Back in 2008, a Houston woman, back from maternity leave, asked her boss if she could pump breast milk in the bathroom, on her breaks at work. He fired her. Last month, a judge threw out her discrimination case.
Although 45 states allow women to breast-feed infants in any public or private location, many new mothers don't always feel that's true. In Washington, for example, it's illegal to tell a woman to stop breast-feeding a child at work or in public. But many women are told to stop anyway, and find little recourse.
So Seattle City Councilman Bruce Harrell, on behalf of the Seattle Women's Commission, is trying to get Seattle to pass its own bill. If it becomes law, anyone who tells a nursing mother to button up or get out may have to pay fines in the thousands of dollars.
Cascades of research over the past few decades have proven the many health benefits of breast milk. New mothers have taken heed. In the mid-1950s, only 1 in 5 babies in the U.S. ever latched their mother's breast, but that number has climbed steadily since.
Yet at six months, only 15 percent of newborns in 2011 were fed only breast milk, though breast-feeding at that age is what the World Health Organization, UNICEF, American Academy of Pediatrics and American College of Nurse-Midwives all recommend.
This is largely because workplaces, as well as restaurants, shopping malls, buses, parks and streets haven't adapted to nursing mothers. Many jobs make it hard for women to take the breaks they need to nurse or pump, and there often isn't a place to do it. And when they are able to, women frequently face harassment.
So many nursing mothers work less or stop entirely. A recent study, based on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, found that new mothers suffered a drop in earnings in the short term -- whether they breast-fed or formula-fed their infants. But women who breast-fed infants for six months or longer experienced a much starker drop in income over the first five years of their children's lives.
The costs can be even more tragic. The infant mortality rate in Native American and black communities in Seattle is two to three times the national average, according to Abigail Echo-Hawk, the spokeswoman for the Seattle Women's Commission. "I've seen a lot of infant death in my own community," she says. "I didn't realize it wasn't a normal thing until I went to college."
Native American and black communities also have significantly lower rates of breast-feeding, says Echo-Hawk, largely because of the lack of social support.
As part of President Obama's Affordable Care Act, employers of a certain size are now required to give new mothers unpaid breaks, whenever they need them, to nurse or pump, and to provide a secluded space other than a bathroom for those women to do it. Already, Dollar General, Dillard's, Starbucks and McDonald's have received citations for failing to comply at some locations.
But some women are looking for a more radical change: to make the sight of a breast-feeding woman more acceptable. "Breasts are so highly sexualized, once they're used for their intended purpose, it seems odd to people," says Janet Golden, a professor at Rutgers University, who specializes in medical and women's history.
Although 24 states peeled back their laws that classified breast-feeding publicly as "indecent exposure," Facebook still removes photos of nursing mothers over concerns about obscenity. In response, women have held "nurse-ins" outside Facebook's offices around the world. Mothers took their protest to Facebook's office in Seattle last month.
At the end of last year, one Target shopper was allegedly hassled by an employee for breast-feeding her 5-month-old on the floor in a "remote area" of the women's wear department. When the mother called corporate headquarters, she was supposedly told "just because it's a woman's legal right to nurse a baby in public doesn't mean she should walk around the store flaunting it."
So thousands of women decided to head to 250 outlets of the big box retailer, and flaunt it.
The Seattle Women's Commission hopes its ordinance will curb discrimination against nursing women, who despite a legal right to breast-feed in public, are still frequently harassed, heckled or politely told to button up, because it's weirding people out.
While many states have these laws on the books, the will and the way to enforce it isn't always there, especially with budget cuts. Advocates in Seattle hope that by going local, women will no longer feel like they have to use formula, because the cost of breast-feeding is too high.
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