Archive for the ‘history’ category

Apprenticeships in kindness

January 24, 2010

The Roman poet Ovid said “cruelty toward animals is the apprenticeship of cruelty against men”. (I know this because I subscribe to a quote site that sends me a linguistic gem every day or so.) I don’t know when he said or wrote those words, but Ovid was a much older – and much less ascetic – contemporary of Christ. While the golden rule of moral behaviour was described by Jesus as doing unto other (humans) as you would have them do unto you, Ovid said it first and said it better: think about the animals because they share our world. If the Roman record of spectacular and unconcealed cruelty toward humans and animals has not been exaggerated, he had ample opportunity to observe the truth of his dictum.

From what I’ve learned in formal and informal settings, including a seminar given by a lawyer of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, physical abuse and degradation of animals is a well-documented precursor and partner crime to the physical abuse of fellow humans. So much so that it’s essentially become self-evident, and while I’m sure that there are many murderers and assaulters of humans out there who have never attacked an animal, it’s easy to see how a child could learn (most often by example, sometimes by being the victim) to inflict cruelty to animals prior to becoming a serial abuser of both humans and animals.

Still, and thankfully, I don’t have any direct experience with that kind of individual extreme. The kind of abuse I’ve had more personal experience with is the normalised and occulted type of abuse that we’ve concocted for animals in factories and slaughterhouses; the type of abuse that’s been removed as far as possible from general view so as not to disturb our consciences or appetites. And even that has become pretty much self-evident, thanks to the work of writers and activists over the past couple of decades. (I’m reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals right now, which could be the subject of so many posts…but instead I encourage everyone to read it; he really says it all and from so many different viewpoints.)

While this focus on cruelty is important, I also find it emotionally and physically draining to dwell on it passively. It is briefly horrifying, then permanently depressing, to think that as humans, we have always excelled at cruelty, whether it be through wars, unjust politics, plunder of civilisations and habitats, or the scale and efficiency of the system we have devised to raise and kill our animals.

So I’d like to turn Ovid’s clear-eyed observation around. I say that kindness toward animals is the apprenticeship of kindness toward men. Taken that way, kindness is both a learning process and an end in itself. There is no pitting of animal interests against ours, no hierarchy of concern except to observe that it is in fact easier to be kind to animals than to humans – it’s something that you would teach a child to do before he can learn the more difficult task of being kind to other humans (l’enfer, c’est nous autres…)

I have a new apprenticenship in kindness that I started last September. I’m still very excited about it, and I wish I’d had the energy to devote to writing about it as I went through the very beginning stages. In the coming days and weeks I hope to be more of a faithful scribe.

Twenty years ago today…

December 6, 2009


I was a first-year student in a Quebec university. Early in the evening of December 6, 1989, I had a class in the 7 to 10 pm slot, and that was where I must have heard about the Polytechnique massacre. I don’t remember exactly how I first heard, maybe on the radio, where details were emerging in snippets of panic and disbelief. A man shot a bunch of students, then himself, in a classroom? This was years before classrooms were to become familiar but still outrageous sites of bullets and blood, and the intense shock of the Polytechnique aftermath drove my spirit into hiding, just as I suspect it did for other women students of my age. Anglophone that I was, it took me several days to even piece together that the École Polytechnique was the engineering faculty of the Université de Montréal.

When Polytechnique the movie was released in early 2009, I made a point to see it through in a movie theatre and address the residues of that shock. There were four of us sitting in the seats when it started, and only my friend and I were left by the time it was over. Harrowing, shot in black and white, and not overly graphic, Polytechnique is a sober film that deals with composite characters and documented facts. I’m glad someone had the courage to make it, if only to serve as an archival piece about what happened on December 6, 1989.

The stress, styrofoam coffee cups, typical 80s music and informal group study sessions of university exam periods felt very familiar; there were no cellphones, iPods, laptops, or PowerPoint presentations – just textbooks, course notes and acetates shown on overhead projectors. There may have been a few of those funny convex mirrors posted at blind corners, just so students could avoid head-on collisions. The photocopy machines were always busy. Knowing that this scene would soon be interrupted by multiple shooting deaths was almost unbearable.

One of the most heartbreaking moments was when one girl from the classroom group sequestered by the murderer protested his labelling them as feminists. She shouted “we are not feminists, we’re just living a normal life!” And that was when he sprayed the group with a hail of bullets, and they all fell. But it was true, they’re weren’t really feminists. Even young women engineering students of the time, a very small minority among the young men, didn’t consider themselves feminists, or trailblazers of any kind. The trail had been blazed already, you’d have been crazy to pretend you were a pioneer of women’s rights by entering any professional degree program in 1989. Anyways, we had to study hard; there was no time to learn about feminist history or gender theory. Apparently we didn’t even have time for the basics back then, we were in such a rush to fend off the competition and earn a cherished spot in a professional program or a plum internship – and unless blatant discrimination was being applied, the most serious competition was from the perfectionist drive of the other women students.

I didn’t have the same excuse, however. In the fall of 1989, I was studying literature; this was before I reoriented my study program to focus on sciences, with the goal of studying veterinary or human medicine. And in early December 1989 I was reading The Diviners, a classic novel in Canadian literature that carries a good description of what life was like for women before women’s rights were part of the landscape. One day in class we were discussing the novel, which intrigued me, but I didn’t really know what to make of it, the constant setbacks and impossibly contentious roads chosen by Morag were incomprehensible to me. My sole comment on the novel in class: “Well, she doesn’t seem very happy, does she?” I offered that up with a mix of contempt for this woman who couldn’t find her way in life, who had difficult relationships with the people closest to her, and self-satisfaction because I wasn’t a feminist, and thus rejected struggle and wilfull unhappiness.

After the class, Charles, a senior student, came straight over to where I was sitting. From his severely receded hairline and grayish temples it was obvious that Charles was older than most of us; his contributions to class discussions put the rest of ours to shame because he had the authority of personal experience to back up his opinions. He looked me square in the eyes and said “you don’t know much about the history of women, do you?” I’m not sure what I said in reply to that, perhaps I didn’t say anything at all and just looked at him with my best deer-in-the-headlights face. He gave me a very brief but pointed description of what life had been like for women in Quebec prior to the Quiet Revolution, that Canadian women had been severely limited in their personal and professional choices until something like the mid-1970s, and ended his speech by suggesting that I open my eyes and ears for the stories I wouldn’t hear from my contemporaries.

I was mildly insulted, but his words worked on me, and in the years ahead, I did pay attention to history, to what older women said when they talked about about their lives, and to the experiences of older generations. I learned about how women in Quebec had been valued for their ability to bear vast numbers of children, and that as soon as they were no longer obliged to do so, they threw off the yoke of the Church of Perpetual Childbearing and mobilised an entire society to sweeping changes – changes that were enacted while I was a child and which my generation accepted as our birthright by the time we entered university. Did we imagine that if things hadn’t always been that easy, they couldn’t have been all that different?

Last year during a symposium at the Ontario Veterinary College on women in veterinary medicine, I learned that in 1972, Title IX legislation in the United States led to a massive inpouring of women students in veterinary medicine and other professional programs. It was such a vast and sweeping change that from one year to the next somewhere in the mid-1970s, there were more graduating women veterinarians in a single year than there had been in all the years taken together since veterinary programs were first created in the late 19th century. I don’t know if Canada had to enact similar legislation, but the same sweeping changes occurred here and in other countries on the heels of that major piece of feminist-inspired legislation.

By the time I entered vet college in 1995, 75% of my classmates were girls, in a profession that had once seen women excluded on the basis that we were too delicate and sensitive to study anatomy and perform many of the tasks vets had to perform. I still have a hard time imagining which ones, because I’ve done most of them, a few times with men standing helpless at my side. I’ve seen men turn a whiter shade of pale at the sight of blood and smell of pus; sights and smells that to me signal nothing more than a problem to solve.

Animal medicine has sometimes been a disappointment to me, as I’ve seen how often we use the bodies of animals as means to our own ends, with perfect callousness – as a kind of mirror to the way women were treated for so long. On the other hand, I wake up most days excited about the knowledge and skills I was allowed to learn, and couldn’t imagine my life without them.

For me, that’s been the experience of living a normal life. Too many women in different times and places have been prevented from living anything I’d consider resembling a normal life, and 14 women engineering students in 1989 were prevented from living their lives at all. It’s not ideological to observe that it was due to a young man’s anger and frustration at feminism (plus the easy availability of an automatic weapon) that women were slaughtered on December 6, 1989. It’s not the fault of feminist “ideology” that other women have pointed out that violence against women is almost uniquely carried out by angry and frustrated men; it’s not ideological to draw incredibly obvious parallels between December 6 and violence against women in homes and around the world.

Sometimes it just takes several years of personal and collective experience, while paying attention to history, to accept these hard facts.

As for myself, I finally learned to credit feminism with allowing me to live a normal life. And yes, I am a feminist, for as long as it will take.

I.B. Singer and animals

June 21, 2009

Prior to researching a long paper I wrote for Veterinary Heritage on the history of antivivisectionism and the animal rights movement, the name Isaac Bashevis Singer barely registered for me. I was vaguely aware of his status as a renowned Yiddish storyteller, but I hadn’t read a single one of his stories, and in fact I thought he wrote only folklore that I imagined as being very similar to the Ukranian peasant tales I had read as a child.

While I was researching the darkest period in the evolution of antivivisectionism/animal rights – the Cold War era, it was as if all the lights had gone out: I couldn’t find any writers who cared about animals. Where were the Tolstoys, the Twains, the Bernard Shaws and all the other humanists who had expressed their deep concern for animals and their opposition to vivisection in the late 19th century? Instead, all I could see in the Cold War era was that the foundations were being laid for factory farming, and that animals were being used in massive, unprecendented numbers in research in just about every technological and scientific field under the sun – and very few voices were emerging in protest of animal suffering and consciousness. The ones who did speak up were treated like kooks and subversives.

And yet, it was during that time that one of the most powerful statements came through, one that did not escape the notice of the nascent animal rights movement in the early 1970s, and which can now be found on just about every AR website: the “eternal Treblinka” quote. More than a metaphor or an analogy, it really is just a straightforward description of animal experience in the hands of humans.

I.B. Singer was the author of the eternal Treblinka quote. He wrote it in a moving short story called “The Letter Writer”. Herman, the protagonist, is an aging Jewish immigrant from Kalomin (Galomin, Poland), an editor, proofreader and translator living in New York City in the 1950s. His publishing company folds, he is out of work and immediately falls ill with severe pneumonia. A woman who had previously known him only through correspondence comes to care for him and saves his life. Herman had lost all of his family to the Nazis and lived alone with a house-mouse he named Huldah. When he recovers from pneumonia, he is afraid that Huldah is dead and gone as well, due to his “negligence”. While he grieves for her, he speaks a eulogy for all animals:

What do they know – all those scholars, all those pilosophers, all the leaders of the world – about such as you? They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka. And yet man demands compassion from heaven.”

(Herman later finds Huldah alive, when she emerges from her hole to drink from a saucer of milk.)

Singer’s regard for animals emerges from time to time in other stories as well. In “The Slaughterer”, a man designated against his will to be the ritual slaughterer in his community ends up going mad and sees no other way out besides self-slaughter. And my favourite story ever written about chickens: “Cockadoodledoo”, a little gem of a story that gets as close to the experience of being a chicken as I have ever read.

Now that I’ve read more stories by and about I.B. Singer, I feel like I’ve discovered a bit of a link to my own family history. Although I’m not Jewish, there’s enough nominal evidence in my family tree to show that there were a lot of people drifting in and out of Jewish, Catholic and Orthodox families to create quite a mix – but maybe that was just part of being Galician in the 19th and early 20th centuries: cultural tensions on one hand, and on the other, simply surviving with small hope for prosperity. My family seems to have a tradition of switching cultures and religions every generation or so, according to whatever is personally or politically expedient: we’re obviously not the most tenacious of believers. My father emigrated with his family to North America from Galicia just a few years before Singer did in the early 1930s, and I’ve come to realise that many of Singer’s stories provide the physical and geographical details of a place and way of life that was for all purposes obliterated during the Second World War. I was never given much information on Galicia, Poland or Ukraine as a child – the information was perhaps out there, but my father, aunts, cousins and grandparents mainly wanted to leave the Old Country and its bad memories behind. Stories and tales were only haphazardly translated to English, or they lacked some universal and meaningful context; they never felt very real to me, and faded into the background.

But Singer caught my attention with his attention to animals; in the barely industrialised world of Singer’s and my grandparents’ Galicia, animals lived side-by-side with humans in their yards and on their streets, and thankfully, they did not escape his notice. I’m grateful for that as much as for his descriptions of the culture and surroundings.

Dvorah Telushkin wrote a remarkable memoir of the time she spent as Singer’s assistant during the last several years of his life with her book Master of Dreams.

She was there when Singer met Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the fall of 1978 in New York City, when Begin, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had just announced that the Israeli and Egyptian leaders would meet at Camp David. Even though I was not even 10 years old at the time, I remember knowing about that meeting because a few months later I traveled with my mother and a group of evangelical tourists on one of the first Holy Land tours. We flew directly from Cairo to Tel Aviv, something that had previously been impossible; it was almost as if the agreement had been reached for the convenience of North American tourists – that’s how I saw it anyways.

According to Telushkin’s account, Singer was at first proud and impressed to meet with Begin in New York, but apparently the meeting did not go well. He voiced a meek complaint about the Israeli neglect of Yiddish in favour of Hebrew:

“you have taken the Hebrew language, vhich vas dead for these two thousand years and resurrected it. But vith Yiddish, you took a living language vhich vas alive for some eight or nine hundred years and managed to kill it.”

“With Yiddish,” Begin shouted, “we could have not created any navy; with Yiddish, we could have no army; with Yiddish, we could not defend ourselves with powerful jet planes; with Yiddish we would be nothing. We would be like animals!”

Isaac sat with his hands folded in his lap and shrugged his shoulders. “Nu,” he said sweetly to the hushed crowd, “since I am a vegetarian, for me to be like an animal is not such a terrible thing.”

I’m not sure what to make of that response, and I’m sure the small crowd of people present at that meeting didn’t either. It’s confusing and demoralising to bring the metaphor of animals into a human situation of power and conflict, but that’s an instinctive human reflex built into us from thousands of years of considering animals as prey, burnt offerings, tools, and sustenance. Still, those aren’t our only human interactions with animals, and sometimes I like to think, as Konrad Lorenz has written, that we are the missing link between hominid primates and some kind of truly moral species that for one thing doesn’t consider itself superior to other animals.

I don’t currently believe there’s a god out there leading us toward this state. I like to think it’s the thinkers and writers (and activists) on animal experience who are making the slow but necessary progress through statement, action and influence. I’m unable to decide whether to be an optimist or a pessimist on this, for now I’m just muddling through.

My own private guinea pig

February 9, 2009

I’m still trying to get a hang of this blog thing; if I were quicker and wrote shorter entries, stuff that just flies off the brain and into the computer and goes right to the point, I’d be better at this.

OK, I’ve been busy with paid work, for which I’m duly grateful, and with keeping the house warm as it’s been hovering around -20 for the past several days – no, make that weeks.

On one of those day back in January, I went out to the barn to check on the guineas, rabbits, chickens and barn kitties, I noticed that Pigma, our chief guinea pig, was looking a little low. That’s a subjective call, because guinea pigs aren’t very expressive creatures. The range of symptoms they might show for severe illness is: “no thank-you, I won’t be having any parsley today”; and the next thing you know they’re pining for the pampas. To be honest, my son had asked me to take a look at him because he was vaguely concerned, so I can’t say I was being particularly observant.

img_0017 Pigma is the grey fellow on the right.

I had Pigma neutered by one of my colleagues back in November, mainly because the novelty of guinea babies had worn off. After something like 7 litters with anywhere between 2 and 6 babies each time, we’d seen enough. Guinea fertility is even more spectacular than rabbits, especially as their mating is that much more discreet. I never saw a single mating, but I saw the results too many times to count. Part of this was my fault: in spite of some excellent and very detailed information available on the internet, my sexing rate for young guineas before the age of two months is still only about 50%, whereas Pigma’s stands at a perfect 100%. So the young females I mistook for males ended up having litters; and a young male guinea I mistakenly placed with our two females was also remarkably precocious. We’ve also had a few logistical accidents, like last summer when the dividing wall in the temporary cage was breached, from both sides. A local pet shop has been happy to take in our accidents; since I wasn’t doing this for money, I was just happy that someone else wanted them.

I didn’t neuter Pigma myself since I don’t normally do surgery, and my colleague had carefully researched the procedure and was willing to take it on. We discussed the special risks of anaesthesia for guineas, as well as the increased risk of infection compared to other species we’re more familiar with. Pigma pulled through the very short surgery very well, and I kept him in the house for a couple of weeks before sending him out to more space with the three females in a protected space in the barn. He was doing well, or so I thought, based on his healthy appetite. But when I picked him up that day back in early January, there was a very large, firm mass hanging off his lower belly.

I brought him back inside, and observed him for a day or so – his appetite was excellent as usual, though his weight was down to 1.5 pounds from a high of 3 just before surgery. I hoped the mass wasn’t a hernia (i.e. the holes left from the castration not healing properly leaving the abdominal contents to spill out and sit there just under the skin). That would mean another surgery, more delicate this time, and the mass was so big it looked disastrous for a hernia. His ears were warmer than normal, and his eyes a bit teary, so an abscess was also a distinct possibility. Proof of that was easily obtained by siphoning out some liquid with a needle and syringe – the mass was a clementine orange-sized ball of pus.

Normally, abscesses are an extremely gratifying condition to treat, I see them regularly at the clinic in cats who don’t like other cats (bite wounds leading to abscess): you lance the mass with a small scalpel, empty it out to the last drop of evil-smelling liquid while everyone around you goes pale or leaves the room, then flush with saline and disinfect and prescribe antibiotics and a painkiller, either orally or by injection. The antibiotics in the penicillin family are usually the best because they have an excellent penetration of pus-filled capsules and they kill bacteria rather than simply prevent their spreading.

The problem with guinea pigs is that their digestive tracts are an Amazonian ecosystem of sensitive but highly specialised bacterial and protozoal life. When you give them penicillin-type antibiotics, you’re burning down the rainforest; the remedy can do more damage than the infection you’re trying to eliminate, and your guinea pig may die from malnutrition.

Armed with this knowledge – and trying not to think about how that knowledge was obtained – I gave Pigma a 10-day course of antibiotic treatment with Baytril, a common veterinary antibiotic that has been generally OKed for use in guineas and various other small mammals. Apparently, Baytril causes hallucinations in humans, which is why we don’t use it on ourselves; but I wasn’t game enough to sample any more than a few drops. The taste was not good, and apparently not improved when mixed with blueberry jam, carrot juice or any other vegetable. Pigma put up a typical guinea pig protest to the treatment, a short, ineffectual struggle followed by passive resistance and a few disgruntled chuckles while I fed him with the dropper. It’s easy to see how guinea pigs became a great favourite of scientists by the late 1960s, which was when they hit their peak in lab-room popularity: they are some of the gentlest and most placid animals you’ll ever meet, they rarely bite, though they can easily draw blood when they do; and they pretty much stay put wherever you set them down unless they spot something nearby to hide under (probably their atavistic reflex of avoiding swoop-downs from hawks). They also cohabit very peacefully, even among males, and they seem to have some kind of well-developed language that they use which reduces physical confrontation. But since the 1980s, guinea pig numbers in labs have dropped dramatically; they’ve been replaced by mice and rats, which have less tricky digestive requirements – e.g. unlike many domestic mammals, guineas can’t produce their own Vitamin C, so they can get scurvy just like us; also, many of their proteins, such as insulin, are genetically very different from both humans and mice. So they really aren’t that useful as experimental subjects after all – unless you want to know more about guinea pigs themselves, and that was never the point of the research anyways.

So the Baytril went down well with the digestive system, but it wasn’t much help in solving the problem. Ten days of force-feeding Baytril-laced blueberry jam all for nothing (I’m so sorry, Pigma 😦 ). The abscess was still there; every day I squeezed out varying quantities of cheesy pus with no sign of improvement, and Pigma kept telling me that it hurt when I squeezed.

In some domestic animals, an option to consider with an abscess that won’t heal is to place a drain in the skin so that the pus can evacuate instead of collecting and festering, though of course, you have to make sure the animal can’t tear it out and chew it up. But that won’t work in guinea pigs because the pus is often caseous (cottage cheese-y) and won’t drain properly.

I figured I had two options left. One, flush the abscess with some kind of disinfectant, hopefully something mild enough to not cause pain or irritate the tissues that help in fighting and healing the infection; or I could inject some penicillin directly into the abscess cavity and hope for the best – that little or none would be absorbed into the bloodstream and sent to the intestines. I figured number two was a less painful option, and as I had tried it once in a cow a few years ago and it worked, I figured the benefits outweighed the risk.

The penicillin itself is mild enough chemically, not painful and irritating to the tissues, so Pigma didn’t object too much to the flushing. But by the next day, I could already tell that enough of it had been absorbed into his bloodstream: for the first time in his life (except for the day we brought him home from the pet store) he refused to eat his favourite vegetables, carrots, broccoli, red pepper and lettuce. Not even parsley would bring him out of his hiding spot.

Therapeutic failure is something I always take personally. I felt bad for Pigma, down on myself for making the wrong decision, and sorry for letting my son down. Of all our animals, he’s especially attached to Pigma, who was his choice of present two years ago on his 9th birthday. I had breezily assured him back in November that Pigma’s castration would be no problem at all. Even though it had been at least two months, it was pretty obvious from the location of the abscess that the surgery was the source of the infection.

Pigma was off his food for four long days; every day at noon I cleaned out his rear end: instead of making his normal firm, tidy, thin-nuggets, he was producing a smelly mass of unfamiliar fecal matter that he couldn’t even evacuate by himself. I didn’t do this first thing in the morning, because guinea pigs, like rabbits, eat their own stool during the night: their hindgut bacteria produce vitamin B and other vitamins and nutrients that they then have to re-ingest so that it can be absorbed in the first part of the intestine. I didn’t want to interfere with that process in addition to the damage I’d already done…

But on the fourth day, Pigma quietly accepted a few celery leaves, then some spinach, and some choice pieces of red pepper. Slowly, to my relief, his appetite was returning to normal; and best of all, the abscess had suddenly started to heal properly. The penicillin had done its job, in spite of the collateral damage. I hadn’t wiped out the entire ecosystem after all.

I keep checking him to see if the abscess is coming back, but it’s been several days and no sign of the smallest bump. I probably won’t send him back outside until spring though.

In the interest of being a pedant amateur historian, I need to add a few things. First of all, guinea pigs are (of course) not remotely related to pigs. In fact, they are barely even rodents, though I see they’re still hanging off a branch that’s loosely attached to that order of mammals, along with fellow New World creatures like the capybara and the lovely mara.

They are usually called “cavies” by people who really know and love them well. They do not come from Guinea either; I imagine the confusion first arose when they were introduced to England in the late 1500s, during the first brutal takeover of the Americas. Introduced to England by the Dutch, the ladies in the court of Queen Elizabeth I thought they were adorable and carried them around on silk pillows. Cavies could be bought for a guinea in later centuries, and many people came to believe they were originally from Guinea (Africa) – due to the triangular slave and goods trade between Europe, Africa and the Caribbean.

Thinking about guinea pigs and their history, intertwined with the human history of enslavement, despoilation and elimination of peoples and ecosystems, awakens in me the usual pangs of guilt and sadness for what could have been, instead of what we know has happened. Guinea pigs themselves are a byword for cruel and invasive expermentation on defenceless bodies that are utterly unequipped to resist. Some of that experimentation and despoiling may have been blind and unintentional, or with a (misguided) intent to serve a greater good. Much of it though, was and is still based on greed, short-sightedness and a rapacious desire for temporary and ill-defined success. I wish we could learn better from history, but it doesn’t look like we’re all trying to learn the same lessons.


January 3, 2009

In the eleven years since I first put baby to breast, the issue of public breastfeeding (or more specifically, breastfeeding in public spaces that are actually owned by various entities) has come into the news a few times. During the two years when I was actually breastfeeding (1998 and 2002, to be precise), I was blissfully unaware that this was all about breastfeeding rights for mothers. Naively, I had presumed it was all about eating rights for babies. Thus armed, I proceeded to feed my baby from the breast in restaurants, hotel lobbies, airplanes, parks, museums, beaches, offices, and pretty much anywhere I happened to be at the time with my hungry babies.
The thing I loved best about breastfeeding was the convenience. No bottles to heat, no worries about spoilage, nothing to store and nothing to discard, and no crying baby waiting while the bottle was prepared and heated.
Not once did I ever catch a glimpse of disapproval. At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that anyone could be offended by breastfeeding; however, it often occurred to me that people might be annoyed by a squalling baby, therefore I obviously wasn’t completely insensitive to other people’s physical well-being (as infants, my kids were loud and persistent criers when they got down to it; it was best not to let them get worked up in the first place).
Some of my best memories of breastfeeding include the genuinely approving looks I got from elderly men and women as I breastfed in malls and restaurants. Seniors spend a lot of time in malls, and as a young mother, so did I – for the logical reason that we both needed a place to walk and sit out of the cold and snow (I had winter babies). We happily shared that space, and nobody ever got more than a very quick flash of breast flesh, if at all. They’d have to have been sitting nose-to-nose with my baby to get a glimpse of areola.

So eleven years later I am wondering what all the fuss is about, and why breastfeeding mothers are labelled (by some) as lactivists if they reasonably insist on their right to feed their babies in public. I would have hoped that by now, this right would have become completely uncontested.

As for Facebook and its “standards of decency”, it is apparently only photos of the entire breast with baby attached that provoke dispute and deletion. I think it should be understood that women who post these photos are doing so for some very excellent reasons. Some may live in places where public breastfeeding is not an uncontested right, which was not my experience.
In humans, breastfeeding is not an instinctive behaviour (sucking is both an instinctive and learned behaviour in babies – like all mammals, human babies are definitely hardwired to suck, but many babies have to be taught to suck in such a way that is not painful or damaging to the mother; in some babies that can take a few seconds, others – like my firstborn – need a few days to catch on, ow.) For mothers, breastfeeding is a learned, cultural behaviour. In Western culture, breastfeeding was all too often an undertaking that was shifted to women of a certain class, wet nurses, who became experts at it and passed along the know-how within their own culture. Often, these wet nurses had to share their breasts with the babies of upper-class women who were breeders but not feeders. But with the democratisation of our culture, eventually breastfeeding came to be encouraged in all women. Of course, I’m skipping over a lot of history here, including the advent of formula in the 1930s, which many women , who had hung on to the old prejudices, figured would save them from having to learn to breastfeed their infants.
So all of that to say that breastfeeding can often be difficult for the average woman to learn and adapt to. It hasn’t gotten easier for women since the 70s, because each individual woman has to understand the mechanics and principles involved, plus she has to understand her own milk production in synch with her baby’s growth and appetite. It can become all-absorbing, a full-time job in fact, at least for the first few weeks and months. After about one month or so, if milk production is adequate (it isn’t in all women, a fact that complicates breastfeeding even further) breastfeeding suddenly becomes the easiest thing in the world, and if all goes well, one suddenly realises its matchless advantages.

So I can understand why women are presenting photos of their breasts on Facebook. This is the image they are projecting of themselves, at this point in time, because breastfeeding has become their world, their singular occupation, and they may even have important information or tips to share with others. It’s like an icon – there is knowledge behind that image.

I just wish the 12-year-old boys who run Facebook would grow up more quickly and realise that breastfeeding photos are neither sexual nor “disgusting”. I predict that if they don’t realise it by themselves, they will be shamed into it by some very determined mothers.

To help them on their way, I’d suggest they read Marilyn Yalom’s wonderful book, A History of the Breast. It will make them think about breasts in more interesting ways than they have yet imagined.

Change happens: thanks, feminism!

December 11, 2008

Over at unrepentantoldhippie, JJ has again neatly made the point that even though you don’t want feminists to speak for you as a woman, that’s OK, because it’s not about you, as an outstanding and outspoken individual, it’s about the historical fact that women once did not have the same political and social rights as men did, but that through the continuing struggle, rising, falling and rising again, of feminism over several decades and at least a few centuries, things have changed. Even though that’s apparently too complex a history for some people, it’s undeniable that feminism has had one of the most profound impacts on Western society – for good or for evil, depending on your point of view. But please, let’s be consistent, and honest with history. If you think feminism is so awful, and you don’t accept the fact that it has made momentuous and positive contributions to women’s lives, it would be really neat if you would forgo those changes and acquired rights, and live as women did 50, 70, 100, 200 years ago. But alas, you cannot. Short of dropping out of society, you can’t return to that golden age of oppression. Feminism was not a “natural” evolution of human society; it was a struggle, all the way along.

I’m reading the third edition (2002) of Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation. One of the cool things about this book is that the prefaces for the 1975 and 1990 editions are included. Singer expresses his humble amazement at some of the rapid developments in the animal rights movement over the past 30+ years, and how it has influenced practice – particularly in the European Union, where changes have greatly outpaced North America in terms of animal welfare laws and changes in husbandry practices (notably for chickens and pigs). For example, by 2012, European egg producers will have to provide 750 cm2 (120 sq in) per bird; in Canada the current recommendation is 450 cm2, and only 350 cm2 (52 sq in) in the United States. The changes proposed for Canada and the United States are already seen as outmoded and inacceptable by European farmers – who are starting to consider that maybe hens need a system that does without cages altogether…

In the first chapter of Singer’s book, he discusses the reaction to proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecroft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. In a move reminiscent of bloggerdom, a satirical work appeared soon after: A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes (i.e. animals). The author was anonymous at the time (hmm) but it is now known that it was Thomas Taylor, a distinguished Cambridge philosopher. His satire pointed out that if Wollstonecraft’s arguments held for women and children then what if we extended them to dogs, cats, and horses? (Yeah, what if we had to stop beating them to an inch of their lives for disobedience, or rounding them up off the streets and cutting them up into pieces while they still lived and breathed…) Of course, as satire, it was surely a hilarious read for literate men of the day. But still, a century later, things hadn’t changed that much for women. They still didn’t have the right to vote or own property, and they were not considered persons under the law; in addition to a thousand other humiliating details. By the 1920s, when women were finally allowed to vote in England, Canada, the US, and Australia – they still weren’t paid equal wages for similar work, or allowed equal educational and professional opportunities.

Progress continued slowly, until the incredibly rapid changes in laws and customs that occurred just before I was born, and continued at a whirlwind pace as I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s. Feminism has been influential to the point where even the very conservative religious culture I grew up in (evangelical Christianity) has become nearly unrecognisable in some of its aspects – the emergence of Sarah Palin would be Exhibit A, and though I really don’t wish to elaborate on her, except to mention that back in the 1980s, mainstream evangelical church leaders thought that the day they let women have political or religious authority over men meant that there were no men fit to lead and we were all heading for hell in a handbasket anyways. (Exhibit B would be pastors telling their members to have (hetero)sexual intercourse every day…. As I check this link, I realise that I attended this church briefly, about 20 years ago. They didn’t display cheesy-sexy beds anywhere near pulpits in those days.)

But of course Palin’s not exceptional. She’s simply part of a culture that has changed to the point where you are more likely than not to have a woman as your doctor or veterinarian. When I graduated from vet school as a large animal practitioner almost a decade ago, it was the turning point, when the balance tipped to a female majority of graduating vets. Yes, we had and continue to have our struggles, to obtain reasonable mat leave and time off to nurse babies and be with our young kids and return to our jobs – but I am pleased to note that in Canada at least, women (and men) vets are increasingly willing to sub in for each other in temporary locums, as women take time off to have children and then return to work on a part-time basis, until their kids are older.

But back to animals à la fin. Even though the seemingly intractable problems of humans, animals and the environment can drain us of energy and create cynicism, negativism is no help at all, and it suffocates hope. Changes in thinking about animal welfare and rights have made a difference, and continue to do so. Change doesn’t happen overnight – but sometimes it can happen with breathtaking rapidity.