Public Breastfeeding:
When Legal Protection Isn't Enough

By SHERRY F. COLB

Wednesday, Jul. 14, 2004

Modern medicine has, relatively recently, acknowledged what has been obvious to many mothers throughout the ages: breastfeeding confers unique benefits upon babies.

It provides a baby with her mother's immunity to pathogens, along with exactly the right mix of nutrients needed for her to thrive. Breastfeeding also substantially reduces the inevitable ingestion of air and consequent distress that bottle-feeding entails. And it does a lot to facilitate bonding between mother and child.

As a result, obstetricians, pediatricians, and hospital nurses today encourage patients to breastfeed their new children. Expressions like "Breast is best," stores like the "Upper Breast Side" in Manhattan, and the proliferation of La Leche League groups reflect the zeitgeist. Perhaps most tellingly, a majority of states have passed legislation specifically protecting the right of a mother to breastfeed in public, and similar legislation exists abroad.

Not all mothers breastfeed, of course. Some cannot do so for medical reasons, and others cannot afford to take the time away from work. Breastfeeding is fortunately not a life-or-death necessity for babies, and most of those who drink formula do just fine.

But statistically speaking, the superiority of breast-milk for a baby's first months is undeniable. Mothers with the opportunity and desire to breastfeed have accordingly been pleased with legal developments that protect their ability to do so.

Social Attitudes Lag Behind the Law

Unfortunately, however, social attitudes and practices do not always keep up with the law. In the U.S. and elsewhere, women who breastfeed outside the house must be prepared to face hostility.

In Illinois a few weeks ago, a woman who tried to breastfeed an infant at her older daughter's Girl Scouts event was reportedly asked to feed the baby in the toilet stall.

Similarly, in Scotland, at a department store, a nursing mother was told to nurse her daughter in a disabled toilet.

And in New York State, where a woman has an absolute legal right to breastfeed her baby any place where she is otherwise authorized to be, hostility to public nursing persists as well.

Consider a personal example. A few weeks ago, I went to the Guggenheim museum and attempted to feed my baby in a corner of the reading room (where an official at the museum had recommended I go). The space at first seemed perfect, because it was quiet and calm, and few other people were present.

The librarian was friendly toward me initially. But she became surly the instant she realized what my baby and I were up to. She periodically looked over and glared at me while I was nursing my infant. (Ironically, one of the photographs of a featured artist at the Guggenheim that day showed a nude woman breastfeeding a baby.).

This experience and those of mothers around the world led me to ask the following question: why are some people so hostile to public breastfeeding?

The answer concerns more than just breastfeeding. It is about women's bodies and the customary rules that demand shame, also known euphemistically as "modesty," from females.

Breastfeeding and "Public Indecency"

Women's breasts today are viewed presumptively as sexual and accordingly as dirty and taboo. Breasts cannot appear on television during the Superbowl, for example, without resulting in a firestorm of protest, an investigation, and a debate about just how offensive one might have a right to be, as a matter of free expression.

But breastfeeding is different from Janet Jackson's infamous performance, some would maintain. Even if it is "indecent" to bear one's breast in a sexual way, it is pure and beautiful to do so to feed a hungry baby.

Inhibiting nursing, moreover, forces mothers to choose between staying home and thus abandoning the public sphere, on the one hand, and giving up breastfeeding, on the other. That choice has far greater implications than does the decision about whether to expose one's nipples for entertainment value.

Yet the difference between the two has a decidedly mixed pedigree - it is the distinction between the Madonna and the whore.

The Madonna/Whore Divide

The Madonna and the whore literally refer, respectively, to Mary, the mother of Jesus, a woman who is believed by Christians to have conceived her son without any sexual interaction, and Mary Magdalene, a fallen woman whom Jesus befriended despite her status as a sinner. Because her maternity was unsullied by sexuality, Jesus's mother can be pictured breastfeeding in churches throughout the world without a hint of impropriety. Mary is in that sense a pioneer of public breastfeeding.

In feminist discourse, the "Madonna/whore" split describes the choice women were traditionally forced to make between being good girls - girls who are wholesome, remain virgins until marriage, and subsequently devote themselves to the private sphere - and bad girls - those who seek out sexual satisfaction and place their own fulfillment ahead of others'. The good girl was pure and innocent, while the bad girl was dirty, sinful, and sexy.

Other than Mary, mother of Jesus, however, few women - whether "good" or "bad" - can boast a virgin birth. Breasts, therefore, are a double-edged sword. If sexuality is suspect, then breastfeeding will be as well, no matter how devoted and self-negating the woman involved.

A Tactic for Breastfeeding Mothers: "In Your Face"

Anyone who wants to create wide-scale acceptance of public breastfeeding will therefore have to do more than change the law - which in many places already reflects the split between "whore breasts" (topless indecency, which is impermissible in public) and "Madonna breasts" (the exposure of which is protected). To avoid the dirty looks, breastfeeding women may have to expose the people around them to breastfeeding often enough for desensitization to set in.

The same was and continues to be true for people's exposure to gay and lesbian couples, interracial couples, and people with disabilities. The need to saturate public consciousness to eliminate a taboo is well captured in the chant, "We're here! We're queer! Get used to it!" As long as nursing outside the home is a novelty, the taboos will likely remain firmly in place.

For this reason, at least fifty nursing mothers appeared with their babies, ready to breastfeed, at the Esplanade in Singapore a few weeks ago. The women were engaged in a form of protest, reacting to an incident in which a security guard there was reported to have asked a nursing mother to leave the premises.

As long as people see public breastfeeding as taboo or a curiosity, there will be those who either explicitly or subtly drive nursing women into the dark recesses of their lives, regardless of the law. It takes an "in your face" approach, like that adopted by the women in Singapore, to counter that pressure.

Not that many years ago, otherwise tolerant people would say that gay couples could do what they wanted behind closed doors but that they didn't have to "flaunt" their relationships by holding hands or kissing in public. It turned out, however, that flaunting was exactly what was needed. It is hard to be shocked by something you see on a daily basis.

Private Breastfeeding Is a Luxury

The other side of the argument is that breastfeeding is private. If offered a choice, for example, I would prefer to use a comfortable nursing room to feed my baby than to do it in full view of strangers at a museum. Part of this preference is the reality that I can avoid perverts and misogynists best when I am alone with my child.

As one U.K. commentator put it, however, "there are a thousand places a mother may find herself when a baby demands - absolutely demands - food, and if she feels she has to be running for the nearest cubby hole, or toilet cubicle, she may decide it is simply not worth the hassle - whether it is better for baby or not."

Privacy is accordingly a luxury that mothers and their babies (and those who would rather not see them engaged in breastfeeding) can ill afford.


Sherry F. Colb, a FindLaw columnist, is Professor and Judge Frederick B. Lacey Scholar at Rutgers Law School-Newark. Her earlier columns may be found in the archive of her work on this site.

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