The industrialised breast

In Overland 201, writer and academic Julie Stephens writes a controversial examination on the neoliberalisation of female labour:

There used to be a billboard in Melbourne that advertised milk by depicting young, large-breasted women cavorting on a trampoline. The radical graffiti activist group Buga-Up painted the words Women are not cows’ in large letters across it. The association between women and the mechanised dairy industry was not a comfortable one – Buga-Up chose its words well – and it wasn’t long before the billboard came down.

These days, however, the association may seem less shocking. We have moved into a new phase of commodification where mothers’ breasts have become harnessed to industrial processes.

Farewell to the tender bond between the breastfeeding mother and baby; enter the motorised breast pump. Once considered an unsightly, even dreaded, medical contraption, the breast pump has become a personal accessory item, designed like a Fendi briefcase or a Gucci backpack. In the United States, new mothers with professional careers are offered work-based ‘lactation rooms’ as incentives to return to work as soon as possible after giving birth. They can make on-line bookings for the purpose-designed pumping chairs in these rooms, where they can ‘comfortably’ plug in and express milk during a work-break. According to journalist Jill Lepore in the New Yorker, lactation rooms are coveted as a sign of a caring workplace, with the newly developed ‘Corporate Lactation Policies’ of companies like Goldman Sachs becoming an accepted substitute for maternity leave.

In an intriguing article on the history and contemporary uses of the breast pump in the United States, Lepore paints a disturbing picture of professional women increasingly describing themselves as ‘lactating mothers’, not breastfeeding mothers. Expressing breast milk and feeding it to a baby via a bottle has become more widespread, even for mothers staying at home. The motorised breast pump industry is booming, with the nation beginning to look, in Lepore’s words, like ‘a giant human dairy farm’. Pumping at work has become de rigueur:

Duck into the ladies’ room at a conference, of, say, professors and chances are you’ll find a flock of women with matching ‘briefcases’, waiting none too patiently and, trust me, more than a little sheepishly, for a turn with the electric outlet. Pumps come with plastic sleeves, like the sleeves in a man’s wallet, into which the mother is supposed to slip a photograph of her baby, because, Pavlov-like, looking at the picture aids ‘let-down’, the release of milk normally triggered by the presence of the baby, its touch, its cry.

In this scenario, breast milk becomes a commodity to be pumped, bottled and fed to the baby to improve its immune system or to ensure that later it achieves higher marks at school. Breastfeeding has been detached from its association with warmth, intimacy, comfort, nurture, emotional wellbeing or flesh against flesh.

In some respects, breast milk has always had a market value. Just as privileged white mothers used to rely on wet nurses, so those working at Goldman Sachs probably depend on other women, from different classes and cultures, to feed the precious (and hard won) ‘expressed milk’ to their infants. While such racialised and class-based patterns of exploitation may be much the same as in the past, the mechanised processes of production are relatively new. Breast pumps may appear personal but their purpose is profoundly industrial: increasing productivity in the workplace.

Read ‘The industrialised breast’.

Editorial team

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  1. Though breastfeeding is no bed of roses – particularly to begin with – I’m so privileged and glad to have known the little cheek against my breast, the curling and uncurling hand. This post gives me shivers.

  2. I don’t think demonising breast pumps and lactation rooms is the way to combat the neoliberalist exploitation of organizations like Goldman Sachs (who would exploit their own grandmothers, if companies had grandmothers). Breast pumps are often used in non-cynical ways; they allow the breastfeeding mother a break from doing all the feeding (eg 4am feed), they give the non-breastfeeding parent/s the opportunity to bond with their baby while feeding them, they enable a baby who isn’t able to feed from the breast (eg a premature baby) to receive breast milk. And having a “lactation” room, or at least, a room where an employee can go to get some privacy, can make life a little easier. I used to work for a smallish biotechnology company that had a first aid room which was used for many things; for expressing milk, for breastfeeding, for prayer, for private conversations and, occasionally, for first aid.

    In terms of “gendered” nurturing, I’m against changing the focus of Parental Leave to Maternal Leave (which may not be what the essay is implying, but that’s how I understood it). My concern is that any move away from encouraging (even ‘allowing’) all parents to participate in caregiving would have a negative impact on everyone and would be regressive.

    1. Yes, it is all about intention, as with all things. Even other children, extended family and tiredness can make breastmilk-feeding (of either kind) taxing.

      It’s occurred to me a couple of times this very week that babies are not the ‘enemy of equality’ – that would be patriarchy.

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