Creating a Space for (Talking About) Breastfeeding in Public

Breastfeeding protest outside California restaurant Women protest outside a restaurant that asked two mothers who were breastfeeding to move or leave. Photo / Josh Ward (CC)

By Amanda Barnes Cook — June 24, 2014

Amanda Barnes Cook
Amanda Barnes Cook

When I took Intro to Child Development as a clueless 19-year-old, it took me by surprise when the professor stood in front of a room of 100-plus undergraduates and told a story about her personal experience breastfeeding her children. She then asked us to get into small groups and discuss how long we thought babies should be breastfed.

I remember turning to my neighbor and saying, “I dunno. When do babies get teeth?”

At the time, I never gave this lesson a second thought. But looking back, I realize how meaningful this lecture was. It was brave of the professor to talk about her own breastfeeding in front of a class of not-quite adults. She could easily have left it off of the curriculum, but she made us all stop and think about something that most of us had never given any thought to before.

Fast forward to 2009: I am a graduate student teaching a class about John Stuart Mill’s “On the Subjection of Women.”In our discussion, I need an example of how women in the workplace are faced with difficult and constrained choices.

“It’s like women who want to breastfeed,” I say. “Breastfeeding women need to pump milk if they’re away from their babies. So if they’re at work, they need to take breaks to pump. That might mean that they need to stay at work later because of all of the breaks they needed to take to pump.”

I stop talking, wait for response. The class, chatty and thoughtful until this moment, is silent. Crickets.

I elaborate for a moment to try to get them talking. More crickets.

The invisibility of breastfeeding women conferred by the discomfort of others is itself an act of oppression.

A male student finally speaks up, in a too-loud nervous voice, “SO! How ‘bout them Tarheels?” The class responds with nervous laughter.

That moment was a defining one for me. I was, of course, shocked that my students were incapable of having a frank conversation about something so mundane. But I was also struck by the injustice of it: that the real struggles of women’s lives cannot be discussed in a public forum. That because this issue makes people uncomfortable, we fail to deal with it. That the invisibility of breastfeeding women conferred by the discomfort of others is itself an act of oppression.

A few years later, at which point I was a breastfeeding mother myself, Adrienne Pine, a professor at American University, made headlines for breastfeeding her infant daughter during a lecture. A single mother, Pine had a sick baby and no child care, so she brought her to class — an anthropology course, Sex, Gender & Culture — and when her daughter became restless, Pine put her to her breast and kept teaching.

This incident ignited debate and attracted national attention. Pine told CNN:

Frankly I felt, and I continue to feel, that the most professional thing I could do was to carry out the class with as few as possible interruptions. Leaving class for 10 minutes would have been a serious interruption for my students. And I also feel that since I’ve been breastfeeding in public in every place possible — in buses, on planes — I didn’t realize the degree to which people are afraid of breasts in this country and in particular, in the workplace.

One male student sent sarcastic tweets about it and told the Washington Post: “I found it unprofessional. I was kind of appalled.”

He said he dropped the class. His disgusted shock did not surprise me, given that I had witnessed my own students’ transformation into clammy statues at the mere mention of breastfeeding.

What is going on here? In our culture, breastfeeding seems incompatible with having a public life. If we want to challenge that view, we need to normalize breastfeeding.

College professors are in a unique position to do this, since breastfeeding can be discussed in many different departments and used as an example for so many different issues. Let’s remind students, during what may very well be the height of their objectification of women and of their glorification of frivolous sex, that breasts have a purpose, and that sex produces hungry babies as well as orgasms.

I haven’t had a chance to breastfeed in front of a classroom yet. Until then, I will be satisfied with prompting as many “SO! How ‘bout them Tarheels?” outbursts as possible.

Amanda Barnes Cook is a PhD Candidate in political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her dissertation explores breastfeeding, feminism and the state.

One response to “Creating a Space for (Talking About) Breastfeeding in Public”

  1. Wonderful post, Amanda. Your observation about discomfort with public discussions about such significant difficulty experienced by women in the workplace is bang on. Until breastfeeding is something that children see as normal, and experience as normal – until it is part of K-12 curriculum – we will continue to see this huge gap between what young men and women believe parenthood is all about, and the reality of parenthood.

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