Food production has long been a source of power for women. Even before agriculture, we produced the first food by transforming materials from our own bodies into milk to provide all of a newborn's complex needs. In agrarian societies, women have primary responsibility for many important agricultural activities. Depending on the culture, these may include saving seeds from generation to generation; planting, tending, harvesting and storing crops; caring for animals; and preparing meals.
Only recently have the majority of women in industrial countries become divorced from food production. Technologists armed with scientific knowledge have taken over almost every aspect of agriculture, so that women have become primarily food consumers. Most production has been transferred from agriculture to agribusiness, and thus also in the direction from women to men.
Although many modernized women may see this as liberation from toil, the fact is that we have not traded in our role as providers of a basic necessity for positions of equal importance. Women who still work in food production do so at the lowest levels, and very few women are captains of industry in any sector of the economy. So in a very real sense, most women have lost power.
What follows is a cautionary tale involving women, science and milk. Milk is a rich topic for feminists. Since only females produce it, attitudes and practices surrounding milk provide insights into what it means to be female in society. The news from the laboratories and farms today is not good for women or for other female mammals.
I find the mass media a good place to take the pulse of the times. Although we hear about silicone implants gone awry and about soaring rates of cancer, seldom does the media focus on healthy breasts making milk to feed babies. So my attention was grabbed by a headline in the New York Times Science section: "Mother's Milk Found to Be Potent Cocktail of Hormones" (Natalie Angier, New York Times, Thursday, May 24, 1994, B5-6).
Here were scientists, some of them women, examining the components of milk and finding amazing complexity. There were hormones, growth factors, opioids, neuropeptides and antibodies galore. These are all biochemicals known to affect the most fundamental aspects …