fact that she isn’t pulling down 100K a year diminish her contribution? She has applied her formidable intelligence and drive to a very society-changing enterprise.

With technology the way it is, a woman can have a huge worldwide impact in ways that couldn’t happen even ten years ago. It is possible to personally mother and publically influence simultaneously now, like it was never possible before.

Even still if a woman choses not to engage the public forum via technology or by working and chooses to follow her breasts to home and hearth, is she not a feminist? Does anyone find it ironic that breasts, the quintessential female form, impede success as defined by a feminist woman?

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