COMPARED WITH other legislation concerning the female anatomy — such as, say, abortion and contraception — you might expect a benign bill affirming a woman’s right to breast-feed in public to sail through both houses. Certainly, the proponents did. After all, pediatricians like Barbara Philipp, of the Boston Medical Center, the only hospital in the state that’s designated "baby-friendly" for its comprehensive breast-feeding policies, can reel off lists of medical benefits. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) considers breast-feeding the "optimal form of nutrition" for infants and recommends that women nurse for at least one year. Simply put, the measure, in Philipp’s words, "is good for mothers and little babies. You can’t get better than that."
Indeed. At the same time, the legislation doesn’t amount to mere symbolism. Women who breast-feed in public often bump up against restrictions and outright hostility. Weston lactation consultant Marsha Walker, who serves on the Massachusetts Breast-feeding Coalition, a group of public and private health officials, has collected dozens of complaints from women who have been hassled in restaurants, parks, museums — even, as she wryly notes, "stores that sell baby clothes and cater to mothers." Breast-feeding moms have been ridiculed with mooing noises, kicked out of malls, and set upon by cops. All too often, she says, "Women hear, ‘You cannot do that here,’ which is why we need this ridiculous [breast-feeding] law in the first place."
Meet, for instance, Kara Wilson. The Amherst, New Hampshire, mother of three (who recently moved from her long-time home in Lowell) has grown accustomed to the fierce stares and self-righteous comments often faced by women who breast-feed in public. Her worst encounter was with a hostile gym manager in April 2001. She went to the World Gym, in Chelmsford, with her mother and her infant son, Josiah, who was seven months old at the time. While exercising on the treadmill, Wilson noticed her mother waving from the lobby, cradling a cranky Josiah. To calm him down, she sat on a bench along the back wall of the lobby and breast-fed him.
Within minutes, the gym manager approached. His eyes averted, the manager informed Wilson that she had to leave. "He said, ‘People might find that offensive,’" she recalls. Incensed, she refused. "I asked why," she recalls, to which she says he replied: "You’re exposing skin." Wilson, dressed in a loose T-shirt that practically shrouded her son’s head, looked around at her female fitness companions. Many wore nothing more than skimpy sports bras and low-cut leotards. "Here I was, wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt, and I was offensive," she scoffs. Though the manager let her finish, he made a point of watching Wilson anxiously from across the lobby. The ordeal left her feeling horrified. "If I were a first-time breast-feeding mom," she says, "I’d probably never have breast-fed in public again."
Ruthann Mahn, a Dorchester mother of nine, can probably relate. Mahn claims that she’s encountered so much trouble while breast-feeding in public that she filed two complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination — both of which are pending on appeal. The first one stems from a January 2000 incident that occurred in, of all places, a Boston day-care center. Mahn says her two-month-old son, Jason, started to cry; and so, she lifted her shirt "just enough to nurse him." This, she claims, prompted the female director to tell her she couldn’t "do that here." The director was so intimidating, Mahn maintains, that she left.
More than a year later, in September 2001, Mahn would face similarly belligerent treatment at a Catholic elementary school in Dorchester. One day, while picking up her four school-aged children, Mahn began breast-feeding Jason, who was then 22 months old. Until, that is, she was spotted by a nun. "She told me, ‘Cover yourself. That is not for the eyes of children,’" Mahn recalls. The nun, she adds, went so far as to grab her arm and escort her out of the building. "She acted like I was having sex," Mahn says, "like it was dirty, disgusting."
Stories like these inspired Philipp to push for what she calls "the first step" in any state’s arsenal of breast-feeding legislation: a bill that would exempt public nursing from indecent-exposure laws. One of the first legislators to be contacted was Representative Story, who, in the fall of 2000, had sent Philipp a short note lauding her efforts to transform the BMC into a "baby-friendly" hospital — a job that entailed getting her bosses to turn down the free formula, diaper bags, pencils, and mugs that baby-formula companies offer hospitals. Story instantly recognized that Massachusetts women need protection from, as she puts it, "overzealous authority figures" who wrongly assume it’s improper for a mother to feed her baby in a public place. She, in turn, reached out to then–state representative William Nagle, whose Northampton district housed the nursing-clothing company known as Motherwear. The city has gained a reputation for its outspoken, if not zealous, activism on this issue. When a Northampton mother who had been breast-feeding her two-month-old daughter in a courtroom at the Hampshire County Courthouse was asked to leave by a court officer in August 1995, advocates staged a dramatic "nurse-in," in which dozens of moms plunked down on the courthouse steps and breast-fed their babies in protest. Every August since, in honor of World Breast-feeding Week, mothers who nurse their children parade down Main Street with signs that say things like NURSING IS NURTURING and MOTHERING IS NOT OBSCENE. These "proactive steps" led Nagle, the House majority leader at the time, to happily oblige. "We talk about instilling family values," explains Nagle, now a clerk magistrate at Ware District Court. "I thought this would be a nice, easy thing to do."
Almost as soon as Nagle had signed on to the effort, he convened a small cadre of legislators to meet with women’s groups and medical professionals. He enlisted Representative David Linsky (D-Natick), a Judiciary Committee member who worked as a prosecutor for 14 years, to draft House Bill 2749. "The majority leader felt strongly," Linsky says, "and wanted to move [the measure] quickly." And he did. Within months, he convinced as many as 35 legislators to co-sponsor it. By May 2001, when the Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the bill, he and his colleagues had galvanized dozens of breast-feeding mothers to voice their ardent support. Many of them, including Wilson, shared firsthand experiences of harassment. Not a single person or organization expressed opposition. Things, it seemed, were running as smoothly as milk. As Walker rather sheepishly admits, "I figured this was an easy sell."
But then, in June 2001, Nagle abruptly quit his post and the breast-feeding brigade began to unravel. "We lost a very powerful ally," Linsky says. On July 25, 2001, just one month after Nagle’s departure, the Judiciary Committee gave the bill a favorable report, but only after adding the three-year age limit. Linsky explains that "the leadership on the committee" — i.e., House chair Donnelly, who signed off on the amended version — had inserted the age cap, even though committee members had neither debated nor voted on the change. And so, says Linsky, "A bill that had very strong support and no opposition" managed to get derailed.