Rebel Daughters: Women and the French Revolution

By Sara E. Melzer; Leslie W. Rabine | Go to book overview

4

Incorruptible Milk: Breast-feeding
and the French Revolution

MARY JACOBUS

In 1791, the women citizens of Clermont-Ferrand wrote to the French National Assembly: "Nous faisons sucer à nos enfants un lait incorruptible et que nous clarifions à cet effet avec l'esprit naturel et agréable de la liberté (Applaudissements)." 1 From the vantage point of the bicentennial of the French Revolution, we might ponder the politicization of what has come to seem so private a matter. But to place maternal nurture—that is, breast-feeding— unequivocally in the personal domain is to forget that, for the eighteenth century at least, wet-nursing was both a social institution and a state-regulated industry. My concern, however, is not so much with changing definitions of public and private that coincided with the French Revolution, nor with the ideological situating of women vis-à-vis either domain, as with what might be called the semiotics of maternal breast-feeding. The history that interests me is the history of revolutionary signs, and the sign that interests me here is the figure of the breast-feeding mother.

What light does this patriotic communiqué from the women of Clermont- Ferrand shed on the meaning of mother's milk during the French Revolution? And if liberty's milk is incorruptible, what does that make the milk of the ancien régime? In enlightenment writing about maternal breast-feeding, the imaginary source of spoiled or adulterated milk is invariably the wet-nurse. Serving as the figure for a generalized maternal alienation and neglect associated with the ancien régime, the wet-nurse is often paired with her opposite, the woman of society who refuses to nurse her own child—although we should remember that, in reality, the institution of wet-nursing had as much to do with the economics of a hard-pressed urban artisan class, who could not afford to keep their infants at home when both parents had to work for the family to survive at all. 2 Enlightenment advocacy of maternal breast-feeding in France should therefore be read as at least as much an expression of changing cultural attitudes towards mother-infant relations and the family as an informed social critique; significantly, enlightened women of the middle- and upper-classes (who could afford to do so) rather than of the lower classes (who couldn't) typically responded to the call to nurse their own children in the decades leading up to the French Revolution. 3 But the advocacy of maternal breast

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