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Women at work should be able to breastfeed and succeed

Hands up who wants to breastfeed at work? Christian Lutz/AP

Days after Pope Francis told mothers to “not think twice” about breastfeeding at church and in public, Sally Davies, the UK’s chief medical officer, called for women to be allowed to breastfeed at work, including during office meetings.

Some high-profile mothers like Davies and Licia Ronzulli, an Italian member of the European Parliament (pictured above), who has breastfed her daughter Vittoria during voting sessions, have already put these ideas into action.

Pronouncements and actions like those of Pope Francis, Davies and Ronzulli reflect and bolster a welcome societal shift in attitudes toward breastfeeding. But I know first hand how much trouble the idea can cause in practice.

I work as an anthropology professor in the US, and in August 2012 a childcare emergency led me to bring my 11-month old daughter to the first day of my Sex, Gender and Culture undergraduate course. While lecturing I breastfed her – not to make a point, but because she was hungry. One of the students in the class tweeted about it, the press descended, and within a few days I was at the centre of an international storm and branded “the breastfeeding professor”.

I was judged harshly as both a mother and a professor, showing that many people have not quite reconciled the fact that mothers can work, and that workers can mother. Even my own employer publicly accused me of unprofessionalism and creating a public health risk. But I also received hundreds of emails from women who had suffered career-destroying discrimination related to breastfeeding, who thanked me for standing my ground.

Nearly all health experts today agree that breastfeeding (both the substance of breastmilk and the baby’s act of suckling from a human breast) can play an important role in healthy child development. If as societies we accept the arguments that mothers should have the option of breastfeeding and that women should not have to sacrifice breastfeeding for career, or vice-versa, then we have no choice but to allow breastfeeding at work.

So-called lactation rooms – which I think of as capitalism’s menstrual huts – are necessary for breastmilk-expressing workers who prefer not to pump or feed publicly. But they are insufficient guarantors of the developmental health benefits of breastfeeding (many lactation rooms don’t even allow babies inside) and of labour equality; women whose only breastmilk-feeding option is to pump in private may be excluded from participating, for instance, in a meeting that their non-lactating colleagues can attend. Having the option to breastfeed a baby in a meeting or classroom would level the field for many of us.

Today, mothers are left on our own to negotiate the moral intersection of feminised labours such as breastfeeding and our often masculinised professional work. Since most mothers lack institutional support from our employers and governments, these negotiations put us at a disadvantage. This is even more true for working-class women who fall largely outside of the present debate (a woman working at McDonald’s doesn’t spend most of her day in meetings where breastfeeding is a comfortable option).

There are legitimate reasons why women may not be able or may choose not to breastfeed. But no woman should be prevented from breastfeeding her child in order to succeed at work. Professionalism and motherhood are only incompatible if we as societies say they are, and woe be to us if we do.

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