Saturday, September 13, 2008

Here Tits: The Wet Nurse and The Revival Of Mammy

Well everything old is new again.  I was reading Hoyden About Town when I came across a link for wet nurses. My initial reaction was WTF....seriously...not in the year 2008.  As a WOC the idea that you can, or should pay someone to breast feed your child is extremely problematic.  For those that aren't aware, historically it has been white women paying, or forcing  WOC to act as wet nurses for their children.  There was a time when breast feeding was believed to ruin a woman's figure, and therefore rather than risk their sexual appeal, white women of privilege hired dark skinned women, or used slaves to nurse their children.  The other factor that made wet nursing attractive is the detachment that parents believed to be in the best interest of the child in the 1800's and early 1900's.  If a child was breast fed by the mother it was deemed that said infant would develop an unnecessary, and unnatural attachment. WOC were also seen as best able to bond with a child, as it was deemed that they had the same mental capacity.

 image The role of wet nurse reduces women to roving tits, that are available to hire.  For women of colour the association with mammy cannot be dismissed.  Women of privilege hire wet nurses because they want to continue working, and provide the best possible nutrition for their child.  That this is exploitation, so that they can achieve their goals is something that is not considered.  Women of wealth have a history of exploiting poor women to aid in reproduction and child rearing.  When feminists say that women can have it all, the answer is certainly yes they can, if they depend on another woman to do the labour that they are either unwilling, or unable to do.

Outsourcing reproduction, or child rearing is strictly the preserve of the rich.  That women are the ones equally participating in this exploitation is extremely disgusting.  While fighting to be recognized as equal beings in the public sector, reducing women to their biological functions in the private sector is counter to the progress of all women.  Between the rent a womb explosion in India and the increased sale of eggs,  reproduction has become big business. 

Once something becomes commodified it becomes subject to review and control. Women that are selling their eggs, or working as wet nurses must undergo medical testing and live a life of rigid control.  Their bodies no longer belong to them and instead belong to the family that has bought its capabilities.  Class, once again combines with capitalism to further curtail the activities of women and render them inseparable from the functions of their biology. This is a uniquely female oppression. 

Poverty is a feminized condition, and as the economy continues to worsen how many women will make this choice because they need to feed their families?  A choice made within constrained circumstances is not a freely made choice. The companies that profit based in biology and reproduction, trade on the idea of female bonding to obscure the reality of what selling breast milk really entails, the predatory exploitation of the rich over the poor.  Historically the wet nurse was known to reserve her milk for pay, while her own child was forced to live on a substandard substitute.  Upper class women may feel empowered because they are able to mother and work, however what they are really doing is outsourcing labour, while diminishing the source of nourishment for another child.

For a family to function with even one member working a high powered career a support staff is needed.  It is not possible to work 60 plus hours a week and do the the laundry, keep the house clean, nurse and be successful in the working sphere, without having someone in the household to do the maintenance work.  This is why traditionally it has always been understood that when a man is in a high pressure "flannel suit" job he needed a wife.  A wife was as necessary to his success, as his education.  Even though the labour performed by women was socially discounted as recent as the 1800's, a man could not even secure a business loan unless he was lawfully wed.  It was determined that a man would work harder if he had a family to support, without recognizing the ways in which the wife "he supported" made his labour possible. Today the same sort of situation exists, except now women are looking for their "own wives" as they increasingly embark upon careers that demand a more total commitment.

The advancement of some women on the backs of others is not progress, it is simply the perpetuation of past crimes.  Class and race play a central role in who is designated as 'woman' and who is recognized by their biological capabilities.  For women to achieve equality we need to stop serving the needs of the wealthy and embrace communal ideas that would elevate us all.  As long as woman are seen as a pair of roving tits for hire, or a uterus for rent, we will all be subject to the limitations that reproduction causes women.  Wanting a wife and being a wife are too very different things.  Internalizing patriarchy and using capitalism as a tool to oppress makes us guilty of employing the masters tools.  Freedom for all, means all women are more than the sum of our parts.


10 comments:

BOLDANDBEAUTIFUL said...

This really sickens me. I feel exploited on every level as a Black woman. It never ceases to amaze me. I learned about wet nurses last semester and I tried my best to "chalk it up" as another racist practice of the past...but I see I can never do that...

Ebony Intuition said...

"Today the same sort of situation exists, except now women are looking for their "own wives"

I remember reading an article where a female stated that as a wife she doesn't feel that taking care of household issues and caring for her children are duties of a being a wife, and that she would have to get domestic help to cover all of those.

Which only equals another women being exploited. Or in your words women looking for their "own wives".

I also remember getting into a discussion with a friend of mine who said that rich people raise their children very well and good etc. I stated " know they don't their "help" raises the children which is usually a women from the lower class (and a women of colour) and the "wife" gets all the credit.

che said...

i've been reading your blog for a while now but haven't commented. yesterday my sister who's trying to have a child mentioned this indian surrogacy explosion. her husband was listening to our talk. i commented that "not only are women selling their vaginas now but also their womb and well some shit about poverty. her husband got annoyed and said "when you get married and want to have a child, you'll also understand." he has the gall to be hurt.

chom-online said...

I could really go off about this topic. Let me say, I am a mother of 4. All of whom were breastfed (one still is). So, here are my thoughts and if I offend anyone - I don't care:

If you are too damned self centered and/or lazy to breast feed your own kids then you have NO RIGHT to breed in the first place.

That is all.

A. said...

It's not everyone who can breastfeed their own babies so it's a bit of sweeping statement to say anyone is self-centred or lazy by not breast feeding. I fed my first without a problem but the second was not so successful and I had to resort to a bottle. I felt quite bad enough about it without being labelled as lazy. That said, there was no way I would want anyone else feeding my child, but perhaps there may be mitigating circumstances.

White Trash Academic said...

I was speaking with some faculty members about this very issue yesterday. It came up in light of a discussion about immigration and utilizing day workers/illegals to clean your house or perform nanny duties.

I have a friend who taught at a university in a border town. When she moved there, the university culture was such that many professors hired day workers for this purpose. They came across the border everyday to work in their homes and went back at night. The discussion revolved around the ethical issues concerned with this, as they could have easily hired people in the city for this work. But, if they are paying them a better wage (without taxes) and the conditions are better than their alternative, do we have an ethical obligation to employ them?

Not to derail your thread at all but she, being a POC, would NEVER hire another POC to do this. I, personally, would also NEVER hire a POC for any kind of domestic duties because I would never be able to disconnect my brain from the historical relationship of slave owner/slave, but that is my personal choice.

Also, using the bottle often becomes the alternative when one simply cannot breast feed (my friend had a baby that refused to take her milk). So, the alternative is to use a bottle, not hire a wet nurse, especially a WOC. I do not understand how anyone could justify doing so.

Renee said...

@chom-line: you would really like to go off topic? Look there are plenty of places to deal with breastfeeding in terms of nutrition and very few spaces that deal with the exploitation of wet nurses. Stay on topic.

nia said...

I had always heard about wet-nursing, but I assumed it was something that was done because the mother was unable to produce her own milk, and not because of the reasons outlined in your post. Thanks very much for the history lesson.

August said...

Wanting to pay someone to breastfeed your kid does not always stem from mere laziness or ambition. A lot of women I know who are pregnant or have recently given birth feel a tremendous pressure to breastfeed, even if their medical circumstances (or their child's medical circumstances) prevent it; even to the point of feeling enormous guilt and pegging themselves as failures and horrible mothers for not providing their infants with breastmilk for as long as they planned (or at all), even if it was something completely out of their hands that prevented it, like a mastitis infection or unplanned stay in NICU.

Chom-line's point is a prime example; she thinks that if one doesn't breastfeed, one doesn't even deserve to be a mother in the first place. She may personally think that there are medical exceptions, but that part remained unstated.

Some of these women I know have discussed hiring wet nurses in case they were physically unable to breastfeed. None of them are particularly wealthy; but they ARE desperate to do what they consider to be the "right thing" for their children. Some of them considered BEING wet nurses after delivery (these were all white women, btw).

I don't know, I guess I feel like it's not quite on the same level as the Indian surrogacy issue, because there is a measurable benefit to the children to be breastfed instead of bottle-fed, whereas the surrogacy is purely for the benefit of those paying for it. I feel like this issue is related to how mothers in general are expected to give 110% at all times or else be labeled as total failures, which I'd be interested in seeing your opinion on at some point.

By the way, I'm coming at this from an understanding that the wet nurses in question are not necessarily poor or minorities. I know that historically, that's how it's been, but the women I know who are considering wet nursing are all middle-class whites who are not only glad to make a dime, but some of whom are actually kind of stoked by the idea of helping out children who otherwise never would have had the benefit of breastmilk.

obladee said...

Sisters doing it for themselves- My sister did not lactate for her last child,another sister had just had a baby and breast fed her baby as wel the cousin.We happen to be white.It was great the way this worked out for our family.
Are we rascist?