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What is “Militant Lactivism?”

More than a simple parenting choice, breastfeeding becomes a matter of feminist and activist discussion in Charlotte Faircloth’s book Militant Lactivism? published in March 2013 by Berghahn Books. Below, the author introduces us to the movement for public breastfeeding with an excerpt from her book.


Militant Lactivism? is a book based on research with women in London and Paris who are members of La Leche League (LLL), an international breastfeeding support organisation. The text focuses on the accounts of a small but significant population of mothers within LLL who practise ‘attachment parenting’. This is a style of care which endorses close parent-child proximity and typically involves long-term, on-cue breastfeeding, baby ‘wearing’ and co-sleeping as part of a ‘family bed’ philosophy. It is becoming increasingly popular in both the US and the UK, and has recently received a lot of publicity following a particularly provocative TIME magazine feature, amongst other coverage.

In the book, ‘full-term’ breastfeeding (up to eight years old in the examples here, though typically for around three to four years) is used as a case study to explore what has been termed an ‘intensification’ of mothering. In this new era of mothering, women are expected to do much more for their children than might once have been the case. Beyond straightforward ‘child-rearing,’ today’s ideal mothering is a labour intensive, emotionally absorbing and personally fulfilling activity. This exacerbates a cultural contradiction between the worlds of work and home, increasing the antagonism around women’s decisions to participate, or not, in these two spheres. In particular, then, the book looks at how this style of mothering has become very central to women’s identities, with some women styling themselves as (or being seen by others as) ‘militant lactivists’ and evangelising about the benefits of full-term breastfeeding and attachment parenting. In this excerpt, I discuss some of the problems with this label. What’s more – as an early ‘attachment baby’ – I highlight how hard it is to research and write about a subject which for so long had seemed ‘natural’ and self-evident.
Excerpt [from the Introduction]:
A note on the title is in order. Rather than being a statement about these mothers being ‘militant lactivists’, it is intended as a question seeking to understand why, how and with what implications such a label is used. As one attachment mother indicated, when it is used, ‘it’s fun because it’s ironic. When others use it, it’s not funny at all. It’s insulting, because it ascribes a aggressive, combative maliciousness to our behaviour that doesn’t exist.’
My own biography, of course, also plays a part in this account. One of the most frequent questions I am asked about the research is why I was interested in this subject at all, particularly as a woman without children. Much of my interest is shaped by my own mother, who happily describes herself – around the time that she gave birth to me, at least – as a ‘clog-and-dungaree wearing hippy’. I was born at home, on a farm, and breastfed for nearly a year, which in 1982 was even more unusual than it might be now. My mother was a National Childbirth Trust educator, we used homeopathy to treat ailments in childhood, and many of my ‘routine’ vaccinations were delayed or avoided all together. Attachment parenting (and the associated values and practices) comes easily to me as I imagine how my own mothering might look.
Writing about the research has therefore inevitably been an exercise in writing about the self. Readers will no doubt recognise the tension inherent in anthropology, which sees researchers both participating in and objectifying social life. The process of reflection and analysis could sometimes be painful – I was forced to question things that had for so long seemed so straightforward (and that retain an ‘affective’ hold over me, even now). Issues faced by feminists, and feminism, became salient; Bobel’s phrase ‘bounded liberation’ (2001) went some way towards describing the intersections of breastfeeding and ‘empowerment’ but also, as I discuss in the penultimate chapter, felt quite one-dimensional and problematic.
Other blogs by Charlotte about her work:


Blog 1: On the way parenting practices get moralised. Faircloth, C. 2012. ‘Are you Mom Enough? Putting parenting practices under the microscope’ Independent Blogs 18th May 2012


Blog 2: On being a friend as well as a researcher. Faircloth, C. 2011. ‘Positioning: Breastfeeding and friendship’ The Junket Issue 1 October 2011:


Blog 3: On a comparison with France. Faircloth, C. 2010. ‘The trials and tribulations of the ‘perfect mother’.’ The spiked Review of Books. Issue 33. (March).


Charlotte Faircloth is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow with the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies in the School of Sociology, Social Policy and Sociological Research at the University of Kent.