Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Rosa Parks and Lactivism (Lactation Advocacy)

I get very uncomfortable when people compare the struggle of Black people during the civil rights movement to other movements such as "gay rights/marriage" or any other people group. My skin color/racial heritage is something that everyone can see when I walk in the room. It was always part of me, not something I discovered later in life. Some may disagree with my assessment, but that is a debate for later. Either way, by now you have heard about Emily Gillette, a mother who was removed from a Delta Airlines flight for refusing to cover her nursing daughter during a flight because the flight attendant said she was offended. Gillette maintains she was showing no skin, holding her shirt down, in a window seat and even blocked by her husband sitting in the seat next to her. After refusing to cover up, her family was kicked off the flight. Gillette has taken legal action and the airline was given 21 days to respond. I have not heard if she received a satisfactory response or has continued legal action.

Arly Helm an IBCLC with her own radio show shared perhaps some of the most brilliant thoughts on the case of the mother-turned-lactivist I have seen so far with a comparison to the well respected Rosa Parks, mother of the Civil Rights struggle and central figure in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the United States. She has given me permission to post her eloquent words here. Her words are in response to a post on Lactnet, a listserv we are on for breastfeeding supporters where a reference was made to other women saying that some breastfeeding mothers who had been asked to leave or cover up were being "so Rosa Parks about it". Rosa Parks was an intelligent, working/middle class, respectable woman who took part in an organized act of civil disobedience. She was also a woman who made a choice to do what had to be done for the greater good of her fellow man. She was also a woman who was tired of not being treated fairly - tired of paying for a seat and then not getting one. If standing up for a baby's right to eat in public, and doing so in a decent, respectful way (by that I mean, she wasn't standing up, taking off her shirt and verbally announcing that she would now be breastfeeding a baby while doing a lap dance for her husband) is "so Rosa Parks" then so be it. I would be honored to behave in a way that is "so Rosa Parks" whatever that means.

Arly's Words:
A member of a birthing weblist wrote "I always have such mixed feelings about this topic...some of the women seem so Rosa Parks about it..."

My response:

It is part of a process of accepting change in cultural norms that our hearts and heads tell us something is right, but we admit we are uncomfortable at first.

The Rosa Parks analogy is actually quite good. Remember that all Rosa Parks did was sit down after a long hard day at work, having done what everyone else on the bus had done: paid her full fare.

Many people who felt and thought that Rosa had a right to take a seat on the bus probably were still very uncomfortable with seeing a black woman sitting while white men stood. It broke our cultural norms, not only regarding where blacks were allowed to sit and eat and stand and walk with respect to white folk, but in how women and blacks were supposed to ingratiate themselves with authority--something that is much more frightening. Even those who understood that there is no human difference between black and white were still uncomfortable and frightened that Rosa would simply and quietly challenge the right of authority to deny her humanity.

Infants need the breast on an immediate basis. It is both a true physical and emotional need. Milk from the breast provides up-to-the-minute immunological protection, pain relief, reassurance, and is the only physiological and complete source of nutrition for babies. It is at least as important as making certain a diabetic is not denied either food or insulin in a timely manner. It is at least as important as making certain we are clear, calm and loving when explaining things to those with Down Syndrome, or autism. It is equivalent to meeting the needs of the disabled, and not denying those in wheelchairs access to bathrooms or restaurants or

The discomfort that some still feel when they see a woman breastfeed a baby is only partly due to their own training--most, if not all, persons my age were uncomfortable at some point at seeing people of color eating at Woolworth's, or couples of different races holding hands. It was not only that we were unused to seeing it, and we had been told it was wrong (and, in fact, both these things were illegal in this country when I was growing up). It was also a fear of what would happen when people challenged the status quo by reclaiming their humanity, their dignity, and their freedom. We were afraid for them, and afraid for ourselves.

A baby's right to eat, and a mother's right to breastfeed, are basic human rights. They are physiological needs. We can no more deny a child the right to breastfeed than we can deny all those under age 5 or over age 80 the right to eat in public. We cannot deny the disabled or people of color the right to eat in public. We can no more insist on the breastfed baby remaining in purdah, wearing a chadoor while he eats, no matter the temperature and circumstances, than we can insist that women remain in purdah, covering their faces while they eat.

I urge you to consider with compassion the situation this mother was in. A plane, before it takes off, is a very uncomfortable place. There are hundreds of people squashed in together, there is as yet no fresh air flow, the heat builds up, and there is a palpable miasma of fear from those who are to some degree afraid of flying--perhaps this includes all of us. Anticipating the pressure change and roar of the engines about to occur, this mother offered the only practical and loving protection available--the ways available in frightening and painful
circumstances--the breast.

I don't want to nitpick about how many square inches of breast were visible around the child's head. We all know that a child's head is larger than a bikini top, and that the airport terminals are full to bursting of magazine covers showing much more breast being displayed provocatively and with the intention to incite desire than the amount of breast being shown lovingly and non-sexually during a nursing episode.

This mother did precisely what was right. She defended her child's right to be relieved of fear and pain, and she refused to betray the commitment she has made to stand by her child and protect him from capricious acts of cruelty, even when invoked by someone claiming authority, or by current mores.

We do need to stand up for our children.

And others without power and without a voice in our society.


Arly Helm, MS, IBCLC


Jennifer M. Williams said...
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Jennifer M. Williams said...

As a mother of eight breast fed children, six of which were born in Brazil I find it devastating to personally experience and hear about American's reactions to public breastfeeding! I find it offensive when I see a mother feeding her baby bottled formula. To me it is abusive but I accept that it is her right to feed her baby as she pleases so I say nothing. I have travelled to at least 15 countries outside of the USA in Latin America and Europe. Many times I have breastfed on airplanes and in public and my babies always refused to be covered and I have noted that the only culture where people seem to be uncomfortable w/ breast feeding is in the US (I am not saying that the United States is the only country where public BFing is not well accepted because I don't have actual statistics to prove this). Please note the low BF rate for the USA when compared to Brazil or many European countries. It is my experience that most cultures view Breastfeeding as a natural act and see no sexual innuendos. In other words most cultures understand the true function of the breast rather than seeing it as a receptor for silicone or saline implants which can in turn be flaunted and seeminlgly are well accepted in society. I was once on a flight from The Bahamas to North Carolina where two middle aged women w/ implants where dressed in bikini tops! They were not asked to cover themselves.
As for breastfeeding on US planes a legislation needs to be put into place because small children need to suckle at take off and landing in order for their ears to adjust to the pressure. I don't think that standing up for Infant & Toddler Rights is necessarily "so Rosa Parks". I think it is a natural universal instinct that should be acted upon more frequently within the present technocratic United States society. It is ridiculous that a natural act such as BFing should lead to a lawsuit but if that is what it takes to put a legislation in place than I guess I support it in the name of “Lactivism”. Although I am more in favor of a Ghandhi type ahimsa movement. Perhaps an effective approach would be to educate and invite US celebrities to BF in public and be pictured BFing on the covers of "People", "In Touch", etc. Angelina Jolie's baby is 6 moths old and she was on the Today show talking about how Brad was such a great parent because he was taking care of the kids and preparing bottles. Why doesn't Angelina BF her baby in public? According to Vanity Fair baby Suri (TomKat baby) is also bottel fed. Does Britney(sp?)
breastfeed her 3 month old? All we hear about is her partying w/ new BF(Best Friend) Paris.
BF in public is a general Human Rights, or rather an Infants & Toddlers Rights, issue that all races, social levels and cultures must join forces to address. I am sure that the day Angelina breastfeeds her next child biological or adopted with a Lactaid the rest of us will then be permitted to breastfeed our babies in flight as well.

December 16, 2006
Jennifer M. Wlliams LE
Freeport, Grand Bahama
Commonwealth of The Bahamas