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’.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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