Friday, 13 February 2009

The Dangers of the 'D' Word (Part 2)

I began this post in June last year, and published part one here. It seems odd to me that it's been nearly nine months since I began it, as it's a topic I spend a lot of my day to day thinking, and discussions, upon.
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Nearly nine months - you'd think it was my baby! ;-)
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I finished part one with a question - could we move the burden of being 'discreet' from the watched, to the watcher? From the current position we have, where everyone, anyone, and their mother, feels they have a right to scream obscenity, or indecent, or whore at any breastfeeding mother... could we transform our culture? Can we move the responsibility for the concept of 'discreet', from the mother and baby breastfeeding, to the people who happen to be around when the baby is feeding?
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As I signaled at the end of the post, help had come from an unlikely source, and that source was a post from The Rabbinical Assembly, no less. From The Woman Took the Child and Nursed It: A Teshuvah on Breast Feeding in Public, by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson.
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When I was sent this wonderful document, in the middle of yet another hue and cry over a breastfeeding baby having the audacity to eat in public, it lifted my spirits no end It took so many of the thorny issues about breastfeeding in public, grabbed them by the throat, and throttled the life of them. And it did it in a way that made my soul sang. Thank you Rabbi Artson, whoever you are, and wherever you are.
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I'll explain all that joy out. :-)
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There's a complex inter-weaving of elements in the current hysteria about women's bodies and breastfeeding. Central to the hysteria, is a miasma of moral mythologising, covering over the fears that drive those who screech: the fear of women, the fear of their bodies, and the loathing of their bodily fluids. There is also fear of the baby: fear of children and their needs impacting on adult society. The baby at the breast is threatening on many levels, in a society that positions childhood as a needy and unruly monster that must be tamed before it destroys the singularity of adult life.
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All these fears, which are triggered and magnified by the thought of a baby feeding at the female breast, are then wrapped up and placed upon the breastfeeding mother under a moral mantle. She must carry the burden of the fears, and act to console those upset. She must cover up, hide, become discreet, prove her modesty. She must apologise for her behaviour, and mediate the distress it caused immediately. She must cover herself and her baby in abject apology for her transgressions. If she does not do so - if she refuses to do as she is told - she becomes immoral.
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The notion of what is, and isn't, moral behaviour in our society, is steeped in religious ideals. As the Children of Abraham, all three of the major structured religions in our current society - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - have defined and determined how a moral, and modest, woman conducts herself. This territory - that which makes for modesty in a woman - is one that has both survived, and been strengthened, in post Enlightenment discourse. The Age of Reason may have harboured secular freedoms, but the women still remained in long dresses. Feminism may have raised the hemline lately, much to the disgust of many, but the post-Reformation need for the covering of the sinful female body is still expressed by many, as a fundamental religious principle. (I refer you back to part one of this post, and the discussing of the post-Reformation and the covering of Mary's breast, and the subsequent abrupt weaning of Jesus in Christian religious art.)
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Such is the religious connection in the debate of the 'moral' breastfeeding mother, both sides of the debate seek to position their argument in religious terms. In the predominantly Christian countries of the USA and the UK, where lactaphobia is often the most pronounced, breastfeeding mothers are often heard to proclaim "Jesus Was Breastfed", as a way of silencing opposition to the act of breastfeeding. The intolerant then respond that it is not the breastfeeding that is being objected to, it's the sight of it, and position Mary as a chaste and modest mother, who would never expose herself in public.
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"But but!" cry the mothers, babies breastfeed in Churches, and always have done. Breastfeeding is a sacred act. "With a blanket" cry the modesty freaks, "Cover up!".
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And the worm eats itself once more.
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Into this territory, enters Rabbi Artson. (Do take arguments about the shared history and beliefs of Judaism and Christianity elsewhere.) Rabbi Artson takes head on, the religious notion of 'modesty' and applies it wholeheartedly to the act of breastfeeding a baby in public.
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And what does he do? What does Rabbi Artson do? Why is he one of my heroes?
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With precise and detailed reference to religious instruction, Rabbi Artson severs the notion that God decrees what a modest woman is, and places the argument firmly within the context of patriarchy:
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Yet what constitutes appropriate modesty is, in part, a matter of social consensus. Given that no less an authority than the Shulhan Arukh recognizes that there is no timeless definition of modesty, that its specifics falls into the category of custom, how we implement this value invariably raises questions of how we might best implement Jewish values in our own age. We are really exploring what constitutes appropriate relations between men and women, given that women now serve as doctors, prosecutors, rabbis, and entrepreneurs. What may have heightened the dignity of women in a patriarchal age may no longer do so in our own. For the sake of preserving the goal of modesty, we may need to alter its previous modes of implementation.
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Yes, I can hear you screaming at the back. :-) How else do you think I read the good Rabbi's word: they were posted in breastfeeding forums with much screaming and appreciation, and great big golly gosh wide smiles.
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Artson then deals with the problem of what constitutes appropriate male/female interaction, in terms of the post-Patriarchy (I wish) and discusses the core element of the 'breastfeeding in public' issues of modesty and virtue: that of the weak, undisciplined, victim of the sinful female - the unsuspecting male, transfixed and bewitched, by the sight of all that female flesh. You know him - he's the male that once having seen a breast, will be an aroused and unstoppable sexual being, hell bent on rape and its the woman's responsibility as she set it all in motion. In a reasoned argument, again citing religious instruction, Artson concludes that:
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The responsibility for restraining inappropriate male sexuality lies with men.
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Don't you just love it? A rabbi, stating that if men are inflamed by the sight of breast during breastfeeding - then that's their problem, and they should deal with it? Obviously, I've reduced this greatly, and you should go read his words for himself. It really is very elegant, and worth a read in its own right.
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It gets better 'tho, and more on that in a moment. Before we get there, a side trip here. This is about the only time you will ever hear me applaud anyone making this statement, which is Rabbis Artson's ruling:
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Reading the sources in the light of these considerations, I understand halakhah to permit public breast-feeding, including in a Beit Midrash or synagogue sanctuary during a worship service, so long as it is done in a modest, subtle, and dignified fashion. (This requirement would be met, for example, by using a cloth or towel to cover breast and baby, by the maternity shirts specially made for this purpose, or by nursing in the rear of the room.)
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Before you get confused by my admiration for the use of the words 'modest' let me make it clear why I admire this conclusion. Because unlike all the nameless calls for a modest and discreet mother, without definition, or consensus, of what that means, Rabbi Artson both defines it, and makes it very clear he understands the practicalities of what is possible whilst breastfeeding. He acknowledges that within his religion, it is important that women remain modest, within the covenant of the relationship between the sexes - if men are responsible for their desires in sight of a woman, women must remain modest in the sense of not deliberately inflaming a response in men. But he does so with due regard for what is practical in nursing. All a mother needs do to present herself as modest whilst nursing during worship, is bring a cloth OR wear a nursing shirt OR sit to the rear. It's not that she needs a towel, a nursing top, and being at the back of the room.
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In other words, it is her intent at being modestly aware of her body, that's the issue. I don't have a problem with that, in the context of a religious faith that requires both partners to practice modesty with each other. I don't see restriction in Rabbi Artson's words (read the full text), partly because before we get to the conclusion, Artson has made it clear that the exposed breast is not sexual, and is completely as another body part, even if it is exposed during worship:
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A woman’s breast, in the act of breast-feeding an infant, is no different than a person’s hands writing, or one’s face expressing a gesture. The reason for exposing the breast, and the context for doing so, transform into explicit halakhic data for Ben Ish Hai, as they must be for us as well.
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In this context, I see Artson taking the time to say that just the presence of a towel, just the presence of a nursing top, or the decision on where to sit, is enough to allow a mother to be seen as both modest and discreet. That if the breast should become exposed; it is not sexual, and should not be seen anything more ordinary than an exposed hand. That if a male does become aroused by this sight - it is his problem.
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Could we really ask for more? In terms of a religious instruction on the subject of whether or not breastfeeding, and the 'threat' of an exposed breast is seen in a place of worship? I don't think so. I think Artson's treatise is a wonder, and goes a long way to helping mothers of faith - any faith, in walking the mine field that is their need to feed their young amid society's approbation of that act as indiscreet, immoral and immodest. You can clearly breastfeed your toddler in this context, and not worry about draping blankets, hiding in toilet stalls, or the cafe seeing your entire breast as they decide to follow the pretty butterfly instead of carrying on feeding. You will know you are a modest women, and that the rest of the world cannot condemn you, even as it views your fully exposed breast. He even says that mothers who wish privacy, should have it provided. It really is great stuff!
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However, that's not really why I'm mentioning him and his ruling. :-)
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I raised, at the end of the past post, that some of us yearn for the day the mother can feed her child, and it not be seen as anything other than... a mother feeding her child. I do think Artson helps us on the path to that, and it's important to flag that. In a world where the religious mores of the State/Country/onlooker, is cited as the evidence of the immorality of breastfeeding mothers, its important to have a reasoned and intelligent religious argument against such a negative portrayal of the female body as it nourishes. (and you will find links to more such articles here.)
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But for me, personally, I bring you Artson, because he discusses something more meaningful to me in his debate. He raises the true issues on woman's bodies and public breastfeeding. He even delineates such, in a way that saves me work. For Rabbi Artson understands what I understand, that the current problem with mothers and breastfeeding, is not down to a concept of God, or of modesty. It's down to gender, class and patriarchy. It's not about babies being out and fed in public: it's about women being allowed out in public in the first place.
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He sets up his debate within the parameters of the perceived traditional sexual threat of the woman out in public: a threat to herself and others. It's worth giving him the run on this:
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Because assessments of modesty are closely connected to erotic sensibility, many Jewish sources move from a general consideration of human modesty to a specific focus on sexual titillation. It is precisely in this area that the discussion becomes complex and problematic, assuming as it does a heterosexual male perspective on sexuality, one in which the woman’s body is both other and desired. As we discuss these sources, we need to make conscious and deliberate what is assumed and unstated in the sources: that it is men thinking about women, that it is heterosexual men who are excited by the bodies of women. Professor Judith Romney Wagner offers an insightful framework for thinking about ancient applications of modesty to women:
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"If a woman’s reproductive function confined her to the domestic scene, it was her sexuality per se that kept her out of the public domain. … These fears conspire to produce the result we actually find: Man is a public creature, woman a private one. This withholding of women’s rights in the public domain in response to the sexual threat posed to men at large neatly matches the sages’ suspension of a woman’s private rights in situations sexually threatening to individual men — a parallel surely not lost on the symmetry-conscious men who made these rules. In the end women play no part in the rituals of synagogue or study house, the most prestigious communal activities in mishnaic culture. Denied access to the life of mind and spirit, a woman’s physicality becomes even more pronounced, and her confinement to hearth and home a self-perpetuating social fact."
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Whatever the status of women in antiquity, we are engaged explicitly in providing access to the life of mind and spirit, in which confinement is ended, in which women are now physically present at public gatherings, and physicality (for women and men) normalized. Women and men may now be public creatures; men and women may choose to remain private. Consequently, we must explicitly participate in liberating women from being the object of male thought and attraction, now recognizing women as actors (not simply as objects of action) and as people (not simply as objects of lust, to be protected, concealed, or preserved in accordance with some male’s reaction, nor are men portrayed as sexually obsessed and unrestrained).
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He builds this argument about accepting female bodies, and their nourishing functions, in public, as an extension of the liberation of women from patriarchal control:
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...ours is an age in which the public role of women has advanced beyond mere tokenism. Ways in which the first generations of working women were forced to make themselves invisible as women are no longer tolerable. Indeed, many women and men now reject the notion of inviting women to join men in institutions and traditions which have been shaped exclusively by men and men’s concerns. To truly invite women to participate is to invite them to reshape male institutions now to articulate a woman’s voice as well."
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Again, you need to read the entire document if you want to fully appreciate Artson's argument.. but he gives me a lovely dovetail point, about women, working women, women in public spaces and breastfeeding. And religious worship actually. But I'm going to take a side swipe of my own before contextualising why Artson's work meets my own prior observation about women in public, and breastfeeding, and the altar space.
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Okay, it's me from here on in, got that?
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The concept that a woman in a public space, is a threat to society, is not new. It is, in fact, the shape of most of the huge weight of Judeo-Christian history behind us, and is still the norm in many cultures currently. Quite simply, for most of our recorded human history, it is clear that the female body has been controlled by the male society around her. The impetus for this, is often quoted as a desire to be sure of the male ownership of the children of your woman. Prior to DNA testing, no man could be sure that a woman's children were his unless he controlled all access to her body. Women could go and have sex with anyone, and pass their children off as yours. Therefore, you controlled the body of your woman, or women. You kept them in closed quarters at home, in many cultures exclusively in 'the women's quarters' and you only allowed them travel outside, under very specific circumstances, and in the control of direct males of the family.
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As I discussed in part one, this control was absolute, as many women were not allowed out of the home at all, and were in fact, chapereoned within their own homes as well. Male visitors to any home would not expect to encounter a female member of any family, without appropriate controls and escort.
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Women were simply too dangerous to have out and about accompanied. Our own modern history, taught in schools, is about how women have recently rebelled about this, and demanded the right to exit the family home. This is often portrayed as the fight to allow women out to work. To take part in the economy of their own society. To throw off the restrictive constraints of their role purely being on reproduction and child rearing. To fight prejudice and be allowed into employment. Much is made of our Victorian feminist predecessors, who went out unchaperoned, and chained themselves to railings and threw themselves in front of horses, in order to be allowed to vote. And from there, to be allowed to work equally with men. Much is made of the fact that modern woman is distinctly different from all women prior, as now she is allowed to join the workforce. She need no longer take a male relative with her, before popping to the shops for a cabbage. She can vote, and do so in isolation from male control. She can compete with men for jobs.
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All this is very laudable in intent. However, it misses out one vital fact: women have always worked. The working woman is not new. She is not modern. She is not unique in world history. What is new, what is modern - is that women of privilege can now work. Women from families with the wealth to keep them at home cloistered, now let them out.
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Some women have always been out. There have always been women in public spaces. They have been the poorest of us, and they have always been in dangerous public spaces, subjected to abuse and approbation, from all around them.
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And I'd argue that the current obsession with condemming women for breastfeeding in public, has far more to do with being poor female and working class, than any other single reason.
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I grew up in Lanarkshire, in Scotland, in the 1960s. We lived in the most poverty stricken area, of an extremely disadvantaged community. Disease and death were rife: I caught impetago, playing in the streets when I was three years old. Impetago is seen as a third world disease. I wasn't allowed to play in the streets, but I'd got out, and was found playing in the filthy water from a broken sewer that the other kids were playing in. Raw sewage in the mud, is something I have memories of. Children were murdered, by parents and strangers alike, in my child hood memories. I witnessed my first death when I was fifteen, when a knife fight in the street outside my house took the life of one of the boys who had started fighting. I saw women in cat fights in the street, fighting over 'their man' when a drunken wife and a drunken mistress squared off outside the pub. I saw young children sent into the pub on payday, to try and shame some money out of the father before it was swallowed down.
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We owned the corner shop. We have broken glass cemented into the walls of our back yard, which had once been a garden, but was no longer one. We sold liquid hair lacquer in glass bottles, and tramps came in and bought it, when they couldn't afford cheap booze. When they couldn't afford hair spray, they stole milk bottles off the doorstep, and gassed it through with the old 'town gas' in the derelict houses before swallowing it down. If they woke up, they were lucky. Even luckier if they could still see.
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I was insulated by the appalling depravation around me, by some modicum of wealth, as we ran two businesses. We were Irish Catholic immigrants, in a puritanical Protestant country. My (presumed) hidden illigitimacy, meant I was bussed out of the area every morning to a private school, and bussed back to locked gates in the evening. Between these two journeys, and sitting in the shops and serving the customers, and sitting in the Mass on Sundays, and the very rare contact with the kids who lived in the streets around me, I learned a great many things about being a decent woman.
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I learned it was vital to be decent at all times. Women who came to the shop, without hair combed, stockings on their legs, and a decent coat, kept clean and well pressed, were not approved off. They were common. They had no decency. They had no self-respect.
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The Church was the bastion of display of the status of self-respect.
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I learned that the pews held a strong and self-determined social order. The better dressed you were that day, the nearer in front and middle you sat. If you were on your way to work, or having left it, in work clothes, you went to the side and back. You never attended High Mass, unless you were spotless, stainless and impeccable. But if you were spotless, stainless and impeccable with poorer clothing, you sat to the shadows. A woman in Church with bare legs was a shame to her entire family. Greater shame was not attending, and having the parish priest round to read the hell and damnation act.
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I learned that headscarves, of all things had a pecking order, and the black lace mantilla from package holidays in Spain, ruled supreme over all home grown versions. A poorer quality coat, but with a lace mantilla, could move you a couple of pews in front, when you stood at the back of the church, scanned those already seated, and did the mental calculation of where you could sit today.
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Your marriage also showed your status and social respectibility rating.
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If a woman was married to a man who beat her, it was her role to keep quiet, and keep the kids safe. If she did this, she had good standing. If he hit her, it was unfortunate. If he hit the kids, she was to blame, and her standing would fall.
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A decent man did not drink, and therefore a decent woman did not marry a man who drank. If she did, she had herself to blame. Her standards had dropped, and she had to live with her mistake. "You make your own bed, you lie in it."
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A girl who allowed a man to 'do things' to her, deserved what she got. Decent girls did not do such things. Illigitimacy was still such a stigma, I was the only child in my class at my very expensive convent school, not to be invited to the other girl's parties. I could take the bus from Craigneuk, but I couldn't leave it behind.
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If you fell pregnant, you married him, no matter if he was a brute. If he was married already, or refused you, you disappeared, and returned several months later with a flatter stomach and red eyes. But no decent man would look at you again.
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If a woman married a decent sort, who turned sour, it was her role to uphold the familly's decency. All members of the family must be clean, well cared for and fed. No matter. You found a way. You scrubbed floors, and let your hands bleed and crack from chillblains in the cold water, rather than see your child walk out the door with anything less than a neat and ironed school uniform.
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If your doorstep was dirty, you were not a decent woman.
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Decent women did not breastfeed.
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Neither did they carry their children on their backs, in woollen blankets, as the women in 'the flats' did. The flats were directly behind us. They contained the scum of the earth. Women who drank. Women who had dirty kids. Women with babies on their back, like tinkers. Women with bare legs. Women with no coats, just shawls. Too poor for a coat was a terrible stigma. There were also decent women, who had the burden of being at that address, with clean houses, spotless doorsteps, and warming soup on the stove at all times. And who knew how to stain legs with tea bags, if they truly had lost their last decent set of tights before payday. The stain was enough to lift condemnation: not completely, a truly decent woman would not allow herself to run out of tights, but you know... she had tried. Oh for the liberation of a pair of trousers!
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But the others were there also. The nasty women. With their torn clothing, mucky bare legs, and dirty children. I was playing in the flats, with those children when I caught impetago.
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It was many many years, before I realised what the sin of these women had been: what the terror of the streets was. It was that they were poor, and they did not hide it. They did not fear being spotted in the shop, without stockings. They did not fear being seen to have problems. They did not scrub their doorsteps, in the snow, in order to prove They Had Standards. Sometimes, it was because they were too broken, or drunk. Mostly, it was because no one had told them they must do these things above all else, else they be judged poor.
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No one had explained that self-respect, was more imprtant than food. No one has explained to them, it was better their children were hungry, but with Sunday clothes to wear, than if they were fed, and a bit grubby round the edges. Grubby meant you were too poor for soap - what decent woman would admit to that?
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I realised, my entire family, viewed life with a fear of what others would think of them. Purely on the basis of how they looked, conducted themselves in the street, or how often they put money into buying candles at the Church.
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Because not to do these things, was to reveal you were low, common, ignorant, indecent and ... working class.
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That the sin was in revealing how poor you were. The sin was in not emulating the middle classes, and not trying to pretend to be 'decent working folk' at all costs.
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Much of my revelations came to this, through breastfeeding activism. Lanarkshire had the worst breastfeeding rates in the UK, until very recently. It was no wonder: no decent woman breastfed. Breastfeeding was the activity of those too poor to buy formula. A women with slack morals, and no self-respect, would breastfeed. Even a slattern who could be seen standing at the bus stop on her own, hair mussed, lipstick smudged, still in her evening wear on a Saturday morning... looking to the world as she'd been "hawking her wares" all night... even she would not breastfeed in the open. Even she had more decency. She might have breastfed, sin enough, but she did it at home.
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I mentioned this, this working class aversion to breastfeeding in Lanarkshire, in passing on a UK lactation list, a year or so ago. I was astounded when a fellow Scot, still in Lanarkshire, of roughly my age, and from three miles away from where I had grown up, spoke about how not only did she breastfeed, without thinking of it, her mother had breastfed her. In fact, her mother would not have considered otherwise. A few others spoke up, and we had a discussion.
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All these other women identified themselves as working class. All were of my age, or even older, all had been breastfed.
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I asked them if they knew how their mothers had felt, when breastfeeding in front of others. The answer was astounding: they would never have considered breastfeeding in front of others.
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I did some more investigations, and the answers to the discrepencies in attitude to breasfteeding, became clear. There was a divide I'd not seen, as I'd erroneously felt the issue was being 'working-class'. And the issue was about being in the poorest levels of that very wide category. It was the difference between being urban poor - industrial working class - versus being from a family making a living from manual labour. It was the type of labour, and subsequent living conditions.
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It shouldn't have escaped me, I'd studied both Mayhew and the London Labour and the London Poor, and Booth, in their work of cataloguing the different types, attitudes and conditions of the different strata of the labouring classes. I'd just missed that this was where I was brought up, so concerned were my family with proving, along with the other decent people, that this Was Not Us .
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I set about doing some more work on this, the differing attitudes to breastfeeding, within a close geographical, but starkly different economic landscape. Initially, there were obvious connections to be made, the connections that link to Artson, and my comments in part one about the seclusion and control of women. The most obvious point to make was - no woman went out to work unless she absolutely had to, to prevent destitution. The working class mothers being described to me via their daughters, lived in the comfort of a single waged family. One, the mother of the one closest to my childhood home, lived in a small cottage, with land attached for an allotment. She had no need of paid employment, There were money poor, but rich enough in food, and living quarters, that breastfeeding could always be done out of the eye of strangers. What shopping into market that was needed, could be done around feeding times.
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The other, more urban, lived in a two room apartment in Edinburgh. She did not work either, and in fact, had described to her daughter, how breastfeeding caused her to slow down, and enjoy the quieter moments of her baby. Time to notice the windows need washed. She too could live her life, without ever feeding in front of any other person. It was plain to see there, how breastfeeding would not be deemed indecent - as the mothers would have no need of ever being indecent in the eyes of others.
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I contrasted this in my mind, with the working women caught in public. It was not long since there was a universal name for all women caught in public spaces unchaperoned: prostitute. A rich urban working class history of working woman sprang to my eyes, which I'd absorbed over the years without thinking through in terms of breastfeeding. The need for 'nice' girls in service, to always be accompanied by a fellow servant to and from Church. The social routines and rituals required from those working outside the home, in shops and factories, to travel in the company of fellow female workers. The requirement that even though you were out working, you must be seen to be decent, respectable and discipined at all times. No stray moments where you could have been left vulnerable, either to male attack, or suspicion of male dalliance.
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The maids in the grand homes, trained to be invisible, and never to let themselves be caught alone, by a male of the house.
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And the women in the streets, trading wares, selling flowers, gutting and selling fish. How they were the most common, the most low, the most indecent. The least protected. The worst insult to hurl at a woman in my streets was not whore - to use that word decried yourself as common too. The worst insult a decent woman could hurl to another, was that she was a fishwife.
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How the Industrial Revolution had taken hundreds of rural women into the public streets. Where they must walk pregnant, and then with babies, past the eyes of others who pitied them: pitied that their marriage had not brought them a husband well off enough, to allow her to retire for her confinement. Where the baby had to be left with either a murder bottle, or a wet nurse. As the needs of poverty drove the women out to work in public spaces+.
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A world where the only women who would be seen to be breastfeeding in public, was one so low, that common decency no longer applied. The tinker, the beggar, the drunkard, the prostitute.
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It was a shocking picture to me, and one that did not ring true with one aspect of the historical records of breastfeeding - that of breastfeeding babies in churches on Sundays, with their mothers in the pews. These historical references are always alighted on by lactavists, in the same way that the portraits of Mary breastfeeding Jesus are: evidence that breastfeeding in public was once no big deal - it even happened in Church.
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I'd position it the other way around. I'd position it that the only place a mother would be allowed to breastfeed her baby outside the domestic sphere would be in Church. Because attendance in Church was compulsory for both mother and child, within weeks of the birth. Eternal damnation would follow any woman not attending Church on a Sunday, and faced with a screaming hungry baby, I can easily conjecture that the women who would not otherwise consider walking out the door of her home with a hungry baby in her arms, or who would retire to her own back bedroom in her own home even if the only other occupant was her husband, would nurse her baby in Church, under the special circumstance that would be in place: it was simply unthinkable that she did not attend Church. Therefore Church was an extension of her domestic sphere, and not in public.
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Therefore, to nurse in Church was not indecent. Anywhere else in public, or even in private in view of others, was. In my home culture, wives did not expose their breasts to their own husbands. When asked recently why she'd never considered breastfeeding, an older female in my family replied "Why, we lived in a single end, I couldn't be doing that with my husband watching me. What if he was trying to eat his tea, as I had to feed the baby?" We're talking about the late 1950s.
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The same sort of responses can be found in records of poorer urban working class women in Glasgow in the 1940s.
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With these thoughts, and musings in mind, I contacted the historians at New Lanark. The site of an 18th century Cotton Mill, New Lanark was a mill owners social experiment in providing decent working and living conditions for the mill workers. In short, the mothers in New Lanark, were cared for in pregnancy, and did not have to return to work for a year, when their toddlers were enrolled in the communal school, freeing them to return to work. One pertinent fact about the mills is interesting to note - the mills were operated on immigrant labour, even when the working conditions were the best in the whole of Great Britain. Why? Because the native working class of Lanarkshire, refused to work in the mills. The work was too hard, the conditions too dismal, the pay too poor. So workers were brought in from the destitue areas of the Highlands and Ireland, where people were so impoverished, they would accept work in a mill. Similar immigrations were taking place in mills all over England and Wales, with large Irish Catholic influx into tight geographical areas: all to feed industry.
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I knew of the much better conditions of women and children at New Lanark (they took in orphan children to work cleaning under the spinners) and I wrote and enquire of breastfeeding in the complex, during that year out. Were the mothers sitting out on the banks of the Clyde on the fine summer's days, reveling in their freedom from work?
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No, they were not. Even 'tho the records could tell me how many pregnant and women-with-children-at-home-under-a-year there were in any given year... there was no evidence any would have breastfed outside their home. They would have left the houses for cleaning and laundry etc, but would not have breastfed outside their lodgings. It simply isn't in the records, even in the oral records of what life was like in the millls.
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Now, I've been in those lodgings. I've sat and marvelled at the 'superb' facillities. One room, with box and trundle beds, to house a family of perhaps 8 people, adult and children. Chamber pots for toileting, a common hearth for cooking. A family out at work for long hours, and then in education classes, and an insufferable press of human bodies when they all returned to sleep.
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And you are stuck in there, for a year, feeding your baby. How does that feel? How eagerly do you wish to get to solids? How fast will you make up a posset of bread and cow's milk, and see if you can get a bit more 'outside' before the next feed? How would you feel, in a world where your own husband has never seen your naked breast, in having to turn your back in this crowded room, and nurse to the wall, lest Grandfather see you?
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How might you yearn for freedom, as opposed to relaxing and noticing the windows needed a wipe. How strong must the taboo be, on breastfeeding in public, to keep you locked in that room, feeding your baby, month after month, sometimes in blistering heat.
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And that's the poorer industrial mothers with the freedom to stay locked in that one room. What of the ones who had no option but to leave the baby with a caregiver, to be fed by murder bottle, or off a wet nurse breast feeding 30 other babies at a time, whilst they took the long walk to the mill? How might you feel, knowing that everyone called them 'murder bottles', but you had no choice but to use them? How would you view breastfeeding, if you knew only indecent, slack and more destitute women than you, did it outside the home but you had to leave your home to work or live in the streets. Oh the horror, you'd become a street woman...
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How might you feel about babies at all, in world where you had little choice in your husband, and very little choice on conception?
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How might you feel about how the world treated you, and how might you feel about how many of your babies died, and how many more were born, and how the years ticked by to decades... and still you were not free from these constrictions... how might you feel when formula finally came along, in clean bottles and the babies didn't die so often? How might you feel about being allowed out in public, whilst the baby fed in relative safety, and thrived in a way the previous babies had not?
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How might you feel, when the middle class women came along and told you how wonderful breastfeeding was, and how if you really cared for your baby, you'd give it your breast?
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It's a question that comes to my mind time and again, when we look at how strongly, and pro-actively, many pockets of industrial working class poor, cling to formula feeding. When the mothers speak of breastfeeding as something slack, common and low women do. That they'd never do that, what would their boyfriend think, if someone looked at their breasts? No slack alice here! She might be half naked in a skimpy top and a short skirt, vomiting into the gutters of a Friday night, hyped up on cheap vodka and Red Bull, but that's okay, we're liberated now. It's my right to be sexually active now, and a sexual display on my own terms. But put a baby to her breast outside, for other blokes to cop a look when she doesn't want it? Who do you think I am?
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But I digress. A little. When I read Artson's discussion of the patriarchy condenming women to live their life in private, the threat of their sexuality needing to be controlled at all costs... when I read that, I don't think of the woman trapped at home.
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I think of the ones too poor to be allowed that privilege. I think of the ones out in public, negotiating their lives in a world that saw their very presence, as evidence of poverty and destitution... that they were so poor, they had no men rich enough to keep them safe behind locked doors.
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And then I see the comments that are made about breastfeeding mothers in public, today. That they are low, common, indecent. Of low sexual morals. Whores. Exhibitionists driven by a need to expose themselves needlessly, to the eyes of men.
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And the words and descriptions of my past, are always used to describe these women - more often than not, by women who claim to be breastfeeders themselves. But breastfeeders with a difference. Breastfeeders who are discreet, modest, respectable. Breastfeeders who do it behind closed doors, in back bedrooms, under blankets and in toilet stalls. Breastfeeders who understand that they are decent women. The Decent Woman is.. discreet, respectful, courteous and considerate of others. She knows her body and its nurturing functions are offensive, and she shows her social acceptability by hiding that body, and its nurturing. She hides her offensive baby, and herself. She buys a hooter-hider, and takes it with her everywhere.
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Her sexual body may have been allowed out of the women's quarters, but her mothering body must remain behind. And if she chooses to be out in public with her nurturing body, she must bring the bedroom curtains with her.
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Because if she doesn't do this, we will take the spectre of the street woman... the spectre of the urban poor, lower working class hoyden: indecent, shamefull and immodest, and slap the breastfeeding mother around the head with it until she gives up and goes back into the back bedroom or brings it with her when she goes out.
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The Decent Woman will scream, and holler, and shout, and throw terror upon the unwitting slut as she breaks down the safety of the known order. For the Decent Woman knows her enemy. She knows the world is full of low class trash ready to steal her husband with her sexual wantoness: for no women would display her body in such a way unless she was sexually wanton. Unless she was lacking needs and attention at home, and was desiring to steal the attention of her decent husband. Unless she was too poor in either money, or respect, to realise that she was breaking the rules. And in doing so, was showing she was too low in class, to be acknowledged as anything other than trash.
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Everytime we use the word discreet, and apply it to breastfeeding, we are asking to be exempted from identification with those nasty horrible woman. We are evoking a class divide, and using the image of the poverty stricken, indiscreet, immodest and 'cheap' woman on the streets. And that's not down to how much flesh is showing. Time and again, woman are asked to leave when they are already using blankets, or have their babies completely hidden. It's not the reality of breastfeeding that is offensive - it's the thought of it. Just thinking about baring a breast in public, to feed a child, sets off fears in the bones and blood of the decent woman, who knows this should not happen outside the home! Who will do anything rather than be identified with one of those women.
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Decent women know that if common women get away with all this, they will be identified with them, and be forced to accept them, just as they can do nothing about that sexually active hussy over there in the red dress, looking at her husband with cow eyes. Once a woman like that couldn't have eaten in here, now they get served and we have to be nice to them. But seeing the baby and the breast too! This is not something our righteous, decent woman, is going to suffer. Sure, nice girls can leave the home and get decent jobs in nice respectable workplaces. This is the dark ages after all! But the public dangers still exist now.. for those other women are out there: the mistresses, the whores, the manipulators, all with the potential to lead their husbands, and their income, away by their erect penis. Her world will fall, her nice ordered and well tailored respectability, if he strays into the world of women out on the streets. With their uncontrolled, undisciplined, hanging it all out with no respect, shameless bodies. With children hanging off their titties and giving them cheap thrills in absence of a real man... using having a baby as an excuse to flaunt their naked bodies in everyone's face!
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Think I'm exagerating? Think I'm over stating my case? Go do a web search on 'denny's breastfeeding', and find out how people, mostly "I've breastfed and I've never shown a thing" mothers are talking about the mother who was thrown out of Denny's this week.
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Did you know she was trailer trash? Lacking in self-respect? A whore? Noriously for flaunting her naked breasts in: planes, bars, shopping malls and the street? That she is a regular at Denny's, and is often seen falling unconconsious, drunk, in the booths?
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Read the comments about how "I'm a breastfeeder, and I fed my baby for... 2 weeks, two months.. two years... but I never once lost my self-respect or common decency for others. That unlike that slattern, I'm modest, decent, hard working and I have class! I am considerate of others and accept that manners and decency is important to hold our society together. I understand the rules, as I'm not destitute, either in money or manners. Read comment after comment after comment, telling all breastfeeding mothers, they have to have some class.
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Breastfeeding in public is so much more than gender. It's also about class, and social standing. Certainly, you can't unravel that from gender politics, and you certainly can't apply it universally through all situations and all social strata. There are clearly moments in time, when decent women were allowed to breastfeed decently, in public. Places where there deceny was not questioned, and therefore the act was acceptable. During travel, for one: there are many historical photographs of women undertaking decent, respectful and approved of journeys, on their own and with their babies, and feeding in bus and train stations. I imagine if you grew up in a comfortable rural area, where the ghosts of the women trapped in public by poverty, never touched you, you'd never think of breastfeeding as indecent... but who saw it in those conditions? Female family? Strangers?
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But I suspect that those photoes speak of a moment in time, before the formula bottle invaded the space that mother occuppied. Because what is clear to me, is that many mothers turned to 'safe' formula feeding as soon as they could, in order to feed in public. Either totally, to free them from the back bedroom, or only when they were out. Because pulling out a bottle is not a sign of poverty, or of having no choice: in urban poor areas, it's actually a sign of aspiration. And this is being perpetuated onwards, today, when we see comment after comment after comment, that a decent woman will pump her breastmilk and bottle feed it when outside the back bedroom. Some even use it in the home, when faced with others who might view her breastfeeding. Currently, the single biggest 'challenge' to new breastfeeding mothers is not reported as the first time they breastfeed in in public, although that is a source of fear. The biggest fear is nursing in front of older male relatives, in your own home.
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The back bedroom beckons...
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Oh dear, this is long, and a tad convulted. Maybe eight months wasn't long enough! Forgive the lack of references.. this is not research I have done, its research I'd love to do!
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I'll pick it all up again, on part three. :-)
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ps, this post is so big, it's broken the spell checker... I imagine a lot of editing will occur over the next few days...
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+There is a common misconception here, that relates again to the historical records of paintings and protraits in the art galleries. That working class women in rural areas, who are often seen in fields working, digging gleaning... were out in public. This is not so, women who worked within the rural landscape, were in their own domestic sphere. It was a wide and ranging domestic sphere, but they worked in close confinement of their husbands, brothers and fathers, and were in their own domestice sphere. Just as a women servant in a house, was not in public during her work. 'In public', is walking freely in the ungoverned and uncontrolled spaces. Travelling women moved in public, but again, often with male control: but were vilvified for being so poor they did travel in public saces at all. It was the development of towns that signalled 'public space' for many working women. Again, the stigma of actually working in a public space, as opposed to a controlled domestic space, even if that was a field of corn, was great. If you were in the streets - you were a 'street woman'.

10 comments:

Ruth Moss said...

Morgan you are a genius.

Morgan said...

*blush*

Sophie said...

Nice one :)

That said, I called a local synagogue ahead of a friend's wedding when K was 3mo to ask about whether it'd be ok to nurse. Whoever answered was very surprised that anyone would want to and said no, you'll have to duck out the the lobby/corridor/TOILET.

I was so miffed that I very nearly didn't go to the wedding.. but this was an old, dear friend, so I did while Rob took K for a walk round town. She slept. I seethed. Then nursed several times in plain view of the world at the reception.

Emma said...

I love you ! (it's Valentine's Day, after all). No, in all seriousness : BRILLIANT. As I said in my comments where I shared it on Facebook, you've pinned the tail right on the donkey's rump. Fantastic post, my friend. Our work is cut out for us, indeed.

Ashley F. said...

You have just blown my mind. I'm ready to light my nursing cover (that I rarely even use) on fire, feminist-movement-bra-burning style.
Oh my oh my oh my.

Katherine said...

Brilliant. It just highlights for me how the battle for equality is nowhere near over - until we have the freedom and respect to carry out our roles as mothers wherever and whenever we need to be it can never be won!

Miranda said...

Gaah Morgan when do you think I'm supposed to have time to read all this??? /Marit, still so slow in reading English...

Sundancer said...

Wow Morgan, this is brilliant. So thought provoking and makes so much sense.
It is long, but without such length you wouldn't have been able to go in to the background detail to come to conclusions that would make no sense without it!

Thank you for making it so clear to see why so many mothers gladly reached (and still reach) for the bottle, I feel I understand it better now!

LilKnitter said...

This post is genius, truly. I applaud your dedication to researching and writing it. Thank you!!

emma said...

BRAVO indeed!!!!

As an out and proud public breastfeeder, I salute you.