Essay on Marxist theory and breast-feeding in class
After a (completely unnecessary) controversy erupted last week about my American University colleague Adrienne Pine breast-feeding in class, it occurred to me that Karl Marx, of all people, might offer some insight on the matter. After leaving a seminar where some of my students and I had been reading Marx, I sent the class the following thoughts. Although Marxist terminology and obscure academic language of all kinds generally make me cringe, in this case, despite his being (like me) lactation-challenged, Marx's words seemed helpful.
When I got home tonight, I realized that Adrienne's saga can be explained, at least in part, with the help of Marx. The precipitating incident -- breast-feeding her child in class -- was only necessary because Adrienne didn't have any child-care options for her child. Child care is part of what Marx calls the "reproduction of labor power," or reproduction, necessary for humans to sustain themselves as workers from day to day -- and biologically from generation to generation. If there is no one to watch her child during the day, Adrienne (and many others) generally can't work. If Adrienne works and doesn't have someone care for the child or if the child gets limited care or if the child doesn't get fed, the child literally may not survive to see the next day or make it to adulthood to become a worker herself.
The child care -- itself a form of labor -- necessary to sustain Adrienne and her child from day to day costs something, of course. Adrienne has to pay this cost as her employer (i.e., American University) does not (as far as I know) provide any child care for children under 2 1/2 (and only on a limited, space-available basis above that age).The cost then of the child care, of the labor necessary to sustain herself and her child, comes out of her wages. However, the rules of Adrienne's child-care providers say that Adrienne cannot leave a sick child with them. Again, Adrienne's employer (i.e., American University) does not provide emergency child care for sick children -- another kind of labor necessary to sustain workers and their children from day to day -- forcing Adrienne to find another solution (in this case, laboring doubly by teaching and caring for her child simultaneously -- no easy feat, but manageable with a child under the age of one, allowing her to maintain her high-quality teaching).
According to American University's statement to The Washington Post, the administration apparently thinks Adrienne endangered student health by bringing her sick child to school and that she should have taken earned leave or sick leave on the first day of class. Putting aside the dubious public health claims -- a walk down a dorm hallway is surely far more dangerous than a baby with a slight fever at the front of a lecture hall -- earned and sick leave are both employee benefits -- that is, part of the total wage Adrienne gets as a worker from her employer (i.e., American University). Which means the employer (i.e., American University), like most employers, wanted Adrienne to further subsidize the costs of reproduction, of sustaining herself and her child, by giving up some of her earned time off. Which also means that the employer (i.e., American University) wanted Adrienne to rob her students of the value (economic, intellectual, spiritual) of an important first day of class, either in whole (if Adrienne had been unable to find a substitute) or in part (even if she could have found a substitute, it's hard to imagine one who could have done justice to her first day of class).
That Adrienne's and my employer (i.e., American University) is now criticizing her publicly is a sign that the employer's leaders are more concerned with 1) maintaining the price and what Marx calls the "exchange value" of the commodity they're offering (i.e., the tuition the university can charge for academic degrees), and 2) ensuring a steady demand (i.e., students) for that commodity than they are concerned about what Marx calls the commodity's "use value" (the quality, utility, or usefulness of the teaching and learning involved in earning degrees). Ultimately, I suspect that this public relations strategy of publicly criticizing one of its workers to try to maintain the price and demand for its commodity will backfire. The employer (i.e., American University) and its leaders will come out looking worse than they do already 1) for attacking a female worker trying to fulfill her work expectations and sustain herself and her child, 2) for perpetuating sexist cultural norms that prevent women from feeling safe breast-feeding in public when they should have every right to do so, and 3) for perpetuating the masculinist idea that the classroom and the workplace are spaces where the bodily and personal needs of workers have no place.
That anyone, whether students or employees of the school newspaper or others, thought Adrienne's breast-feeding worthy of commentary in the first place also reflects some of the embedded sexism in our society: from the general forced subordination of women to men under capitalism (which Friedrich Engels shows us) to the simultaneously hyper-sexualized objectification of women's bodies and fear of those same bodies when women expose them on their own terms. So too, the saga reflects the double burden placed on women workers forced, historically under capitalism, both to labor in the workplace and to do most of the unpaid work of reproduction, of sustaining themselves and male family members in the kitchen, in the laundry, in the bedroom.
There is more to be said from a feminist Marxist perspective about how our society shames breast-feeding women and forces them to veil their breasts, about how women should be allowed to breast-feed everywhere and anywhere, including in the workplace, but for now, I need to care for some of my own daily reproduction work by going to sleep so that I can labor again tomorrow for my employer (i.e., American University), who could have avoided this whole saga by purchasing the labor-power of its employees (like Adrienne) at a reasonable price that would include more of the basic costs of reproduction (like child care, ordinary and emergency) that so often fall on women's uncompensated backs (and, frankly, breasts).
David Vine is assistant professor of anthropology at American University.