Teaching Law

Friday, 18 January 2013

Why is Breastfeeding Scary?

Breastfeeding: it's good enough for the Saviour, why not for all?*
Daily morning TV presenter David Koch today told his audience that breastfeeding is something that should be done away from a public area – that women breastfeeding in ‘high traffic areas’ should be a ‘bit discreeter’. He made these comments in response to a report that a woman breastfeeding at a public swimming pool in Queensland was told that she could not do so, and that she should move to another secluded area or leave. 
This request is clearly in breach of s7AA(2) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) (added to the Act in 2011), in that this woman was treated:
less favourably than, in circumstances that are the same or are not materially different, the discriminator treats or would treat someone who is not breastfeeding.
This set of circumstances raises three related questions: why the woman may have been asked to leave; why ‘Kochie’ would have agreed that this was appropriate; and why breastfeeding would ever require such legal protection.

While it is both men and women who may be offended by breastfeeding in public, in both cases this is a factor of the patriarchal nature of society. This manifests largely through the control of women's bodies - their sexuality, their reproduction (see for example the so-called 'War on Women') and even their breastfeeding. 
Feminist scholars have for a long time analysed the genesis of this focus on the control of women's bodies. This body of work shows that through Greek and Roman times, European Middle Ages and Christian texts, through Industrialisation to modern times, Western culture has associated woman with nature and a lack of rationality, a lack of substance and an unruly and therefore threatening free spirit. This work identifies a (masculine) need for the domination of nature and the privileging of control over nature through science and culture, and indeed male domination over women, above the embodied experience of women as 'other' and the 'natural forces' of reproduction experienced by women.  
Author Marilyn French for example documents a global history of social customs that embed principles of exclusion or control of women during menstruation, pregnancy, after intercourse and after childbirth. She posits, as do other authors, that women are biologically constructed in a way that determines their place in society - as subordinate. French identifies that the ritual uncleanliness of women's bodily functions found in so many societies relates to their construction as part of an untamed nature that as a power in its own right, needs subjugation or domination.
Against this background, breastfeeding represents the biologically constructed, essential, natural woman - giver and sustainer of life. But in a patriarchal world, this belongs in its own sphere, separate - out of 'high traffic areas' and in women's own time. The public realm is reserved for properly public activities - those deemed so by the system of social mores that situates women and their biological functions as separate and private.
To compound this deeply ingrained attitude is the objectification of women and the uni-dimensional understanding of breasts as objects of heterosexual male sexual gratification. Sexualised breasts may be appropriate on the front covers of magazines in high traffic areas of newsagencies and all over the internet, but not on a facebook page or at the edge of a pool if used for feeding an infant.
Section 7AA of the Sex Discrimination Act recognises that this attitude to women prevails in our society. Such an attitude, if allowed to flourish, relegates breastfeeding women to the home or if they go out in public, relegates them to toilets and closets. Breastfeeding is not an inherently private activity - in the same way that eating other kinds of food is not an inherently private activity. Enforcing constraints on the feeding of a hungry or unsettled baby is a means of removing feeding mothers from the public sphere altogether.
Breastfeeding is not always an easy task. Feeding mothers deserve every support and are entitled to participate fully in public life in all its guises as does every other human. This is a question of basic justice.

* Image from http://casteluzzo.com/2012/05/11/ramping-up-the-mommy-wars/


  1. The answer to why 'Kochie' agreed is because of who he is. The same reason anyone discriminates about anything. It's generally taught to us by how we were raised, by societies 'norms' that we were exposed to as we developed a social conscious. But there is one thing that is not taught enough, and that is, the ability to do the RIGHT thing, decide for ourselves, challenge what those who went before us believed (evidence is all around us of many previous failures of belief systems) and breast feeding in public has become just another issue WHEN IT SHOULD NOT BE. Come on people, it is breast feeding not porn! Feed the babies ... and let's feed them where ever they need to be fed.

    1. Thanks Sandra. Yes as a society it's a matter of normalizing the feeding of infants - it's obviously important!

  2. Should women be able to sit topless at a public pool (with children present) without a baby? Sure, let's do away with the illogical cultural "norms" no?

    1. Thanks for your comment though I'm a little unsure as to the context of your suggestion. While I personally have no problem with nudity, I was not advocating public nudity. I was simply pointing out that objections to breast feeding in public represent attempts to control women and exclude them from public, and that this is against the law.

  3. I do think Anonymous makes a good point. This issue with breastfeeding is part of a larger issue about how society treats women's bodies. Why is it that men can walk around without a shirt but women can't? Why aren't women allowed to bare their breasts on a hot day? It's the same thing, the insistence that breasts are always sexual and primarily exist for male pleasure. There's a group called the Top Free Equal Rights Association that campaigns for greater freedom in this area.

  4. "Daily morning TV presenter David Koch today told his audience that breastfeeding is something that should be done away from a public area". No, no he didn't. As you go on to say yourself - he said he didn't think it should be done in high-traffic areas and that women doing it should just be discrete. That is NOT saying it shouldn't be done in public areas.

    1. Thanks Leah. Yes I did consider this. Overall I believe his message is that in fact it should not be done in a public area. He uses 'high traffic' as the determining criterion. His intention is to make it private, remove breastfeeding from the public sphere. His language is clear in this regard.