My Review of the Lecture: Our Bodies, Our Nature: Breastfeeding & Maternal Ideology in the mid-20th Century America

January 19, 2013

On Thursday evening January 17, 2013 I attended a lecture at the New York Academy of Medicine. The title was Our Bodies, Our Nature: Breastfeeding & Maternal Ideology in mid-20th Century America.

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This was presented by Jessica Martucci, PhD.  She is an historian and gender studies professor. This lecture was from her research on the history of breastfeeding and environmental contaminants.  She is also writing a book called Back to the Breast: Natural Motherhood and Breastfeeding in the 20th Century.

Breastfeeding research always interests me. What piqued my interest in attending this lecture was Ms. Martucci’s seeming attack on La Leche League. The descirption on the announcement has this quote:

“In 1972, the international breastfeeding support organization La Leche League published a pamphlet titled “DDT and Mother’s Milk,” which addressed the problem of tainted breast milk.  “Many mothers have wondered whether they should discontinue nursing their babies,” they wrote, adding “The answer is ‘No.'”  As much as the League wished the issue of DDT and other toxins in milk would just go away, environmental contaminants have been a persistent issue in scienitific and popular discussions of breastfeeding.”

Now perhaps I was wrong. I went to the lecture with an open mind.

The presentation was interesting. She paralleled the resurgence of breastfeeding with the contamination of the environment. She also discussed her concept of Natural Mothering. She somewhat spoke on it’s impact on feminism.

She pointed out two environmental researchers who had been breastfeeding while doing research on environmental contaminants and had their own milk tested. Glenda Daniel made the decision to discontinue breastfeeding her daughter sometime around 1980. She then discussed Florence Williams, a science writer, who in 2005 wrote an article for the New York Times titled Toxic Milk. Ms. Williams decided to continue to breastfeed her daughter despite the environmental contaminants. She wanted to know why these two women made different decisions with nearly the same data. I found two big missings in this parallel. One big missing was Sandra Steingraber, the ecologist and author, who also continued to breastfeed her children knowing the environmental impact.

The other big missing in my opinion is that we know much more about human milk than we did thirty years ago. Perhaps Ms. Daniel did not understand what she was giving to her daughter in terms of immunity and long term protection from diabetes, cancers, obesity while she was breastfeeding her.

She also chose to show examples of prominent women in the natural motherhood movement who had breastfeeding failure. She highlighted the experience of Eleanor Agnew from her book Back From The Land. Ms. Agnew had two terrible bouts of mastitis and discontinued breastfeeding.

Ms. Martucci seemd to have a subtle, but palpable dislike for La Leche League and breastfeeding. I could not call her on it for it’s subtlety nor would it be my place. She referred to the organization as The League.

This was not the forum to ask her about her personal life. I wanted to know if she is a mother, if so, did she breastfeed? I wanted to know if she was breastfed herself. I wanted to know what her birth experience was like.

My big question during the Q & A was “How many babies have died as a result of being nursed from polluted breasts?”  While Ms. Martucci said that data has not been collected the was a resounding “None” from the audience.

The great thing about the evening was that the audience was peppered with physicians and scientists who spoke of the importance of breastfeeding despite the environment.

The big take home was that we need to act to clean up our polluted world.

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