"Who wants to feed their child in a bathroom stall?" That was the question of the hour at an April 4 meeting of the Seattle City Council's civil rights committee—a question posed by Leticia Brooks, a young mother. Behind her, a crowd of mothers discreetly nursed their children and patiently awaited their chance to speak. "Would you eat your lunch in a public restroom?" Brooks then asked committee chair Bruce Harrell, along with Council Members Nick Licata and Mike O'Brien. The men were silent. O'Brien meekly shook his head. But, as Brooks explained, she was recently forced to do just that—feed her hungry son in a public restroom—after someone complained about seeing her nursing in a restaurant. "When I think back to that moment, sitting on that toilet and feeding my child, my heart breaks," she said.
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Brooks is just one of many mothers who shared stories of being kicked out of restaurants, malls, even public parks by strangers who felt entitled to tell them when, and where, they could feed their children. "I was told by a stranger to go nurse in my car," another mother said. She didn't own a car. "It was humiliating—it made me want to give up on breast-feeding."
In recent weeks, these mothers, along with a crowd of doctors and nutritionists, have pushed the council to make breast-feeding in public a protected civil right by arguing that nursing lowers child obesity rates, infection rates, and chronic diseases, while improving a mother's mental and physical health (lowering breast- and ovarian-cancer risks, for example). They also pointed out that breast-feeding has been linked with reducing infant mortality rates.
On April 9, breast-feeding advocates scored their victory, as the council unanimously approved legislation making breast-feeding mothers a protected class in Seattle. Harrell, the legislation's sponsor, has dismissed scattered opposition from sexed-up residents who squawked about the salaciousness of seeing a woman's bare breast, saying simply, "This is a civil rights issue."
While its passage is certainly great news, the ordinance doesn't cover new ground. Forty-five states have breast-feeding laws that allow women to breast-feed in public, including Washington, which passed such a law in 2009. However, as the women's testimony has proved, most people aren't aware of the law or complaints go unresolved. Abigail Echo-Hawk, a spokeswoman for Seattle Women's Commission, estimates that she's heard of at least 70 local discrimination complaints from mothers simply while lobbying for the new city ordinance.
Where state law has come up short, Harrell's legislation gives local government new authority to enforce the rules.
The new ordinance, which will likely take effect in May, will allow mothers to lodge discrimination complaints with the Seattle Office for Civil Rights, which will then investigate the alleged discriminatory businesses and collect statements from the mothers and witnesses. If the city finds a violation, it could impose fines of $750 or more, consistent with any other city discrimination charge (such as discrimination based on gender, race, or sexual orientation), and require that a business complete sensitivity training. In addition, a mother could seek claims of up to $10,000 in Seattle Municipal Court.
"It's not a sexy issue," says Harrell, but it's absolutely necessary. "It's our job to educate people, to make them see that this is the original purpose of the mammary glands—of the breast."
Clearly, people need that education: "I do not wish to sit in a public place for which I am probably paying such as a restaurant and have someone breast-feed without being covered up," one woman wrote in an e-mail to city council members, while comparing breast-feeding to indecent exposure. "What is the big deal about covering up?"
The Washington State Human Rights Commission (WSHRC), which is tasked with investigating state claims of breast-feeding discrimination, has received only three complaints from nursing mothers since 2009, who say they were ordered to stop breast-feeding while in a physical rehabilitation office in Mill Creek, at Sol Duc Hot Springs, and, bizarrely, at a day care center in Long Beach (lest the sight of a woman's bare breast spark an infant orgy). Only one of those cases has been resolved, with a $5,000 savings bond in the baby's name and training for the business. And more than anything, the low complaint rate speaks to the commission's current cash-strapped state. The WSHRC has recently laid off workers and closed its Seattle office; numerous calls to contact a spokesperson either reached disconnected numbers or went unreturned. (I can only imagine that lodging a complaint with the commission would be equally trying.)
In contrast, the Seattle Office for Civil Rights has staff to investigate claims and educate the public. Harrell and the civil rights office deserve a lifetime supply of free milk shakes for pinpointing this weakness in state law and working hard to reinforce protections for local women.