Breastfeeding in Public and Women’s Equality

Breastfeeding in Public and Women’s Equality March 11, 2018

Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Kelda Roys produced an ad in which she can be seen breastfeeding her baby, so of course there is the usual internet noise about public breastfeeding being immodest.

The thing about this particular instance is that most of the usual complaints are not available. Generally when a video or image of a breastfeeding mother circulates, the critics will carry on about how there’s too much showing, that the breasts are on display, that “lactivists” are forcing innocent children to look at boobs.

But in this ad there is literally no skin showing at any point. Roys continues to look like a serious human being while she feeds her child. She goes on talking about politics and democracy. The camera is angled so that her clothing and the baby completely cover up everything. The claim that the issue is that men are seeing breasts is completely ridiculous: men are seeing exactly the same thing that I am seeing, namely a fully dressed woman in a soft pink sweater and the back of a baby’s head.

And yet the critics are not mollified. Apparently no matter how much a woman covers up, breastfeeding remains an immodest display.

It’s really obvious at this point that the issue isn’t really about modesty at all. The problem is not that men are just being driven mad with desire every time they see a woman nursing her infant. And if you read the comments on conservative news sites, you can see what a huge part of the problem really is: normalizing public breastfeeding normalizes mothers’ participation in public life.

Because Roys doesn’t show any skin, the focus moves away from the supposed spectacle of her body to her responsibility to be at home, in private, looking after her children away from the male world of politics. She should not be seen to be breastfeeding in public not because she will turn men on, but because motherhood is something that is supposed to isolate women and their children within the private sphere.

Male dominated work cultures are happy to tolerate women provided the women can function like males. Masculinity is normative. Femininity is exceptional. At best, motherhood can be “accommodated,” like a disability. At worst professional women are expected not to become mothers at all. My sister’s class was actually told by a female instructor at law school that the young women should freeze their eggs if they wanted to have kids – because otherwise they would never succeed in the law.

What Roys so scandalously demonstrates is that we don’t need to have a culture where motherhood is isolating. A breastfeeding women can, in fact, participate in social life while also caring for and nurturing her child.

Roys is in the middle of a broadcast. She’s doing the kind of work that professional people do all the time. Her baby is hungry. There’s a brief interruption during which she deftly settles and latches the infant (without flashing any skin), and then she goes on talking about her work to ban BPAs.

This is not the image of a breastfeeding woman that our culture is most comfortable with: the dewy eyed woman who is totally emotionally and physically absorbed in her child, locked away in a private and intimate world. This is an image of a competent, adult human being continuing to perform normal adult tasks while at the same time, almost incidentally, feeding an infant.

Nearly forty years ago John Paul II wrote that “There is no doubt that the equal dignity and responsibility of men and women fully justifies women’s access to public functions. On the other hand the true advancement of women requires that clear recognition be given to the value of their maternal and family role, by comparison with all other public roles and all other professions. Furthermore, these roles and professions should be harmoniously combined, if we wish the evolution of society and culture to be truly and fully human.”

Roys is demonstrating, in a small way, what that harmonious combination might look like in practice: how a woman’s access to public functions can be compatible with her maternal role. Her ad gives a small snapshot of how the world might be if we allowed mothers to actually participate while still being mothers.

This opens up the possibility that maybe we could resolve the work-life crisis that women face by changing the way that we think about work, about professional behaviour, and about the place of children in society. And Roys is doing it in a field (politics) that is overwhelmingly dominated by masculine privilege and male modes of exercising power.

This, I think, is what is really scary to conservative masculinity. The purported burdens that a women’s participation in the workforce places on her ability to mother properly has always been the frontline argument against women’s equality. A professional woman breastfeeding in a professional context challenges the assumption that the opposition between success and motherhood is necessary, natural or inevitable.

Image credit: pixabay

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