GENE LYONS: Breast-feeding controversies
“The greatest poverty is not to live
In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire
Is too difficult to tell from despair.”
— Wallace Stevens, “Esthetique du Mal”
At the outset of a new school year, the news media offer helpful tips for college students: “Choosing the right major,” “6 tips for surviving dorm life,” “5 things you should never say to your professor,” stuff like that. Rarely do they offer practical advice for students who find themselves enrolled in a course taught by a faculty member who’s a total crackpot.
Or to put it more succinctly: another year, another collegiate breast-feeding controversy. Possibly you remember the brief sensation about this time last year, when professor Adrienne Pine suckled her infant daughter in front of a classroom filled with students attending her “Sex, Gender and Culture” class at American University. The embattled anthropologist explained that she’d brought the feverish baby to work with her rather than cancel the first class of the semester. When the child began crying, Pine put her to her breast and went on with her lecture. Some of her freshman students were taken aback.
Now comes professor Karla A. Erickson’s path-breaking article renouncing breast-feeding altogether, which the Grinnell College sociologist confesses made her feel like a cow. (An insult I shall refrain from passing on to my own cows, diligent mothers every one.) Perhaps not coincidentally, Erickson too teaches classes on “Gender and Society” at the Iowa college. Her bottle-feeding manifesto appeared in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, where it attracted hundreds of incredulous responses.
After the birth of her first child, she explains, Erickson’s life as a mammal struck her as terribly unfair. Not only did nursing her infant son impose restraints on her own “spatial mobility and time,” but the “part no one ever talks about is that breast-feeding also consolidates pre-existing biological tendencies that privilege the breast-feeding parent.”
Yes, you read that right. Nursing her child was a joyous experience to Erickson. “Every time I got to breast feed him I was holding my son, singing, whispering, touching, and loving on my sweet little boy. ... I had never known what it was like to be that close to another human.”
But as it also gave her an unfair advantage over her husband in securing the infant’s affections, the practice needed to be renounced in the interest of gender equity. Baby gets a boo-boo, baby runs to Mommy. And that would never do.
“It’s one thing our bodies do that reinforces the social differences between men and women. ... Sometimes we have to do a runaround our bodies to ensure equity. Sometimes we have to do some social engineering to help dislodge our social aspirations from the dictates of our glands and gonads.”
Dislodge our hopes from our gonads? Must we really? Somebody needs to tell Erickson that few unearned patriarchal privileges are sweeter than rolling over and going back to sleep while Mommy tends the baby.
So anyway, if you’re thinking that American University’s famous lactating anthropologist would set her Iowa colleague straight, you’d be mistaken. Motherhood’s evidently not a big part of these gender studies classes. There’s no hint that Pine found breast-feeding particularly joyous at all. Quite the opposite. During her moment in the spotlight, Pine made clear her contempt of people who see breast-feeding as a “transcendental act,” along with “gendered essentialism about the naturalness or sacredness of the mother-child bond.”
In a Counterpunch.org article devoted largely to attacking the “biased and sophomoric” undergraduate reporter from the campus newspaper who interviewed her, Pine emphasized that she had “specifically tried to distance myself from lactivism, which has always seemed hopelessly bourgeois to me — those marauding bands of lactating white women who go to collectively feed their babies in places where the right to breast-feed has been called into question. ... And the whole argument about the breast being more ‘natural’ than the bottle leads down a slippery slope of biological determinism.”
Nothing sacred or natural here, in other words. We’re intellectuals. To Pine, the fact that the campus newspaper considered her actions newsworthy showed “why a feminist anthropology course is necessary at AU.” She ended up deciding that The Eagle had a strong “anti-woman slant.”
Pine added that, “if there were an easy way I could feed my child without calling attention to my biological condition as a mother, which inevitably assumes primacy over my preferred public status as anthropologist, writer, professor, and solidarity worker, I would do so.”
No biological conditions, please, we’re gender specialists existing in a realm of pure theory. What with entire academic disciplines these days devoted to such quasi-Marxian humbug — a curious combination of the perfectly obvious and the utterly absurd — the odds of a student’s encountering a Froot Loop with an attitude and a Ph.D. approach certainty.
The thing to do is to consider it a learning experience.