Although medical professionals and organizations promote breastfeeding as the healthiest choice for women and infants, the increasing number of controversial news stories about breastfeeding indicate that our culture is still plagued by quite a few antiquated and sexist notions that are taking a toll on mothers and babies.
A nationwide “nurse-in” protest at Target stores is being staged by breastfeeding mothers in direct response to a Michelle Hickman’s claim that she was harassed while trying to sit down and nurse her child in a Target store by several employees, and also on the phone by the manager when she called to complain. Target employees in the Webster, TX store allegedly told Hickman that she was indecently exposed and may be subject to police writing her a ticket (which is false, breastfeeding is legal in public), and tried to force her to move either into the dressing room or to barricade herself against a jeans display with her shopping cart. According to Ms. Hickman, when the manager was contacted by telephone, Hickman claims the manager justified the actions of the employees, saying “just because it’s a woman’s legal right to nurse a baby in public doesn’t mean she should walk around the store flaunting it”, and that nursing a baby was not suitable to the family-friendly environment of Target stores. Hickman had actually seated herself on the store floor, somewhat behind a clothing rack, so that she could nurse and comfort her four-month-old son. Women attending the protest plan to participate by publicly nursing their babies in Target stores across the U.S. in a show of support for Michelle Hickman and all other breastfeeding mothers who have experienced harassment for the “crime” of prioritizing the needs of their child over the potential discomfort of strangers.
The Target incident is not the only public breastfeeding story to make nationwide news, nor is it the first, or even the second time that accusations of this nature have been made specifically against Target employees. In 2006, a complaint was made against a Target employee at a Minneapolis MN store. The employee repeatedly knocked on a fitting room door, insisting that the mother who was breastfeeding quietly a fitting room leave because breastfeeding her child was “unsanitary”, also demanding that the mother take her infant to the restroom and nurse there. Just as in the most recent complaint, the store manager supported the offending employee, although Target corporate representatives favored the opinion of the complainant and offered an official apology.
Another incident occurred at a Target store in Harper Woods, MI, during which employees called police to escort a Mary Martinez, her newborn infant, and her husband Jose Martinez (a Detroit police officer) out of the store. The couple were told that they must leave the store because breastfeeding in a public place was illegal, a fact which Mr. Martinez knew to be entirely untrue as an officer of the law. Ms. Martinez complained that such a spectacle had been made of her attempt to nurse her child, which she was within her legal rights to do, that she was too uncomfortable and humiliated to shop again at the store. Target has released a nearly identical formal statement in the aftermath of all three incidents, stating:
“Target has a long-standing practice that supports breastfeeding in our stores. We apologize for any inconvenience the guest experienced and will take this opportunity to reaffirm this commitment with our team members. For guests in our stores, we support the use of fitting rooms for women who wish to breastfeed their babies, even if others are waiting to use the fitting rooms. In addition, guests who choose to breastfeed discreetly in more public areas of the store are welcome to do so without being made to feel uncomfortable.“ – Target Corporate written statement in response to the Minneapolis incident, 2006
Other stories about poor reactions to public breastfeeding have circulated through national news this year. Attorney Simone dos Santos was nursing her child under a jacket in the corridor of a Washington, D.C. federal building when two security guards told her she must stop or leave, because she was indecently exposed. Upon calling another attorney in her firm, she learned that the guards had no right whatsoever to stop her from nursing or eject her from the premises. Two other women, one in Michigan and another in Arkansas, were publicly reprimanded in front of court attendees for breastfeeding while covered in courtrooms.
In most states, public breastfeeding is entirely legal. Some states bear certain requirements for mothers to breastfeed in public, but no state actually prohibits the practice. Large corporations, like Target, are at the ready with public statements and apologies because harassment of a nursing woman teeters menacingly on the edge of sexual harassment. In any other setting, the judgmental and offensive comments often directed at women who are breastfeeding would likely result in sexual harassment charges and lawsuits.
It is reasonable to assume that with the shame that some people attempt to heave upon women who find themselves needing to feed their child in public, nursing mothers may feel that to label the harassment as “sexual” means to agree with the other person’s over-sexualization of breasts and breastfeeding. Under this assumption, it should come as no surprise that mothers who breastfeed aren’t willing to acknowledge this infringement of their legal rights as sexual harassment, lest they find themselves inadvertently sexualizing the act and lending validity to the idea that breastfeeding is somehow obscene.
It is both cowardly and illegal to harass a woman who is engaged in the act of breastfeeding her child. A nursing mother must focus on feeding and soothing the infant at her breast, making her an easy target for verbal harassment because she’s too busy being a good mother to fight back and risk upsetting the baby. It was not so long ago in our cultural past that people reacted to interracial couples with the same vitriol that one finds directed today at breastfeeding mothers. Only time and social habituation by way of repeated exposure to breastfeeding as a normal, common practice, can heal this wound that our society is inflicting upon itself. The woefully low breastfeeding rates in the U.S are largely due to the sort of ignorance that freely permits the shaming and humiliation of women for the natural gifts of their own bodies.
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