By Marcia Barhydt

I recently read a small article in my local paper here in Toronto. The piece was about a woman who was told to stop breastfeeding her 5 month old infant in a play area of a Montreal, Quebec children’s wear store.

In fact, there was another mother in the same area doing the same thing. Both were told to stop; they asked to speak to the supervisor who repeated what the clerk said.

Researching this article has been a real eye-opener for me. I thought that it was a given that any mother be allowed to breast feed in public. I think I recalled this happening some time during the 60s when feminism went to bat for nursing mother’s rights.

It turns out that it’s NOT a given, not by a long shot. Please take a moment to read about legislation for public breast feeding in Canada, the U.S. and Britain.

United States
A United States House of Representatives appropriations bill (HR 2490) with an amendment specifically permitting breastfeeding was signed into law on September 29, 1999. A majority of states have enacted state statutes specifically permitting the public exposure of the female breast for breastfeeding infants, or exempting such women from prosecution under applicable statutes, such as those regarding indecent exposure.

As a result of these previously mentioned and other controversies, 47 states as of January 2009 have passed legislation that either explicitly allow women to breastfeed in public or exempt them from prosecution for public indecency. Attempts during 2007 to codify a child’s right to nurse were unsuccessful in West Virginia.

United Kingdom
Breastfeeding in public (restaurants, cafes, libraries etc.) is protected under the 1975 Sexual Discrimination Act under the provision of goods, facilities and services section. If the child is under 6 months old, the mother has additional protection under a 2008 amendment to the act which protects maternity rights.

The Scottish Parliament passed legislation safeguarding the freedom of women to breastfeed in public in 2005. The legislation allows for fines of up to £2500 for preventing breastfeeding in public places.
The Equality Act 2010 also prohibits discrimination against women who are breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding Laws in British Columbia and Ontario

On the provincial level, only two provinces have laws that protect a woman’s right to breastfeed. British Columbia and Ontario have been pioneering there way in breastfeeding rights. In these provinces, not only is a woman’s right to breastfeed anywhere at any time protected, it is also illegal to ask the mother to be discrete. The Ministry of the Attorney General of British Columbia states it this way, “Nursing mothers have the right to breastfeed their children in a public area, and it is discriminatory to ask them to cover up or breastfeed somewhere else.”

It’s worthy to note that both Ontario, where I live, and Quebec, where this all took place, have human rights charters that protect women from discrimination on the basis of sex, and specifically in Quebec, this charter has been used successfully to argue for a woman’s right to breastfeed.

My own 2 daughters, who are now in their 30s were breast fed and in public too! I didn’t feel that there was any question at all of “indecent exposure” when I was feeding my baby. What’s exposed here? The top of my breast, which is way less than the tops of many breasts exposed under a low cut evening dress or t-shirt.

And maybe there lies the difference, the defence, the doubt. The thing is, there’s nothing sexual about breast feeding. It’s a natural gift that Mother Nature gives us to care for our newborns. It’s not suggestive; it’s not teasing; it’s not coy. It’s eating in public for babies, just like going to McDonalds is for adults, end of sentence. Nothing more. And I can’t begin to imagine that the most straight-laced woman or the randiest man would view breast feeding as sexual over-exposure. Sadly, I’d be mistaken I guess.

The alternative for nursing mothers is to feed their babies in a washroom. Sigh. What kind of alternative is that? Could you please go eat your lunch in the bathroom? Appetizers were served in the bedroom closet, followed by the main course in the toilet? Help me out here.

As an added affront to this particular incident, the final paragraph of the short newspaper article mentions that an Alberta provincial art gallery asked a breastfeeding mother to leave an exhibit room because “Food and drink weren’t allowed around the artwork.” Don’t you have to wonder what bozo thought up that excuse?

There is a positive side to this sad story though; the offending mother blogged about her experience and it spread quickly online and now her supporters are planning to stage a nurse-in at the up-tight, biased, prejudicial store later this month.

Tell your daughters and your granddaughters about this; help them to be aware of their rights.

Don’t mess with Mother Nature – OR her women.

I’m a woman of a certain age and I’m certain of my rights as a woman.

©Marcia Barhydt, 2011