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Infant nutrition is seldom the center of public debate unless the issue involves breastfeeding. In the past several years the debate has centered on a mother’s right to breastfeed her child in public venues such as stores, restaurants, and even on park benches. But in fact, breastfeeding has been an issue of important public debate in America going back to the turn of the century.
Such was the subject of a lecture, "Our Bodies, Our Nature: Breastfeeding & Maternal Ideology in mid-20th Century America," presented by Jessica Martucci on January 17, 2013 at NYAM. Dr. Martucci, an Assistant Professor in the History Department and Gender Studies Program and an associate member of the Center for the History of Agriculture, Science, and the Environment of the South at Mississippi State University, examines the history and attitudes toward breastfeeding in her upcoming book, Back to the Breast: Natural Motherhood and Breastfeeding in the 20th Century.
Dr. Martucci described efforts by earlier doctors such as L. Emmet Hold and John B. Watson who neither completely opposed nor completely supported the practice of breastfeeding. Dr. Martucci described Dr. Watson as a man who viewed such an approach as too nurturing for the child – a problem that would lead children to become far too emotionally dependent and, in some cases for boys, prone to effeminacy and homosexuality.
Over time, Dr. Martucci said, attitudes toward breastfeeding began to change, particularly in 1956 when the national breastfeeding support group La Leche League (LLL), was formed. LLL offered support and advice to mothers who breastfed their children. Their beliefs were predicated on the idea that manmade milk posed many environmental hazards for infants, a theme bolstered by the work of J.I. Rodale, an environmentalist and founder of the magazine Prevention, who exposed the presence of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, an agricultural insecticide known to be dangerously harmful.
In 1962, American biologist Rachel Carson cast a long and deep shadow over breastfeeding with her book Silent Spring, in which she found a connection between DDT and breast milk. Despite efforts by the LLL to disprove the harmful effects of chemicals found in breast milk, only twenty percent of women breastfed their infants in the 1970s, in part because of the emergence of feminism and its influence on the equal distribution of gender labor in child-raising. Today there is a resurgence among women who choose to breastfeed their infants – more than sixty percent of women reported breastfeeding in the 1980s, a number that continues to grow.
Dr. Martucci received her BA in Biology and Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, and her MA and PhD in the History & Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.
Posted on January 18, 2013
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