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Milk is a feminist issue


When news got out of Matt O’Connor’s launch of ice-cream made from human breast milk in the UK, which he named ‘Baby Gaga’ in early 2011, a furore erupted. First there were allegations it was ‘unsafe’, then the local council deemed it was in fact fit for human consumption. Lawyers for Lady Gaga weighed in, threatening to sue for trademark infringement and the blogosphere was rife with a general disgust factor at the thought of women’s breast milk being made into dessert.

Feminist commentary, such as this article by Anna Sussman on Salon.com, has predominantly centred around the ethics of women giving or selling their milk, as well as the sexualisation of breasts and their secretions (Sussman notes a thriving online industry for breast milk which is sought out by ‘fetishists’ in the adult and erotic category of many sales websites).

Eco-feminist author Carol J Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, notes it is unsurprising that that we take something oppressive – the extraction of milk from a cow – and extend it to women. “All milk from female animals is breast milk,” she says. “Breast feeding is a process. Breast milk used from any female animal and sold becomes yet another product available for consumption on a capitalist market. It’s also a pornographic fantasy – squirting milk, nursing, lactating breasts – that women’s breast milk is for men.”

Adams expresses concern over the commercialisation of human breast milk whereby women are hired to sell their ‘feminised protein’ – a term she coined to describe products such as milk or eggs that come from the reproductive systems of female non-human animals. Structural inequalities around gender and race mean that any exchange of money for product or service, particularly in regards to those involving the body or its secretions, renders the potential for marginalised, less privileged people – in this case women – to be exploited.

Yet while the commodification of breast milk for human consumption on a mass scale has the capacity to be problematic in ethical terms, in the case of O’Connor’s Baby Gaga ice-cream, the milk was given freely, unlike the products manufactured by the dairy industry – an issue that has been sorely overlooked in the ‘Gaga Gate’ controversy.

Researchers have revealed that cows are capable of feeling strong emotions, including pain, fear and anxiety, as well as excitement over intellectual challenges. Contrary to the multi-billion-dollar dairy industry’s claims that animal welfare is a high priority, investigations into and research by animal protection organisations paint a different picture.

In order to produce milk, a cow must be kept pregnant and lactating. This is done by restraining her in a head stall and artificially inseminating her. Shortly after birth, calves are torn away from their mothers, who bellow for several weeks with grief. Dairy cows are hooked up to milking machines – after suffering the agonising ordeal of having their horns and on and occasion excess teats cut off with scissors – solely for aesthetic reasons. Mastitis – inflammation of the mammary glands – is the most common affliction affecting dairy cows around the world and causes them severe pain.

Another cruel practice in the dairy industry is inducing cows to give birth in order to keep their milking cycle in synch with the rest of the herd for the convenience of farmers. Induced calves are predisposed to being stillborn or are born weakened and ill, or as the industry nonchalantly refers to them: ‘non viable’.

A poster created by American animal sanctuary Peaceful Prairie bears the slogan: ‘Milk comes from a grieving mother.’ While obviously designed to be emotive, its simplicity is nevertheless compelling, particularly from a feminist perspective.

Think about the indescribable pain human mothers go through when their babies are taken away. Consider that not only do cows suffer immensely on factory farms – as all animals do – but they are pregnant or giving birth throughout their ordeal, which they are forced to endure on the basis of their sex.

This relentless cycle of forced endless pregnancy, birthing and lactation puts so much pressure on the reproductive systems of cows that they become spent – verging on dead at around two to four years of age, whereas naturally they would live for a decade or two.

In contrast to female calves whose bodies are hijacked and exploited, male (bobby) calves are considered ‘waste products’ and sent off to slaughter when they are only a few days old to make veal. If that’s not bad enough, the Australian government is currently considering a new animal ‘welfare’ standard that would allow the withholding of food from these calves for up to 30 hours – a move supported by the dairy industry and vehemently opposed by Animals Australia whose campaign highlighted this cruelty recently in the media. To put this into perspective, a female cow would, under natural circumstances, feed her calf around five times a day so to propose starving calves for this amount of time is unconscionable.

Dr John Webster, Professor of Animal Husbandry at Bristol University’s Clinical Veterinary Science Department in the UK, is one of the few industry insiders who has acknowledged for many years the undue suffering inflicted on female cows. “The dairy cow is exposed to more abnormal physiological demands than any other class of farm animal,” he says.

Yet these issues are either ignored or excused by claims that milk is necessary for good health, particularly strong bones. But several studies such as this one by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in the US and this British one debunk these myths and even go so far as to point to dairy as being implicated in a number of killer diseases, as well as childhood conditions such as allergies and anaemia – hardly surprising since the milk of any species is perfectly suited for that species’s infants, not for adults. I

n his book Whitewash: The Disturbing Truth About Cow’s Milk and Your Health, nutritionist Dr Joseph Koen cites comprehensive scientific literature pointing to evidence that drinking milk may increase the incidence of osteoporosis (brittle bones). Health concerns such as this, which affect more women than men, are another reason why milk is a feminist issue.

One of the major demands of western feminism has been and still is the right for women to control their own reproductive systems, yet we seem to have no qualms about exploiting those of female non-humans.

But, as Adams notes, the manipulation of reproductive systems is inherently sexist, since it’s only those of females that we seek to control. The intersection of racial oppression is also an important aspect in the colonisation of non-white female bodies such as through forced sterilisation programs for women in both western and developing countries.

Instead of looking to other females – including humans – for milk, the ethical thing to do is get it from plant-based sources such as soy, rice, hemp, almond, cashew, hazelnut, coconut and walnut, all of which can be used to create desserts and ice-cream every bit as delicious as those made from dairy or human breast milk.

This article was previously published on The Scavenger website

Katrina Fox

Katrina Fox is a freelance writer and editor, originally from London and based in Sydney, Australia since 2001. Katrina is the editor-in-chief of the online portal The Scavenger and is the editor of several books on topics as diverse as sex and gender identity, hypnosis and self-help, plus she is a human rights and animal rights advocate. Read more about Katrina here.

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