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.

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