The witches brew

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Reading the news this week, about a young mother asked to ‘cover up’ with a ‘huge napkin’ whilst breastfeeding her 12 week old baby, during a family lunch at a well known London hotel,  because it was ‘hotel policy,’  had the unfortunate effect of reminding of the many hours I spent in public toilets with my children during the 1980’s. Why? Because of my status as a breastfeeding mother. What inconvenience and unpleasantness made of what should be the easiest, the most convenient way of feeding a child – not to mention the healthiest. Why does a society which unashamedly promotes and capitalises on the sexual objectification of breasts feel so squeamish about breastfeeding mothers that it would publicly shame them in this way? Why on earth do the powers that be at said London hotel perceive breastfeeding to be such an abomination that they need a policy to deal with ‘offenders’?

Most feminists I know can articulate ideas of capitalism as the imperial and patriarchal socioeconomic system that is inherently oppressive to women, and understand only too well, if only from direct experience, how little value is ascribed to their unpaid work within the domestic sphere. They are however less aware of the history of women, and how their status as women in the 21st century, is inextricably linked to the witch hunts of the Middle Ages: the systematic murder and torture of their foremothers (sic) – according to Sylvia Federici (author of Caliban and the Witch), as important to the rise and hegemony of capitalism as the enclosures, colonisation and the slave trade.

The subjugation of women, and the confinement of their bodies to the private sphere for the proffering of personal services to men, gathered pace during the 12th century. Throughout the Middle Ages the church and the state conducted a vicious campaign against women, reconstructing gender relations to sanctify the subjection of women to men; focussing on women’s [re]productive work and [re]productive powers  – female sexuality – portrayed as so potent it could make a man’s penis disappear.

Women were commonly portrayed as a dangerous and malevolent force in need of control: a threat to the social order – responsible for arousing men’s passions – causing them to lose their self control, powers of reason, and capacity for work, leading to moral and financial ruin; and it was in this climate of fear men that men unwittingly acceded administrative power for the appropriation of the female body, and so were complicit in the enclosure of female identity – the [re]productive work, and powers of women within the  socioeconomic  hierarchy of capital relations.

The sexual differentiation of space, and enclosure of public spaces which became the exclusive domain of men, was integral to this process. In the 16th and 17th centuries women were expelled from the streets and a woman venturing out on her own risked ridicule and even sexual assault. Women were discouraged from associating with other women and even from sitting in the windows in the front of their own homes – a practice which over time became associated with  images of the ‘fallen woman’ – the prostitute. Bodily functions associated with [re]productive powers and female sexuality, like menstruation and lactation – both natural contraceptives – were rendered unclean, enclosing within the female body, the false dichotomy of purity and danger: Whore/Madonna – [social] order/disorder – ideas so deeply embedded in our collective unconscious, that  the act of breastfeeding a child in public, is still considered a taboo. So much so that ‘polite’ society feels compelled to reinforce these ideas of gendered spaces by ‘policing’ those who engage in it.

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3 Responses to “The witches brew”

  1. victoriaevbuomwan Says:

    BREAST FEEDING IN PUBLIC IN MY OPININ IS NOT A BAD THING. WHATS WRONG WITH COVERING UP THE BREAST AND CONTINUE WITH YOUR BREASTFEEDING. SIMPLE COURTESY. NOT EVERYONE WELCOMES SUCH IDEA AND SO PEOPLES RIGHT SHOULD BE RESPECTED AND NOT TRAMPLED UPON.

  2. leutha Says:

    I was talking about this to my daughter and she introduced me to the word lactivism: “someone who advocates for women who breastfeed their children, and often takes this advocacy to the streets, halls of the Capitol, and opinion columns of local papers.”
    (http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-lactavist.htm)

  3. sianericadavies Says:

    Lactivism! Classic!

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