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He Said, She Said - Breastfeeding in Public

Looking for The Lactivist? She's retired. But you CAN still find Jen blogging. These days, she's runs A Flexible Life. Join her for life, recipes, projects and the occasional rant.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Every now and then I run across an article on breastfeeding in public that makes me wonder. Now I've already made it VERY clear here that I do not support breastfeeding laws that include language like "discreet" or "covered" or anything else that leaves things open to judgement...because really, who gets to define discreet?

At the same time, I don't like the idea of a woman nursing her child in public with an entire breast exposed. Sure, it's her right, but I think it sets back the movement by creating backlash against nursing moms. Now I would never tell a mom that she should stop, nor would I shoot her a dirty look because who knows, she could be a new mom that's still learning how to nurse. She could also be someone trying to make a point and as much as I think these people are rare, I don't doubt that there are a few women in the world that WOULD expose themselves purposely just to make a point. I disagree with their methods, but hey, still their right to do it.

That said, it's been my experience that moms work to show absolutely as little as possible while they nurse. Yes, I hear stories online all the time about women 'whipping it out' (I hate that phrase) to nurse, but I've NEVER seen this. At most, you might see a quarter inch of breast if the mom's shirt isn't quite pulled down to baby's nose. Heck, my own son will occasionally grab hold of my shirt and try to lift it up a bit more. It's fun for him. ;) Not so much for me, but you do what you gotta do.

So what's with that rant? Well, a reader sent me a story today out of Cullman, Alabama. Apparently, Elizabeth McDowell was nursing her child in Johnny's Barbecue last week when she alleges that one of the employees put a dirty dish towel over her six month old son's head as he ate. (Ohh...you want to talk about something that would earn you a whippin...I would have been absolutely furious.) The owner's side of the story is that the woman was exposing her entire breast and that many of his patrons were complaining.

It gets a little more confusing, at least based on the news story that I could find online...

Becky Smalley, a Johnny's Barbecue Employee, said she was at work when McDowell was feeding her child. She said the woman exposed most of her breast. Smalley and her daughter-in-law, Katrina James, argued with McDowell outside the restaurant.

"Why would you do it?" Smalley asked.

McDowell replied "you can't breast feed yourself."

McDowell said she wants to encourage people who are offended by public breast-feeding to first approach mothers verbally, and to never act aggressively toward the mother or child.

"It is a mother's protected right to breast-feed her child in any public or private place where she is allowed to be," she said in a prepared statement. "For the upset person to take matters into their own hands is frightening and unacceptable."

I can't for the life of me figure out what McDowell meant by her "You can't breast feed yourself" comment. I don't know if it's just bad reporting or if she said it and it just didn't make sense. Does she mean that Smalley isn't able to breastfeed or that a woman can't nurse from her own breast? I would assume she probably meant the former, but even if she did, what point would that make?

I also can't really get behind the idea of "encouraging" people to approach mothers verbally if they are offended by public breastfeeding. I'd personally encourage people to look the other way and mind their own business if they don't like public breastfeeding. It's what I do if I don't like something that someone else is doing. Never seemed all that difficult to me.

That said, this part of the article really stood out to me and seems to really represent the views held by a lot of people.

I call this "lip service."

James said she is the mother of an infant, and that she doesn't have a problem with public breast-feeding as long as women are discrete.

"I just don't think you should do it in the middle of a restaurant where people are eating," she said.

How can you say you don't have a problem with public breastfeeding and then follow it up by saying that you shouldn't do it in public? Or is it ok to do it in public but not if anyone else is eating? Because apparently a child enjoying their meal suddenly makes you unable to enjoy your own?

Disappointing to see that only three mothers showed up to support this woman.

To note, Alabama is a state that has laws that specifically make it legal for a mother to breastfeed in public. However, as I've explained in the past, these laws do NOT override the ability of a business owner to refuse service to someone, they simply keep a mother from being prosecuted for nursing. Thus, if a business owner wants to, they can call the police and claim that the mother and child are trespassing and refusing to leave their property. In other words, sure, it's legal to breastfeeding in public, but it's just as legal to ask someone to leave, cover up, etc.

We still have a long way to go.

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  1. Blogger Shay | 3:07 PM |  

    As a women who was nursing in public today and was asked if I had a blanket, this bugs me. I try to show as little as possible, I'm not feeding my baby to show off. He won't eat under a blanket and I don't know why many would.

  2. Blogger Jamie | 3:57 PM |  

    I'm a new reader and have never posted a comment. But I agree that her response "you can't breast feed yourself" is a little confusing... but I was assuming she meant that her child can't breastfeed themselves, she has to do it, which is why she had take her breast out (however 'out' that was) in order to do it. Does that make any sense?
    Anyways - love the blog!!!

  3. Anonymous Jenn | 4:07 PM |  

    It kills me that people have a problem with breastfeeding in a restaurant in general. If I can eat there, why can't my boys? If anything I think that is one of the most appropriate places in public to nurse.

  4. Anonymous Anonymous | 9:28 AM |  

    Ugh, that whole "breastfeeding is great, but it's gross and no one wants to see it!" stance just burns me to the core. Let's make up our minds people! *eyeroll*


  5. Anonymous Jake Marcus | 12:27 PM |  

    Just a legal clarification: the problem with Alabama's statute (and those like it) is that it does not have an enforcement provision (unlike, say, Vermont). If someone violates your right to breastfeed in public, there is nowhere for you to file a complaint. The distinction you are making, Jen, is about whether the statute applies to public accomodations. "[A]ny place she has a right to be" language usually encompasses public accomodations, such as restaurants and shopping malls. Some statutes go so far as to explicitly include public accomodations in the statute or use the term "any place, public or private,...."

    I don't read Alabama's statute to allow the restaurant owner to have the right to throw her out or have her arrested for trespass. The problem is that the statute gives her no cause of action against the restaurant for violating her right to breastfeed. In this fact pattern, what she does have is an action for assault and I hope she pursues it.

    Jake Marcus, J.D.

  6. Blogger Jennifer | 1:53 PM |  

    Jake, I'd love some more perspective on this.

    As I understand it, unless the law has a provision for "punishment" if someone interfears with a mom breastfeeding in public (say, puts a fine in place, jail time, whatever) then there's no legal recourse if a mom is interfeared with unless she is physically assaulted.

    Thus, the law protects her from being prosecuted if she nurses in public.

    However, since breastfeeding is not a "protected class" and since businesses have the right to refuse service to anyone, this would mean that a business owner has the right to refuse service to a mother that is breastfeeding. Since s/he can refuse service, they would also be allowed to charge them with tresspassing if they refuse to leave when asked by the owner.

    I thought this was how the Texas theatre got away with having the mom arrested when she refused to leave. Something about the breastfeeding statute being in the health code...and it thus "ranking lower" than the right of someone to refuse service?

    I was under the impression that this was why there was a push to add breastfeeding as a protected class under the civil rights act?

    If I'm wrong, I'd appreciate it if you could explain it for both my readers and I. I know it varies by state, but I really thought that unless there was something in the bill that outlined a legal counter-action for the mom, then there really wasn't much she could do if she was tossed (other than setup nurse-ins of course.)

  7. Anonymous Jake Marcus | 2:52 PM |  

    I know this can be confusing. The change proposed by U.S. Rep. Maloney to amend federal law to include breastfeeding within the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, thus making breastfeeding women a protected class like pregnant women (and race and sex), would unquestionably be the best way to go. With one swoop, by making a protected class, the law would make discrimination both unlawful and actionable in ALL environments so discrimination in provision of services (like child care) would be covered in addition to NIP. The individual state laws both create protection against prosecution and against discrimination but only in certain environments. The state laws also need to specifically add enforcement provisions to give a woman a cause of action. I don't know about the Texas case you make reference to so I don't know what argument was made there. The Alabama statute says "in any location, public or private" which clearly covers public accomodations which is private property open to the public. Texas law does not have the "public or private" language and its law is part of the health code (which the Alabama law is not though frankly I don't see why that would make any difference) but I would be surprised and saddened if there had been a successful arrest on a private property argument because of that. There is no question, however, that the state has the ability to pass law limiting the private property rights of public accomodation owners even if a protected class is not involved.

    Now the enforcement provisions can provide for a fine or simply for an order to stop the discrimination (injunctive relief) or can create a cause of action (a way of suing). But without an enforcement provision, she has to look to other areas of the law to take legal action and the protection (depending on how the discrimination took place) may not be there. Yes, she probably has a claim if she is touched which in most states is assault or battery. She may also (again depending on state law) sue for infliction of emotional distress. For example, I had a case in which a mom had been nursing a child while her older child was taking a class in a non-profit community center. The teacher said offensive things to her and yelled at her in front of a large group of people. Since we are in a state with no breastfeeding law at all, I wrote to the Board of the non-profit threatening to sue for infliction of emotional distress. Frankly we would probably have lost but it would have been embarassing and expensive for the non-profit to litigate it so they settled. Mom got an apology in writing and the center posted a policy clarifying that breastfeeding was allowed on the premises.

    Aside from other enforcement, like the one I used, being difficult, most moms can not pay a lawyer to bring a lawsuit. Breastfeeding statute enforcement provisions often have (and should always have) the right to recover attorneys fees or a way to file a complaint without a lawyer.

    Does that make the distinction more clear? There is an old legal adage, "A right without a remedy is not right at all." That is most definitely true with regard to breastfeeding laws.


  8. Blogger Becky Miller | 3:40 PM |  

    I assumed the same thing as Jamie...that the woman meant her child couldn't breastfeed him/herself, so she had to feed the baby, which involved exposing part of her breast.

  9. Blogger Rixa | 5:27 PM |  

    I'm one of those women who occasionally have the "whole thing" exposed. It just depends on what shirt I'm wearing that day. I have a few gorgeous shirts with empire waists that criss-cross in the front, and you just pull the side across to expose the breast. It's inevitable with those shirts that you'll see more.

    If I'm wearing a normal shirt that I pull up to nurse, you see much less.

    I don't make a fuss about it either way. I simply feed my baby, and if more or less is showing, I don't worry about it.

    I heartily agree that "breastfeeding is OK but you should be discreet" really means "breastfeeding is not OK."

  10. Anonymous Lisa- Unschooling Resources | 8:52 PM |  

    When you are nursing a toddler there is going to be exposed breast. They lift and pull down your shirt and latch and unlatch or sometimes turn there head and forget to unlatch and you get a Gumby-esque nipple..
    Most women really arent into exposing there breast all over the place- maybe discreet isn;t the word- modest maybe better. Do I want the group of teenage boys at the mall to see my 40 year old- breast-feeding for almost 10 years old - desperatly need a breast lift- size EE breasts?? NO WAY! Has it happened? Yup.
    I do have a couple of acquaintances who go to great lengths to make sure EVERYONE knows they are nursing. One will wear a button down shirt, unbutton all the way to both breast are exposed when tandem nursing- she is basically topless. She is very dramatic- and has "look at me" approach to everything. She is also an actress. She really does challenge people to say something and they do often- and she makes an even bigger scene.
    Maybe the celebratory way she nurses her children is the way to go.. I don't know.

    My stance is to "normalize" breastfeeding as much as possible.
    People who are upset by public breastfeeding have their own hangups and probably have not been exposed to it often. It is curious that is women who are most often offended- and not men- many times I have been nursing and a man doesn't even know whats going on.

    Just by making it a part of everyday living is probably the only way it will become normalized and accepted.

  11. Anonymous twood | 10:21 PM |  

    Before I became a breastfeeding mother, I would use that "so long as they're discreet" line too. Then I had a hard time figuring out HOW to actually be discreet when nursing. I haven't really figured it out entirely yet either! The about 2x I've tried the blanket thing it didn't really work, so I gave up. I think those "discreet" people have never really been around a breastfeeding mother to know how difficult/impractical it is for some.

  12. Blogger Jennifer | 5:39 AM |  

    Jake, Thanks so much for that extended explanation. It's hard to follow all the exact details of how these things can be handled, but I think your summary line of "a right without a remedy is no right at all" really comes into play here.

    Lisa, See, things like that (your friend wearing a button down shirt in order to make it dead clear what she's doing) goes beyond my way of thinking.

    I mean I guess I get the idea of "look, this is normal, so shut up and deal with it" line of thinking, and she's totally right in tinking that...but I also can't see how that helps advance the cause. In fact, I think it sets us back to the "you have to do that in private" or "you have to cover it up" responses because she's doing exactly what 99% of nursing moms say doesn't happen.

    A common counter argument to "you have to be discreet" is "are you kidding me? Nursing moms are pretty much always as discreet as possible, we don't want to show it all off."

    Hard to make that argument there though.

    Now again, it's her right to do it and far be it from me to tell her to nurse differently if that's how she's comfortable nursing, but at the same time, I can't help but think "that doesn't really help us..." and "why go out LOOKING for a fight?"

  13. Anonymous Meggan | 5:30 PM |  

    Thank you for this post and this discussion! A friend and I were at a restaurant a couple of weeks ago, both nursing, and talking about what we would do if someone asked us to cover up or leave. Thankfully, neither of us has ever been approached in a negative way, and we both NIP quite often. I was saying I'd like to learn more about the laws in our state. I know MD does have legislation, but I had no idea that a business owner could still refuse service to a bf mom. And I still kind of can't believe it.


  14. Blogger Jessica Yanow | 2:11 PM |  

    i'm a new reader also. i'm so offended that people even think that my child should have less of a right to eat in a public place than a bottlefed child. I have to say that since my son was born (8 weeks ago), we've had a number of out of town relatives visiting, and I've nursed at every single restaurant we've gone too. I am so thankful to have supportive family and friends who would gladly tell someone to shove it if they actually told me that i couldn't nurse there. i do try to cover up the best I can, but I agree w/ the previous post about the reality that things don't always work that way. And even though I prefer to attempt to expose as little of myself as possible (I got a hooter hider, which works well, but my son still fusses under it sometimes), I support the right of other women to breastfeed in public in whatever manner is most comfortable for them. So that's my rant. So glad I found your blog.

  15. Blogger Jenny | 5:26 AM |  

    I live in Alabama and am glad that we have legislation stating the obvious, but we need a recourse if our right is violated. I am going through this mess right now at my very own church. They actually put up a big screen thingy around a rocking chair in the nursery for me to use. I told them that I would not use it and that they needed to remove it immediately because it is a safety hazard for all the babies crawling around in there. I have been a member at this church for over 10 years and I am not the only one who has nursed there. I only nurse in the nursery so I don't see what the problem is. I mean it is a place for meeting the needs of infants so one should assume that feeding them would be occurring in that environment. I am so hot about this, but how do I approach this in a Christ-like way when Christ most certainly never ran into anything like this? I am not wrong and I will not be banished in order to meet my baby's needs. It is those who complained that they "didn't want to see your breast" problem. I am not going to change their minds on that, I know. I will probably just put a note on the door and go on about my business. This all stemmed from an incident last week in the nursery. I was nursing my 9 month old and he was distracted by another child in the nursery, who might I add was too old for the nursery anyway. He popped off and turned around and I tried to cover up the best I could. There was the father of the child that distracted them there in the nursery and he was making rude juvenile comments to me and making me totally uncomfortable. I swear he sounded like he was 14 saying,"I am trying not to look!" Before I had even stopped nursing I had announced that my baby was hungry and I would be feeding him. This guy knows that I nurse so he had ample opportunity to leave if he was uncomfortable with it.

  16. Blogger Morgan Newton | 9:08 PM |  

    Elizabeth McDowell is my best friend. I have Eaten with her in several resturaunts where she has breastfed without a problem and she has never "exposed" herself. she is always careful and quick to get her nipple in her babys mouth. She almost always wears a nursing top and never shows more breast than some of the girls and women who wear tube tops. And yes this story was badly reported. And can someone please tell me why it is only women who have a problem with the issue of breast feeding? almost all the men look the other way and say they dont mind either way. In my opinion these women have self immage problems or some kind of sick sexual problem that makes it uncomfortable for them to see a woman nursing her baby. There is absolutely nothing sexual about breastfeeding. GET OVER IT and get a life!!

  17. Blogger Morgan Newton | 9:21 PM |  

    Oh and for Jenny and her church situation...Ask them how they think jesus was fed when he was a baby. they didnt have formula and bottles. and in the days of jesus there were plenty paintings and murals of women with exposed breasts. people werent perverted then. it was just a natural thing.

  18. Blogger Jennifer | 4:57 AM |  


    I'd take it to the minister and instead of going at it from the point of "people are upset that I'm breastfeeding" I'd go at it from the standpoint of YOU being concerned that men are so fixated on your breasts when all you are trying to do is nourish your child.

    I assume you aren't taking your shirt off or anything, lol, so the issue becomes about a man's immature comments and obsessions and not about anything that YOU are doing wrong.

    A good pastor should recognize that God's design is a thing of beauty and that just as a man can't follow you around making lewd or immature sexual comments about your ankles (because he loves ankles) he shouldn't be allowed to do it when you are breastfeeding.

    As the previous commenter pointed out, Jesus was breastfed. Most likely, he was breastfed in public. It's only been since the advent our modern obsession and sexualization with breasts that people have failed to understand that they have duel purpose.

    Your lips are used for both intimate and casual purposes. Do we obsess about covering up lips because we know that sometimes they are used for sexual purposes? (GASP!!!) No...because we understand that they are also used to speak, to eat and so on. They have a utilitarian function and when they are fulfilling it, no one notices or cares.

    Breastfeeding should be the same way. Especially in the house of the God who created it. ;)

  19. Anonymous Anonymous | 5:48 PM |  

    I'm so glad I found this. Yesturday at the swimming pool I was nursing my child and a lifeguard told me I needed to cover up and offered me a towel, how polite-not really! I was offended. I thought I had every right to nurse my child, which I do, I live in Utah which does have a law. But I wanted to know exaclty what my rights really are? I called the pool manager, which said the lifeguards are at liberty to do that if they feel it is necessary, I even called the facility manager who basically said I should be sensitive to others around me as others might be offended at me opening nursing my child. I was appauled at their responses. Do I have a right to be embarrassed? What about my child's right, should he be conceiled as well as my breast? What am I to do when I have to nurse my child at the pool and I am confronted again? What if they say I have to leave if I refuse to drape myself? I would like to know what my my course of action should be and if I have any legal/law support should I refuse? Thanks! Emily

  20. Blogger The Lactivist | 6:24 PM |  


    If you'd like some help, please feel free to email me so that we can discuss this. I'm checking into the way the law is written in Utah to see how much power it has behind it. (Some of the laws around the country lack any teeth...)

    Email me at jennifer at searchengineguide dot com.

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