A recent incident on a Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus has set off a surge of advocacy efforts in support of the right of mothers to breastfeed in public places. On June 16, a PVTA driver asked a woman to stop nursing her baby daughter. When she refused, he insisted that she, the baby, and her 7-year-old son get off the bus.
In January, Massachusetts enacted a law protecting a woman’s right to breastfeed in any public place. Groups like the Amherst-based MotherWoman www.motherwoman.org and the Pioneer Valley Breastfeeding Task Force www.valleybreastfeeding.org helped win passage of the law. Now they’re working to educate the public about the law.
“These are highly educated, empowered women this is happening to. They’re humiliated and embarrassed by this,” said Melanie DeSilva, director of MotherWoman. “They’re aware of the law and their rights, but what about women who aren’t educated, who aren’t aware of their rights?”
DeSilva said MotherWoman does not take a position on breastfeeding, or any other aspect of parenting. “It’s our job to make sure women have all options available. We want all mothers to be informed so they can make their own choices.”
MomsRising, the organization’s political arm, stepped in to advocate for Sara Howard of Belchertown, the woman involved in the June 16 incident. MomsRising is also working to help another nursing mother who was asked to leave the Northampton YMCA pool in March. The YMCA incident has yet to be resolved. PVTA, on the other hand, responded swiftly and took immediate action.
By June 17, PVTA’s general manager had reviewed the bus’s security tape and determined that the driver “clearly should not have gotten into a verbal confrontation” with the nursing mom, PVTA spokesperson Jill Holliday told the Valley Post. “What he did was incorrect.”
PVTA bus. photo by Rachel Mangieri
Subsequently, Holliday said, the bus driver and the general manager apologized, and PVTA changed its driver handbook and training procedures to include breastfeeding awareness and sensitivity.
La Leche League www.llli.org is an international organization that provides breastfeeding support. Maria Polino, a leader of the Amherst group, said she was happy with PVTA’s response to the June 16 incident. She said she had called to inform the company of the law and got a prompt response on her voicemail. “It was one of the nicest messages I’ve ever gotten,” Polino said.
MotherWoman’s DeSilva said the fight for the right to breastfeed in public is part of the larger struggle for women’s rights. “Women’s bodies are somehow public domain,” she said. “There is lots of public judgment on moms, so that even perfect strangers feel somehow entitled to give parenting advice.”
A common theme in discussions among those who support the right to breastfeed in public is society’s sexualization of women, particularly of breasts. Echoing a sentiment expressed by many women, Beth Moonstone, an Amherst midwife and mother of three, said, “Marketing and advertising have made sexual images acceptable,” but those images are distortions of reality. “There’s a lack of healthy exposure to what normal birth is like, what normal parenting is like,” she said. “As a culture, we don’t talk about it. Moms get support from moms, but young people don’t get exposed to what’s normal. They see distorted images that are used to sell products.”
(“Generation M: Misogyny in Media and Culture” is one of many award-winning documentary films on this subject produced by the Northampton-based Media Education Foundation www.mediaed.org.)
Another local mom, Liz Rosenberg, told the Valley Post that, in 2006 in Northampton, an employee at a store in Thorne’s Marketplace prohibited her from breastfeeding in the store. At the time, the state’s breastfeeding law wasn’t yet on the books and businesses could make their own rules. “It shocked me in the moment when it happened,” Rosenberg said.
Tanya Lieberman, a lactation consultant, is president of the Pioneer Valley Breastfeeding Task Force. Lieberman agreed that cultural sexualization of women’s breasts is at the root of the problem and said it’s important to focus on the needs of babies. “The more people understand the importance of breastfeeding for the baby’s health and development, and the mother’s health, the more normal it becomes,” she said.
She added that the Valley seems to be moving in that direction, citing a breastfeeding initiation rate at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton of 90 percent. This means that 9 out of 10 babies born at the hospital are breastfeeding when they go home.
But there are still problems when it comes to continued nursing. “I talked to a mother recently for whom breastfeeding was going beautifully, but she stopped because she was so afraid of the disapproval she might get,” Lieberman said.
The best way to counter that negative perception, said MotherWoman’s DeSilva, is by “providing the strongest support possible to help mothers start nursing and continue to nurse. As nursing rates go up, there will be an inevitable social shift. We have to make sure every mother who wants to nurse will be supported from the get-go.”
It’s essential to have public education at many levels, including professional education for medical and social services staff who work with postpartum women, she said.
Maria Polino said that education can start early, with young children, who should be taught that nursing is the norm for humans, not an aberration. She said it would help if more picture books showed nursing as a normal part of daily family life, and if more toy companies produced dolls without bottles.
Direct action is being taken by organizations and individuals in the Valley. MotherWoman has business cards printed with “Massachusetts License to Breastfeed” and a summary of the new law on one side and contact information on the other. Along with numbers for breastfeeding help, the card lists numbers for the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination—the agency that nursing moms can call to lodge a complaint if they’re harassed.
The cards prominently display the international breastfeeding symbol www.breastfeedingsymbol.org which is also on window stickers being distributed to local businesses and sold on the Pioneer Valley Breastfeeding Task Force website. They say simply, “Breastfeeding welcome here.”
Ongoing advocacy efforts include letter-writing campaigns, blogs, training and education programs, and support groups. Just as important, the women interviewed for this article pointed out, is for nursing mothers to not give in to misguided attitudes. For things to change, they say, more people need to see nursing as normal—on a bus, in a store, at the park, anywhere mothers and babies go.
Change takes time, but it does come. In an interview with the Valley Post, Sara Howard, the woman on the PVTA bus, put her experience in perspective like this: “Fifty years ago,” she said, “someone of color might have been told not to sit at the front of the bus.”