Date of Award

Spring 2020

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

Committee Director

Lindal Buchanan

Committee Director

David Metzger

Committee Member

Julia Romberger

Committee Member

Carolyn Skinner

Abstract

For over six decades, the international, mother-to-mother breastfeeding support organization La Leche League (LLL) has been helping women breastfeed successfully. LLL was formed at a time when the dominant ideology of scientific motherhood framed mothers as obedient adherents to physicians’ strict guidelines, which encouraged bottle-feeding and discouraged close mother-child bonds. LLL has been credited with challenging scientific motherhood, transforming medical discourse and practices surrounding infant feeding, and prompting the medical professional to accept mothers’ active involvement in decision-making; yet, paradoxically, it has also constrained mothers by reducing women to their maternal biology, discouraging mothers from participating in the public sphere, and alienating economically challenged, working, minority, and lesbian mothers. While scholars have studied the paradoxical nature of the organization, there has been no in-depth study of the rhetorical strategies that LLL employed in order to gain a dispersed audience of dedicated supporters and affect significant change.

This dissertation traces the early history of LLL, with a focus on the period between 1956 and 1963, to argue that LLL’s maternal rhetoric was the key to its development into a significant counterpublic that would transform the medical profession’s views on breastfeeding and the role of mothers. I argue that LLL subversively reclaimed the domestic space of the home to create a maternal space which would operate as a “parallel discursive arena” (Fraser 68) in which the organization would develop its counter discourse and its philosophy of natural motherhood. I suggest that LLL’s employment of maternal rhetoric to craft an organizational ethos framed mothers as the natural authorities on childcare and infant feeding. This maternal rhetoric led to its success in building a counterpublic made up of an army of breastfeeding mothers who were able to create their own maternal spaces that would allow them to effectively resist the status quo.

Finally, I assert that in offering a rhetorical education to help mothers employ maternal rhetoric in their individual acts of resistance, LLL’s counterpublic underwent a project of collective ethos formation that would prompt the medical profession to reevaluate its understanding of infant feeding and its view of the role of mothers in decision making regarding healthcare. LLL thus increased mothers’ options, autonomy, and authority, outcomes which I contend are feminist in nature.

DOI

10.25777/5wr2-p133

ORCID

0000-0002-1034-1031

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