Last week, a woman was on a plane, child in tow. She sat in the last seat, next to the window, and breastfed her child. The cabin attendant, it seems, asked her to cover up with a blanket, and some series of exchanges took place which ended up with the woman being asked to leave the plane before take off. There's now a lawsuit, filed in Vermont, which is where the plane was headed. Vermont is one of the states that protects the legal right to breastfeed.
The MomsRising blog reports on this, and it's been all over several listservs, including the Mothers & More POWER loop. Breastfeeding, it seems, is the motherhood issue that time and again yields most easily to action. Perhaps it's specificity makes it easier to move to anger. In many cases, moms who know breastfeeding is protected legally in their state can allow themselves to get mad when they feel that a legally protected right has been trampled. It's easier to be outraged when you feel relatively protected than in some of the riskier acts of workplace insurgence. And often, there's a single person who has done you wrong: a barrista, a TV commentator, a cabin attendant. So many motherhood issues have such wide berth, and often no there's no specific person to blame, but instead, a wide network of attitudes and assumptions.
Because there's a history here, I'm posting here the pages from The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars about Maryland mother Lorig Charkoudian, and her focused anger and activism after a Starbucks barrista asked her to cease breastfeeding--and in an empty Starbucks, at that.
Here's from chapter seven, called, appropriately for this blog, "Playground Revolution":
... Small acts of change might look like Lorig Charkoudian and her fight to breastfeed in public. If Starbucks was once the literary staging ground for stories about overprivileged mothers relaxing after their morning gym routines, such tales took a markedly different turn at the Silver Spring, Maryland, Starbucks last July. Lorig was on a day off from her job as a mediator. She’d been visiting friends and running errands. At four o’clock she stopped at Starbucks to get a cold drink and a comfy, clean spot so the baby could nurse. Lorig and her child had settled into a chair in the nearly empty coffee shop when the barista stopped by their table and suggested she cover not just herself but the baby’s whole head, or take a chair into the bathroom and nurse there: “He suggested I take my baby to eat in the bathroom. No one should be asked to eat in the bathroom.
“I was stunned,” Lorig recalls. “I’d nursed her for fourteen months. I’d brought her to work with me for the first seven months, and nursed her in offices and conference rooms and meetings throughout the state. I’ve nursed her at church. I’ve nursed her at baseball stadiums. Only once was someone uncomfortable with this, and when he said something, we had a good conversation about it. I had heard other women tell stories about being asked to leave places, but it had never happened to me.”
Maryland is one of twenty or so states that legally protects women’s right to breastfeed with no restrictions or limits. Even if a woman shows lots of breast in public while she nurses, it’s legal and protected. “That’s the thing,” says Lorig. “Everyone assumes I must have been nearly naked. I wasn’t. I was covered up. All you could see was the baby’s head.” No one in the store had even complained—it turned out that a month before, a customer had complained, and the employees were now being extra careful to ward off nursing mothers.
“We try to keep our customers happy,” explained the Starbucks rep when Lorig asked to speak with the manager, and then the district representative, and eventually, the regional vice president.
“But what about breastfeeding mothers?” responded Lorig, and began a long discussion with Starbucks about breastfeeding and its virtues. The discussion was followed by letters to Starbucks officials—letters that asked, first, that Starbucks comply with Maryland law and train its employees accordingly, and second, that it adopt for its nearly six thousand coffee shops a nationwide policy that protects women’s right to breastfeed.
“It’s amazing to me now,” Lorig says. “But as committed to breastfeeding as I am, as surprisingly pleasant as breastfeeding had been, and despite how outraged I became, my first response, when they asked me to stop breastfeeding, was shame. It’s that sense of shame that’s the problem. When there’s shame associated with breastfeeding, women are less likely to nurse their babies or to nurse them as long as they want. Or they’ll feel cooped up at home while they nurse.”
When letters to corporate Starbucks yielded no response, Lorig wrote up a flyer for a Sunday, August 8, nurse-in and sent it round to all the parent listservs in the D.C. area. The nurse-in flyer spread, at the speed of many forwarded emails, around the region. “It was the easiest thing I’ve ever done,” says Lorig. She’d been involved in community projects in the past, especially on conflict resolution and mediation, but she had never organized a nurse-in. She found three other volunteers. With the help of a techie coworker they set up a website. They called print shops and asked how quickly they could print up stickers saying, “Can you drink that latte in the bathroom, I’m breastfeeding here.” Using examples on the Internet, they composed and sent out press releases.
Just before the nurse-in, Lorig received a letter back from Starbucks, apologizing for her treatment and telling her that Starbucks would set about training its employees to follow local law. Nothing was said about changing corporate policy. Though thankful for Starbucks’ small steps, Lorig felt that a company that claimed to be socially responsible should go further. Even Burger King has a nationwide policy, created in response to threatened protests a few years back. And, irony of ironies, the Starbucks Foundation supports and gives money to a breastfeeding advocacy group. The nurse-in became the launch of a national campaign to change Starbucks policy.
On the day of the nurse-in, the Washington Post, the local ABC affiliate, and the community gazette showed up to find nearly a hundred people gathered for the event. The Associated Press picked up the story from the Post, and Reuters reported it as well; news spread quickly throughout the country. Radio shows followed the next day, and Lorig appeared on CNN soon after. The debate raged in the Washington Post for a week, fueled by a particularly nasty style section piece that compared breastfeeding to picking your nose or farting in public, and follow-up letters, a political cartoon, and a supportive editorial.
It didn’t stop there, either. Kathie Sever, a clothing shop owner and mother in Austin, Texas, read about the nurse-in on Mothering.com’s list of action alerts. Excited, she sat down at her computer and sent a message about the nurse-in to her AustinMama listserv and included a link to NurseAtStarbucks.org, the homepage that Lorig’s techie coworker had drawn up. Within a few hours, four hundred Austin mothers read about what the Maryland mothers had done. So did Kim Lane, the editor of AustinMama.com, who suggested online that the moms exercise their right to peaceable assembly and show support for breastfeeding mothers everywhere. Within days there was a nurse-in coordinator, a location, a time, announcement postcards, and stickers and handouts for the event itself. People emailed back to say they’d be there. Sixty people showed up at a Starbucks in Austin, Texas, as did the Austin Chronicle. The nursing mothers breastfed their babies. Others handed out flyers and talked to passersby. The Starbucks customers were receptive, curious, and outraged. They wanted a corporation that built its reputation and sales by being socially responsible to be truly responsive to mothers, too.