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Chapter 4 53 Feminism refers to theories and actions that reduce (and ultimately eliminate) inequality and discrimination on the basis of gender, race, class, and ethnicity. As with all “isms,” feminisms have histories. In South Asia, local feminism emerged out of nationalist fights against colonial imperialism. Western feminisms began not with a demand for national independence, but with a concern for discrimination against women. More recently, Western feminists have acknowledged that gender cannot be separated from other dimensions like race, ethnicity, class, or sexual orientation, for example. Queer theory forced feminist theory to grapple with the relation between sex and gender to add a more nuanced measure of how sexual orientation intersects with other differences , including differing abilities. Feminism emerges not just from feminist theory but also from feminist practice, from social movements that struggle with what is politically necessary to change local systems of gender inequality, often in concert with other social movements. This chapter is a feminist and anthropological argument about how a serious, methodologically rich examination of difference could enrich understanding of breastfeeding and motivate innovative approaches to its support and promotion. Feminism, Social Science, and Breastfeeding Newer approaches in feminist social science draw attention to both oppression and empowerment (and the connections between them), by emphasizing women’s agency, as well as the complexity of gender dynamics, and the importance of revaluing women’s knowledge. The male bias of many ethnographers and cultural systems often pushes this women’s knowledge underground, devaluing Breastfeeding across Cultures Dealing with Difference Penny Van Esterik it, and in many parts of the world, women’s knowledge of nurture has been replaced with biomedical expert knowledge of infant care and feeding established through evidence-based medical research. The social sciences and some health sciences have embraced feminist methods, including gender analysis, to understand differences in definitions of masculinity, femininity, and local gender ideologies; the sexual division of labor; positionality, or the importance of a writer’s standpoint; and the value of women’s stories as experiential embedded narratives, not as frivolous anecdotes. These approaches have all found their way into community-based health research. As a feminist anthropologist, I take from feminism the argument that the personal is political, that theory cannot be separated from practical action or praxis, that everyday life is an important reference point for grounding theory, and that there are dangers lurking in dualistic thinking that opposes minds and bodies, public and private, nature and culture. Feminist theory requires us to embrace both/and, not either/or explanations. As an anthropologist, I often find myself playing the culture card, always arguing for context and looking for ways to get beyond Euro-American approaches to infant feeding. As a breastfeeding advocate, I rely more on my feminist politics, but I enjoy the challenge of having clearly defined opponents, such as aggressive marketing of infant formula or inappropriate hospital practices. Many years ago, I began to use the terms breastfeeding style and infant feeding style to refer to the systematic manner of feeding an infant characteristic of an individual, a time, and a place. While working on a study of infant feeding practices in Bangkok, Semarang (Java), Bogota, and Nairobi, I found that the statistical results generated from the large cross-sectional surveys carried out by public health researchers did not capture the differences in the way that breastfeeding as a holistic activity was embedded in local practices. Breastfeeding style as a conceptual tool is useful for addressing patterned variation within traditions. Breastfeeding and infant feeding styles are personally and culturally constructed and reconstructed on a shared primate physiological base shaped by local regimens. Childbirth educator and leader in the alternative birth movement Sheila Kitzinger refers to these individual differences as lactational signatures, referring to breastfeeding in Euro-American contexts. Lactation specialists Jan Riordan and Kathleen Auerbach, in their influential textbook, Breastfeeding and Human Lactation, refer to the concept of breastfeeding style and use it to address how cultural factors influence infant feeding practices, including the distinctions between breastfeeding as a process and breast milk as a product, a basic distinction included in breastfeeding style. 54 Penny Van Esterik But when breastfeeding style is used in a public health context, it is often reduced to factors such as the frequency and length of time spent breastfeeding.1 Feminism and Public Health Feminism as a social movement has much in common with public health. Both are modern social movements determined to make changes in the world...


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