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Milk is a feminist issue

MilkThe recent uproar over the launch of ‘Baby Gaga’ ice-cream made from human breast milk in the UK highlights the links between the control and commodification of the reproductive systems of women and animals, writes Katrina Fox.

10 April 2011

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’ a few weeks ago, 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, 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.

These are something we can all go gaga over.

Katrina Fox is editor-in-chief of The Scavenger. She will present a workshop, Speciesism: Where is Our Feminist Consciousness on Animal Rights? at the Feminist Futures Conference in Melbourne 28-29 May 2011 and will also be part of a panel on intersectionality in regards to animal rights and feminism.


0 #11 Ann 2011-12-10 15:13
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
I coughed up my lunch at the "every bit as delicious" part. I don't drink milk for many of the reasons stated in the article, however I also don't drink any of those alternatives because they taste absolutely disgusting. :cry:
0 #10 Elaine 2011-04-11 22:36
Thank you for addressing a sadly overlooked form of exploitation that few feminists have yet to embrace. I am always surprised when feminists erroneously argue our need to consume other beings' milk. Clearly ALL have been exploited through emotionally driven marketing that leads us to abandon our common (nature) sense! Wanted to share a link - you may already be familiar with - that clearly shows we are anatomically and physiologically herbivorous. For the milk argument, beyond same species milk of course, I particularly like the comparative outline that shows we do not have the digestive enzymes, acidity, liver vitamin A function or kidney function (moderately concentrated urine) to digest milk or any other nonhuman animal substances.

Again, thank you for bringing us back to our common (nature) sense!
0 #9 Katrina Fox 2011-04-11 21:03
Hi Breeze - thank you very much for your comments and observations. Yes, you're absolutely right to point out that there are many, many different feminisms and often they don't always share the same goals. I guess I'm arguing that most if not all feminisms would agree that women have a right to their own reproductive autonomy and a right for their bodies not to be non-consensuall y used and abused, and that if that's the case then how we treat non-human female animals, particularly those whose reproductive systems we exploit, is a feminist issue. But yes I'm aware I'm applying a broad stroke of the 'feminist' brush in my argument.
0 #8 A. Breeze Harper 2011-04-11 20:45
Katrina, thanks for writing this. I do though think it should be made clear that 'feminist' is a really broad term and that there are scores of different types of feminists. When you say that Milk is a feminist issues, what feminism do you mean? I ask this because there are black USA feminists, decolonial feminists, pro-life feminists, marxist feminists, etc., and they all don't necessarily agree with each others 'feminist goals.'

+1 #7 A. Breeze Harper 2011-04-11 20:43
I guess those who this article is 'silly' seriously may want to think about, at least here in the USA, how those who owned African slaves in the USA thought that it was ridiculous that Black female's reproductive system being exploited, forced to breed, breastfeed white slave master's babies, have their babies taken away, etc should be given the same level of sympathy and compassion and rights as white class privileged lady's reproductive gifts. White slavemasters even scoffed at the idea that black woman could SUFFER and that they were being unjustly exploited, but would simultaneously agree that OF COURSE white class privilege women should never go through the same thing that Black enslaved women had to go through. "White women and black women ARE NOT THE SAME!" I think about this all the time as a black woman engaged in anti-racism and animal compassion work. It is intersectional. The oral history passed down in my family about how my great great great grandmother black slaves were mistreated, raped, sexually exploited never left my consciousness.. .
0 #6 Hillary Rettig Boston 2011-04-11 19:48
A terrific article - thanks
0 #5 Tracie OKeefe 2011-04-10 23:16
Just recently the New South Wales Attorney General anounced that the law would be changed to prevent people going abroad to facilitate commerical surogacy. It was devastating for two patients I see who are childless and saw that as their last option. The AG cited the change in law as an attempt to curb exploitation of women. So why is sequestration of a non consensual animal's reproductive sytem, still attached to its owner not exploitation? I've no objection to people selling their breast milk, sperm, ovum, hair, labour or surrogacy, if it is voluntary. We all rent ourselves out. But animals have no choice. And if we look at what is happening to our habitat when will we arrive at the point of no return? The unecessary pain inflicted on animals is surely the litmus paper test of our future.
0 #4 Get Real 2011-04-10 22:25
A very good and much needed article to expose the truth of the dairy industry.
0 #3 Jovian Parry 2011-04-10 11:36
@ the comment below:

Talk about missing the point! Someone really was sleeping through their classes on intersectionali ty. If one finds it objectionable to treat human women like "cows", as milk-producing reproductive machines feeding the hungry maw of consumer capitalism, it really isn't much of a "stretch" to realize that it might be objectionable to treat COWS like cows, too. What an embarrassing lack of critical thinking, "nothanks" - who could take your comment seriously?
0 #2 adam 2011-04-10 10:08
Seems like nothanks! tosses around big academic words (he doesn't seem to understand) in order to dismiss an argument. Post-structural ism tends to be associated with the dissolution of identity and identity politics. The management of animal sex is biopolitics par excellence. Maybe someone was sleeping through their Foucault class on the invention of the human subject. That he cannot even understand associate the exploitation of cow's bodies as commodities for profit as part of capitalism is pretty sad.

Maybe only those who genuinely take listening, thinking, and caring seriously will at least give the argument a proper hearing instead of instantly dismissing it in an anti-intellectu alist gesture. For more info on sexism, capitalism and animal exploitation

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