Overexposed: Breastfeeding in America
The New Yorker.com, May 11, 2012
This week, Time magazine published on its cover a photograph of a woman breastfeeding a three-year-old, with the headline, “Are You Mom Enough?” Like its historical antecedents—a centerfold in a 1938 issue of Life called “The Birth of a Baby,” and another, in 1965, called “The Drama of Life”—it has gotten a great deal of attention. Sales have been brisk. Interest has been prurient. Outrage is all the rage.
Strenuous motherhood is a reactionary, late-modern, American fetish. The comfort here, though it is cold comfort, is: this, too, shall pass.
As I write about in “Mansion of Happiness,” a new book on the history of ideas about life and death, Life’s “Birth of a Baby” issue was banned all over the country (but not before selling seventeen million copies). Overnight, Gallup conducted a nationwide poll, asking: “In your opinion, do these pictures violate the law against publication of material which is obscene, filthy or indecent?” (Twenty-four per cent of respondents said yes; seventy-six per cent no.) A generation later, the photographs on the 1965 cover, “The Drama of Life” were shipped into outer space on board the Voyager (but not before selling eight million copies in four days). Each gave rise to criticism, some of it quite wonderful. The week after Life published “The Birth of a Baby,” The New Yorker published a parody, called “The Birth of an Adult,” written by E. B. White. “The Birth of an Adult is presented with no particular regard for good taste,” White wrote. “The editors feel that adults are so rare, no question of taste is involved.”
Photographs of women breastfeeding have a rather curious history. My favorite is a daguerreotype, above, housed at the Schlesinger Library, at Radcliffe. A seated woman in a dark silk dress stares, her face impassive, holding in her lap a baby in booties and a gown so white it glows. From the waist down and the neck up—with its lace collar clasped by a dainty cameo—the portrait is utterly conventional. Cover the middle of the picture with the fingers of your hand and it looks like every other daguerreotype you’ve ever seen, worn, charming, and more than a little sad: Emily Dickinson, more or less. But under your hand, the unexpected: the undone buttons, the sucking mouth, the bared breast.
The Schlesinger bought this picture, in 2005, from Dennis Waters, a retired aerial photographer and owner of Fine Daguerreotypes, in New Hampshire. Waters got it on consignment from a collector in Rochester, New York, who can’t remember where or when he found it except that maybe it was in the nineteen-seventies, at an estate sale not far from his house. Many more daguerreotypes of women breastfeeding have turned up since. It was, apparently, quite a fad.
This one is very small, less than three inches by four. In its hinged leather case, lined with padded red velvet, it would fit inside a gentleman’s coat pocket, like a wallet or a cigarette case. From the style of the woman’s hair—severe, slicked, parted in the middle, coiled up just over the ears—the picture can be dated to about 1852. (The daguerreotype, invented in 1839, was popular in the United States in the eighteen-forties and early eighteen-fifties.) The silver-coated copper plate took about seven or eight seconds to expose; under a microscope, it’s possible to see that the woman couldn’t hold herself entirely still: she has very slightly raised her chin to the camera. The baby, who looks to be about eighteen months old, didn’t move. The first time I held this daguerreotype in my hands, I wondered if the baby was dead. But it’s not. This isn’t a portrait of grief.
No one put this picture on the cover of a magazine. Instead, someone who adored this woman and this child, kept it close, inside a pocket, secret and beloved.
Photograph courtesy of the Schlesinger Library.