In his essay "What Can Disability Learn from the Culture Wars?," Tobin Siebers draws on debates about controversial art to suggest that aesthetic judgments are fundamentally also judgments about what kinds of people "deserv[e] to be included in our culture" (Siebers 2003, 182).1 Art that gets labeled disgusting, he contends, repulses not on the basis of some purely aesthetic violation it commits, but rather because it visually reminds its viewers of exactly those bodies that mainstream culture wants to make politically invisible. Siebers applies this framework to accessible design, arguing that a kind of "hysterical architecture" contrives to provide access to people with disabilities, while at the same time effectively prohibiting their entry into public spaces. For example, disabled parking spaces buttressed by walls and flowers are worthless for wheelchair users, while offices putatively providing services for the blind sometimes inhabit spaces virtually un-navigable for those who cannot see (205). From these examples of paradoxical design, Siebers concludes that questions of architectural aesthetics are also, crucially, questions of political inclusion.

Just as Siebers contemplates what architecture tells us about the political and civic inclusion of disabled bodies (or the lack thereof), I want to consider what the social and legal construction of lactating workers suggests about the accommodation of physically different bodies in the American workplace. Breastfeeding, I argue, parallels disability in the way that it impacts workers in relation to their environments. It places physical restrictions on workers that continually reveal the limitations of their bodies, and causes them to rely on prostheses that signify their lack of physical autonomy in the workplace. However, while breastfeeding parallels disability in certain ways, in others, it sets itself quite apart from disability (or at least, disability as we currently understand it). Notably, breastfeeding entails no actual impairment at all. This feature critically excludes breastfeeding from the largely accepted "social model" of disability; in the social model, an impairment exists that the environment constructs into a disability. As Lennard Davis puts it: "Impairment is the physical fact of lacking an arm or a leg. Disability is the social process that turns an impairment into a negative by creating barriers to access" (Davis 12). But lactation is not, by any usual understanding, an impairment; there is nothing physically lacking, or even sub-optimally functioning, in the case of a lactating woman. In fact, as I will show, an examination of breastfeeding discourse reveals that the act is perceived as biologically "normal" but is nevertheless constructed, in the workplace and elsewhere, as aberrant.

But even while breastfeeding fails to meet the requirements of the social model, in that it involves no impairment, it reinforces another feature of the social model: that is, the idea that the status of the body is determined in relation to the demands of its environment. Indeed, the persistent attempt on the part of attorneys and scholars to legally construct breastfeeding as a disability reinforces that disability is not in fact about biological "normalcy" at all, but rather about body in relation to its environment. In this way, breastfeeding provides evidence for the social construction of disability, even as it removes impairment from the picture. This paradox — social construction of disability in the absence of an impairment — can help us develop an even richer appreciation for the power of social construction to determine the meaning of bodies in the workplace.

What kinds of bodies are "wrong" at work, and why?

At first glance, the comparison between lactating workers and workers with disabilities might seem a strange one. Interestingly enough, however, attorneys representing breastfeeding mothers have repeatedly attempted — and failed — to fit lactation squarely under the Americans with Disabilities Act (Reiter 9). One plaintiff filed charges against her employer for not allowing her to take indefinite unpaid leave while breastfeeding, citing the company's policy to grant extended leave in the case of employee disability. The appellate judge in this case balked, finding against the plaintiff and commenting: "One can draw no valid comparison between people, male and female, suffering extended incapacity from illness or injury and young mothers wishing to nurse little babies" (9). Similarly, in the 2009 Ohio case of LaNisa Allen, lawyers argued that her "medical condition, the act of lactating, constitute[d ]a handicap" and that the termination of her employment — for taking what her employer deemed "excessive" breaks to pump her breasts — violated the ADA (Allen v. totes-Isotoner 5). Citing precedent, both circuit and appellate courts ruled that Allen's breastfeeding did not constitute a disability. In the words of one judge: "It is simply preposterous to contend a woman's body is functioning abnormally because she is lactating" (17, emphasis mine). These judges' opinions, however, fail to take into account the possibility that disability may not actually have anything to do with what is biologically "normal," but rather with how a person's body conforms, or fails to conform, to environmental demands. On this score, breastfeeding and disability do indeed share many commonalities.

Many aspects of the nursing, working mother's experience parallel the obstacles that persons with disabilities face in the workplace. Perhaps most obviously, the two share some difficulty in performing what are known as "extra-role" contributions, responsibilities that lie beyond the scope of the employee's specific job role, which often entail long hours, physical stress, and travel (Arnow-Richman 349). Despite being deemed "extra," such responsibilities are actually part of the unspoken requirements of the contemporary workplace (349). A person with a disability may find himself unable to fulfill such expectations, as did the plaintiff in Davis vs. Microsoft. Following his doctor's advice, the plaintiff, who had recently been diagnosed with Hepatitis C, requested to reduce his 80-hour workweek to a 40-hour one so that he could obtain more rest. The company subsequently terminated his employment. Davis's lawyers sought damages for what they believed to be unlawful termination, and were refused. In parallel fashion, the plaintiff in Jacobson vs. Regent Assisted Living, who was sent on a business trip with her supervisor while she was breastfeeding, requested "extra rest and nourishment" as a nursing mother, along with periodic breaks to pump her breasts (Reiter 12). Her supervisor denied these, and even while working in the home office refused her pumping breaks, causing her breast pain and leaking. The court upheld the employer's right to do so, ruling that neither the ADA nor the Pregnancy Discrimination Act covered lactation (12).

Indeed, as these examples highlight, both people with disabilities and lactating women share the need for certain accommodations in order to remain physically comfortable and able to work. This need may take many various forms for persons with disabilities. For example, a worker with a mobility impairment might require a wheelchair along with modifications to her environment — for instance, elevators and accessible bathrooms — to make the workplace physically navigable. In the case of the plaintiff in Davis vs. Microsoft, the accommodation sought was a shortened, but still full-time, workweek. For a breastfeeding mother, the need to express milk regularly — either by nursing her baby or pumping her breasts — is the primary kind of workplace accommodation typically required. Like the mobility-impaired worker, who may use a cane or wheelchair, or the hard of hearing worker, who may require a hearing aid, the lactating worker relies on a prosthesis in order to accommodate her body to the workplace and allow her to perform her job comparably to non-lactating employees. The prosthetic nature of the breast pump is obvious in Maia Boswell-Penc and Kate Boyer's observation that the breast pump serves as "a means of enabling more women to combine wage work with nursing" (552). Just as a software program that converts text to speech enables visually impaired workers to perform their word processing tasks, a breast pump allows lactating workers to be productive at their jobs without leaking breast milk, causing them "humiliation and pain" (Reiter 12).

Among prostheses, however, the breast pump is unique. As a category, the prosthesis typically "fill[s] a gap," compensating for what a missing or substandard part cannot do (Jain 44). At the same time, however, a prosthesis also signifies the very "lack" that it fills — a signification Siebers acknowledges when he describes how airport workers respond more favorably to requests for early boarding from passengers who are using a "highly visible prop like a wheelchair" than to passengers who are not using a wheelchair (Siebers 2004, 1). Therefore, the typical prosthesis (wheelchair, cane, or eyeglasses) signifies some incapability on the part of its user while at the same time "compensating" for it. But the breast pump, rather than "filling in" for a body part or function, stands in for another person entirely — the young child who depends on the mother's breast, either partly or entirely, for sustenance. The pump performs the function the infant is not there to do — drain milk from the mother's breast — thereby allowing her body to remain in equilibrium and approximate the non-childcare related activities of a non-lactating body.

Despite the fact that pumping would seem to be a boon to the lactating worker's productivity (since it keeps her from being uncomfortable), the idea of a worker pumping her breasts causes anxiety for employers. Boswell-Pence and Boyer argue that this anxiety results because "[t]he breast pump calls attention to bodily function in a dramatic way" (560). But the argument that employees' "bodily functions" make employers so uncomfortable that they cannot accommodate them fails: employers no doubt know that their employees eat, urinate, and defecate — even at work — and even though these behaviors are not directly part of employees' job duties, employers nevertheless provide facilities and opportunities for those bodily functions to take place. Restrooms are a kind of accommodation in and of themselves, as are vending machines, water coolers, and microwaves. All of these items are commonly seen in workplace situations, and all call attention to bodily functions.

I would argue that, in the context of the workplace, what the breast pump most problematically calls attention to is not the bodily function of lactation, but rather the mother's body's dependence on another human being. The dependence can be more accurately termed an interdependence. The baby relies on the mother's body for nutritionally complete meals, emotional comfort, and antibodies (Small 194). The mother, in turn, relies on the baby's nursing to alleviate engorgement and regulate levels of hormones like oxytocin, prolactin, and follicle stimulating hormone (199). The breast pump as a prosthesis therefore metonymically signifies mother-infant interdependence. This interdependence flies in the face of one of the main tenets of the contemporary corporate office structure: "worker independence" (Arnow-Richman 349).

Worker independence largely means that workers are expected not to rely on their employment situation to provide long-term financial security, personal support, or emotional satisfaction. Rather, employment is viewed as short-term, and employees often find themselves working under contract (Arnow-Richman 381). In an article about the need for employers to accommodate workers' family obligations — such as the care of sick children or the need to transport children to and from school and child care — Rachel Arnow-Richman explains the historical shift away from a workplace that saw the employer's relationship to his employee as more intimate:

The previous social contract [between employer and employee], which envisioned an exchange of long-term security for loyal work, accords with what has been called the "lifecycle" model of employment. That model contemplates that employers will make significant investments in employees at the outset of the employment relationship…Over time…the employee becomes more skilled and more productive, ultimately creating value in excess of her wages and thereby permitting the employer to recoup its initial investment (381).

If worker independence has conceptually severed any understanding of the employee and employer as linked, it has also made any interpersonal commitments outside of the workplace illegible within it: "In the 'Me, Inc.' workplace, employers expect increased worker independence...These developments are in tension with the concept of greater accommodation by employers or shared responsibility between co-workers for the caregiving needs of particular individuals" (Arnow-Richman 34). Disturbingly, the construction of the worker as autonomous from others is disproportionately damaging for female workers.

Uneasy about interdependence: or, why have feminists overlooked breastfeeding?

If worker independence is one of the characteristics of workers most highly prized by employers, then it is easy to understand why mothers — not only breastfeeding mothers, but mothers in general — trouble the presumptions of corporate life. Even though almost three-quarters of mothers have jobs outside the home (Blades and Rowe-Finkbeiner 7), they are nevertheless disproportionately responsible for domestic work: shopping, cooking, and cleaning (Kim 188). They also primarily oversee childcare tasks. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, from 2005 to 2009, women in American households spent an average of 6.02 hours every weekday caring for kids, while men spent only 3.17 (Table 10). An Australian study found that, even in two-parent working households, when children are sick, mothers are far more likely to take off work than men (Bear, Lovejoy, Daniel). Because women are disproportionately fettered by domestic obligations, they have great difficulty achieving the touted goal of worker independence. Breastfeeding simply illustrates women's already-present interdependence with their families in a vivid, embodied way.

If breastfeeding illustrates the reality of interdependence, and in turn the myth of independence, then addressing breastfeeding as a feminist issue would work to set in place a more holistic model of the worker that allows for interdependence. However, despite the fact that expectations of worker independence ultimately harm women, feminists have done relatively little to address breastfeeding rights in the workplace (Wolf 397). While since the 1970s feminists have been crucial in the move to reform childbirth and make it more woman-centered, and to advance the cause of reproductive freedom, women's groups have remained conspicuously silent on the matter of breastfeeding (Wolf 397), despite the fact that some studies have shown not breastfeeding to be a major risk factor for breast cancer (403). This reluctance on the part of feminists to engage with breastfeeding as a women's issue undoubtedly stems in part from a fear of the very same characteristic that workplaces abhor: interdependence.

Addressing the important of breastfeeding as a reproductive right practically requires an acknowledgement of the fundamental interdependence of mother and child. In fact, a move toward legally recognizing interdependence could gain breastfeeding legal ground. As Jendi Reiter has suggested, "the law could…view breastfeeding as the final stage of the pregnancy cycle…continuing the developmentally crucial process of nourishment and bonding that began in the womb" (Reiter 2), in which case breastfeeding would be protected under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. However, considering a woman still physically tethered to a child with whom she is no longer pregnant makes feminists uneasy, and with good reason: Pregnant drug addicts can already be jailed for "endangering" their babies (Bordo 83). Last year, a Florida woman who did not follow bed rest instructions was ordered by a Tallahassee court to obey her obstetrician, and forcibly confined in a hospital.2 If the legal definition of pregnancy extended past the nine months (give or take) of gestation, what other potential violations of their bodies might women be subject to? Could not breastfeeding, which Jacqueline Wolf argues is comparable to failing to immunize one's child, become illegal? (414).

These concerns about the legal and ethical consequences of acknowledging breastfeeding mothers' and children's mutual interdependence are not to be taken lightly. They do, however, reveal just how tightly woven into the fabric of our society "autonomy" really is, and how threatening interdependence is to our fundamental legal and cultural understandings. Independence is not only central to the conception of the worker; it's also at the very heart of our understanding of what it means to be an adult and an enfranchised citizen.

Can the social model disable any body?

As we have seen, the lactating body signifies interdependence and violates expectations of worker autonomy in a way that makes it "wrong" within the culture of the contemporary workplace. In this way, the lactating body is like the disabled body, which, as Lennard Davis argues, "violates the understanding that people should be self-sufficient, and, in a culture based on independence rather than interdependence…appears to be asking for too much" (130). This lack of autonomy is why, fundamentally, both the disabled worker and the lactating worker encounter discrimination in the workplace: both appear to be "asking too much." However, as I suggested in my introduction, there are important differences between these two kinds of bodies as well.

Most notably, according to the social model of disability, the disabled body is one in which some kind of impairment exists (for example, a missing leg); this impairment is, in turn, constructed as a disability. The lactating body, however, is one in which no impairment exists at all. Far from being an example of atypical functioning, lactation is a typical process of the post-natal woman's body. While it is true that in order for lactation to be maintained for long periods, mothers must nurse or pump their breasts, the initial stages of milk production occur spontaneously after childbirth in virtually all women (Reiter 2). In late pregnancy, breasts begin to produce colostrum, a preliminary milk. The delivery of the placenta in the third stage of labor signals a drop in progesterone levels, leading to a cascade of biochemical reactions that stimulate mature milk to "come in" during the days following birth. Lactation is therefore a typical process of post-natal physiology, thought by experts not to occur at all in fewer than 1% of women who bear children. So while virtually all other kinds of prostheses signify impairment, the breast pump — as a symbol of lactation — suggests that the mother's body is operating in a biologically typical way. In fact, sociologists argue that the lactating body gets read as a symbol of "biological productivity" rather than impairment (Boswell-Penc and Boyer 552). The typical nature of lactation probably explains why so many judges have responded so unfavorably to lawyers' attempts to frame breastfeeding as a disability: after all, how can the typical functioning of the post-natal body be a disability? Part of my point is to suggest that the social model has precisely that kind of power: it can turn a typically functioning body into a disabled one, simply because that body does not conform to the expectations of its environment. That is, the social model can disable "normal" and "abnormal" bodies alike.

Although I have been using the more neutral term "typical" to avoid the ableist connotations of the word "normal," breastfeeding advocates largely use the latter, more problematic term to talk about breastfeeding. Indeed, the "normalcy" of breastfeeding has recently become a standard sound bite in breastfeeding advocacy. In the 1980s and early 1990s, breastfeeding advocates largely framed breastfeeding as "the best possible start in life" and emphasized how breastmilk was the "ideal" food for babies (Wiessinger 1). But in 1996, International Board Certified Lactiation Consultant and breastfeeding proponent Diane Wiessinger published an influential article in The Journal of Human Lactation, arguing: "The truth is, breastfeeding is nothing more than normal. Artificial feeding, which is neither the same nor superior, is therefore deficient, incomplete, and inferior (1)." Wiessinger repeatedly refers to breastfeeding as the "biological norm" and argues that "the comfortable illusion of bottlefed normalcy" can only be dismantled by a keen awareness of the "biologically normal" status of breastfeeding (2). Following Wiessinger's example, many breastfeeding advocates, from lactation professionals to activists to blogging, breastfeeding mothers, now state as their goal the "normalizing" or "normalization" of breastfeeding.3

But if breastfeeding is already "normal," why does it need to be "normalized?" In short, the disparity between the biologically typical nature of breastfeeding and the cultural stigma attached to it, particularly in the workplace, reveals something profound about the status of physical difference in our culture. The social model of disability has asserted that disability is socially constructed, but from a physical impairment. Indeed, some recent critical conversations have even begun to (re)emphasize impairment, pointing out the limits of social constructionism to convey lived experiences or make progress toward universal access. For example, Michael Jeffreys advises that disability scholars should not, in their enthusiasm for the social model, forget that "bodies actually do have biologically based meanings" (33). Similarly, Tom Shakespeare and Nicholas Watson have argued that perhaps "the social model has outlived its usefulness" and that an "embodied ontology" that focuses on the shared experience of impairment has the most practical value for achieving social and medical progress in the twenty-first century (9).

While attunement to the impairment side of disability — including the lived experience of people with these impairments — is undeniably important, it is equally imperative that disability studies learn from the breastfeeding wars that social constructionism is alive and well and able to transform even the most unimpaired of biological conditions into a social disability. Indeed, as the collective situation of lactating workers in the United States reveals, even bodies that are functioning in a completely biologically typical fashion can be "disabled" by hostile, unaccommodating environments.

Interdependence and the social model: can we accommodate new models of work?

I have argued that the social construction of breastfeeding in the workplace ultimately demonstrates that the experience of disability occurs wherever a body — whether considered biologically "normal" or "abnormal" — cannot accommodate itself to the demands of its environment. Operating under the imperatives of the market, workplaces demand that workers' bodies be perpetually available, and above all independent, with no external entities competing for their resources. This expectation creates a particularly difficult problem for disabled workers, who may depend on prostheses or modifications to their environments: a dependency that disqualifies them from being independent workers. The lactating woman's body is similarly "wrong" for the standard workplace, since it relies on the presence of another human being — the infant — in order to function comfortably, or, in the child's absence, requires a prosthesis that metonymically signifies the very interdependence prohibited by the workplace. The breastfeeding worker, like the disabled worker, exposes the fiction of bodily autonomy and indicates the reality of interdependence. Indeed, Susan Wendell identifies the potential worker solidarity between disabled and female workers when writing about the struggle for chronically ill workers to find and keep meaningful jobs: "we have a lot of potential allies to whom pace and flexibility about time make the difference between working and not working, including many nondisabled women caring for children and disabled older family members" (28).

However, as we have seen, despite women's disproportionate caregiving responsibilities, interdependence is not an easy concept for feminists to grapple with in the fight for rights, because the very concept of interdependence undermines much of the autonomy for which activists have striven. Similarly, the expansion of the social model of disability into a model capable of disabling virtually any body — even in the absence of physical impairment — might be a conceptual leap difficult for scholars to condone. But however we define disability, the expectation of worker independence continues to harm disabled and women workers. At the same time, an under-developed understanding of how hostile workplace culture really is to many bodies has left breastfeeding and disabled workers legally and socially vulnerable. If legal, feminist, and disability studies scholars are able to acknowledge both the fundamental interdependence of bodies and the power of social constructionism to determine which kinds of bodies are "wrong" in the workplace, together we can ensure more equitable working conditions for all.

Works Cited

  • Allen v. totes/Isotoner Corp., 123 Ohio St.3d 216, 2009-Ohio-4231.
  • Arnow-Richman, Rachel. "Accommodation Subverted: The Future of Work/Family Initiatives in a 'Me, Inc.' World." Texas Journal of Women and the Law 12 (2003): 345-417.
  • Bear, Harold, Lovejoy, Frances, and Daniel, Ann. "How Working Parents Cope with the Care of Sick Young Children." Australian Journal of Early Childhood 28.4 (2003).
  • Blades, Joan and Rowe-Finkbeiner, Kristin. The Motherhood Manifesto: What America's Mom's Want and What to Do About It. New York: Nation Books, 2006.
  • Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
  • Boswell-Penc, Maia and Boyer, Kate. "Expressing Anxiety? Breast pump usage in American wage workplaces." Gender, Place, and Culture 14.5 (2007): 551-67.
  • Davis, Lennard. Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions. New York: NYU Press, 2002.
  • Jain, Sarah S. "The Prosthetic Imagination: Enabling and Disabling the Prosthesis Trope." Science, Technology, and Human Values 24.1 (1999): 31-54.
  • Jeffreys, Mark. "The Visible Cripple (Scars and Other Disfiguring Displays Included)." In Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Eds. Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. New York: MLA Press, 2002. 31-39.
  • Kim, Hee-Kang. "Analyzing the Gender Division of Labor: The Cases of the United States and Korea." Asian Perspective 33.2 (2009): 181-229.
  • Reiter, Jendi B. "Accommodating Pregnancy and Breastfeeding in the Workplace: Beyond the Civil Rights Paradigm." Texas Journal of Women and the Law 9.1 (1999): 1-28.
  • Shakespeare, Tom and Watson, Nicholas. "The Social Model of Disability: An Outdated Ideology?" Research in Social Science and Disability 2 (2002): 9-28.
  • Siebers, Tobin. "What Can Disability Studies Learn from the Culture Wars?" Cultural Critique 55 (2003): 182-216.
  • ---. "Disability as Masquerade." Literature and Medicine 23:1 (2004): 1-22.
  • Small, Meredith. Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent. New York: Random House, 1998.
  • Table 10. U.S. Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor and Statistics. <>
  • Wendell, Susan. Unhealthy Disabled: Treating Chronic Illnesses as Disabilities. Hypatia 16.4 (2001): 17-32.
  • Wiessinger, Diane. "Watch Your Language!" Journal of Human Lactation 12.1 (1996): 1-6.
  • Wolf, Jacqueline. "What Feminists Can Do for Breastfeeding and What Breastfeeding Can Do for Feminists." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 31.2 (2006): 397-424.


  1. One particularly vivid example Siebers offers is the work of Tyree Guyton, whose "Heidelberg Project," an evolving art installation created mainly by African-American residents of urban Detroit, has been twice destroyed by the city.

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  3. A quick Google search for "breastfeeding normalized" turns up hundreds of examples, ranging from academic journal articles to blogs and message boards:

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