Jessica Cox, “[T]he bounden duty of every woman”[1]: “Mansplaining” Breastfeeding in Victorian Advice Books

Jessica Cox, Brunel University London

Mansplain v. ‘(Of a man) explain (something) to someone, typically a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing’ (Oxford Dictionaries)

Earlier this year, celebrity chef and nutritional campaigner Jamie Oliver provoked controversy with his comments on breastfeeding.  Suggesting he may turn his campaigning eye to increasing the rates of breastfeeding in Britain, he commented: ‘We have the worst breastfeeding in the world […] It’s easy, its more convenient, it’s more nutritious, it’s better, it’s free’.  His intervention was greeted with varying degrees of outrage and disdain.  The Telegraph ran a comment piece entitled ‘Jamie Oliver needs to stop mansplaining breastfeeding to women’, while Barbara Ellen wrote a piece for The Guardian under the headline ‘It’s not Jamie Oliver’s job to lecture us that breast is best’.  The singer Adele attracted further media attention when she issued a public response to Oliver during one of her concerts: ‘Go fuck yourself.  It’s hard.  Some of us can’t do it’.  Message boards on parenting sites were similarly united in their condemnation of the chef, focusing in particular on the inappropriateness of his intervention: as a man (regardless of his position as a campaigner for better nutrition and father of four children), it was not his place to ‘mansplain’ to women that breastfeeding is ‘easy’.

Oliver’s comments and the subsequent reaction marks the latest in a long public debate around breastfeeding, focused on women’s right to choose, nursing in public, the benefits of breastfeeding, and the pros and cons of available alternatives.  Echoes of these contemporary debates can be found in Victorian discourses on infant feeding.  This post examines some of the information on breastfeeding and its alternatives available to women in nineteenth-century advice books – a significant number of which were authored by men who employed both medical and religious authority to support their arguments.

For nineteenth-century mothers, there were three options available for feeding babies:

  • Maternal breastfeeding: babies nursed by their own mother.
  • Wet-nursing: employing another woman to breastfeed the child.
  • ‘Artificial’ or ‘hand’ feeding: spoon-feeding (milk or ‘pap’), or, increasingly towards the end of the period, bottle-feeding.

Infant mortality was lowest amongst children who were nursed by their own mothers, and particularly high amongst babies raised ‘by hand’.  Recommendations to breastfeed were undoubtedly influenced by these figures, but, in light of later knowledge, some of the advice is problematic: many commentators, for instance, recommend artificial feeding in the first instance until the mother’s milk comes in three of four days after birth – thus denying babies colostrum, now known to contain important antibodies, as well as risking illness through potentially contaminated animal milk and water.

For much of the period, most commentators recommended maternal breastfeeding, although relatively high rates of maternal mortality meant this wasn’t always possible.  There were further preventatives to maternal breastfeeding for many women: there was no provision in place for maternity leave, so poorer women in particular had to return to work soon after giving birth, preventing them from breastfeeding for long portions of the day. Then as now, some women experienced health problems which prevented them from nursing: producing insufficient milk, or suffering from a disease or disorder which might be transmitted to the baby via the breast milk, though medical advice on this was not always accurate: women of a ‘nervous’ disposition, for example, were advised not to breastfeed.

A woman breast feeding her child. Stipple engraving, 1810, after W.M. Craig, 1806. Iconographic Collections, Wellcome Images
A woman breast feeding her child. Stipple engraving, 1810, after W.M. Craig, 1806. Iconographic Collections, Wellcome Images

For those who were able, though, breastfeeding was encouraged as not only natural, but as a maternal, even religious duty.  Indeed, one medical textbook from the 1870s asserted that ‘no woman is fit to have a child who is not fit to nurse it’[2]– a statement which hints at a eugenicist approach to motherhood.  The majority of medical and advice books advised women to nurse their own children wherever possible – at least until towards the end of the century when there was a movement towards ‘artificial’ feeding, resulting from developments in the ‘science’ of infant feeding.  In Mother and Child: Practical Hints on Nursing, the Management of Children, and the Treatment of the Breast (1868), Charles Vines writes:

It was beneficently ordered by the Creator that the child for a certain period after birth should be dependent on the maternal nourishment for its support […] ‘[I]t is the bounden duty of every woman to nurse her own child

Vine is typical of many of the authors of advice books for Victorian mothers: medically trained, he employs both scientific and religious authority to bolster his arguments.  Similar sentiments are found in Walter C. Dendy’s earlier work, The Book of the Nursery (1833):

The milk is the birthright of the infant.  As instinct impels the infant to the mother’s breast, and has inspired that breast with maternal love, this beautiful link in the chain of nature should never wantonly be snapped asunder.

Lionel Alexander Weatherly’s The Young Wife’s Own Book (1882) also emphasises maternal duty in encouraging women to nurse their own children:

The mother’s milk is the proper food for her babe, and it is beyond doubt that the rate of infant mortality among those who are nursed by the mother is less than among those suckled by a wet-nurse, and far less than among those who are weaned from birth […] [E]very mother should consider it her absolute duty, unless her health is delicate, and her medical man’s opinion is against her so doing, to suckle her infant for at least six months.[3]

Like Vine, both Dendy and Weatherly were medically trained, and all three advertise this on the title pages of their advice books for mothers.  These works illustrate the difficulty for the Victorian woman in contesting much of the advice which was impressed upon them, sanctioned as it appeared to be by both the medical establishment and religious authorities.  Weatherly’s work in particular makes it clear that any decision not to breastfeed should be taken by medical men, not mothers.

The use of wet-nurses was generally condemned by these and other commentators. In 1834, an article by a Dr. Ryan in the London Medical and Surgical Journal declares: ‘there is no wet nurse equal to a healthful mother’, and, in the 1860s, the British Medical Journal waged a campaign against the profession, amidst concerns about the use of ‘fallen’ women, and the dangers posed to the infants of wet-nurses, who were often left with unscrupulous ‘baby farmers’ while their mothers nursed the babies of the wealthier classes (an issue addressed in George Moore’s late-Victorian novel, Esther Waters).  In the event of a mother being unable to breastfeed, however, wet nursing was preferable to raising ‘by hand’, but the nurse should be selected with the utmost care, as Ryan makes clear:

It is necessary to attend to the age, constitution or temperament, her health, character, and morals, to her habitation, mode of life, and to the quantity and quality of her milk.  We ought to take her from the age of twenty to thirty-five years, of a good constitution, of moderate embonpoint, that she be habitually healthful, and free from all disease, without apparent deformity, more brown than fair, and never red-haired, that her mouth be furnished with good teeth, her gums firm and in a good condition, her breath sweet, her breasts of an ordinary size, traversed by bluish veins, the areola a little prominent, the nipple well pierced, and of a convenient length.  We ought to reject her whose skin is covered with eruptions, whose perspiration has a strong odour […] She should be of the same age, or nearly so, as the woman whose infant she undertakes to suckle, and she should be delivered as near the mother as possible.

These requirements – almost impossible to meet – highlight the pressures faced by mothers to adhere to standards set out by Victorian medical authorities.  Then, as now, women were under intense pressure to conform to certain expectations around motherhood.  For the nineteenth-century woman, though, very few of whom could claim to have any significant medical knowledge or experience, challenging those commentators who were ‘mansplaining’ to mothers how to raise their children was considerably more difficult.

[1] Charles Vine, Mother and Child: Practical Hints on Nursing, the Management of Children, and the Treatment of the Breast (London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1868), p.2.

[2] T. L. Nichols, M.D., Esoteric Anthropology (Malvern: T. L. Nichols, 1873), p.326.

[3] Lionel A. Weatherly, M.D., The Young Wife’s Own Book (1882; London: Griffith & Farran, N.D.), p.117-18

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