Feminist anthropology has come a long way, baby.
Back when Adrienne Rich and other 20th century icons of feminism inspired women to burn their bras, we knew that the cultural development of gender equality had a fair distance to go. I’m not sure Rich, Betty Friedan, and their sisters in sisterhood foresaw a time when the deft adjustment of a nursing bra would spark an academic controversy among members of their great-grandaughters’ generation.
Witness the example of Rich’s latter day namesake, the reluctant “lactivist” and woman’s studies professor Adrienne Pine whose very first lecture to her incoming American University class last month included the visual aid of her year-old daughter crawling about, picking up a paper clip and, finally, having a comforting breast milk meal while her mother instructed the undergrads on the many ways “economic systems, social structures, and values construct and redefine biological distinctions between women and men.”
As the three-dozen or so students listened to a lecture on politics and social change that touched on “gender in egalitarian societies; origins and consequences of patriarchy” the child became fussy and professor Pine, as discreetly as one can be in front of a classroom of note-taking students, fed her daughter. “I doubt anyone saw my nipple, because I’m pretty good at covering it. But if they did, they now know that I too, a university professor, like them, have nipples.”)
A few days latter a student news assistant on the campus paper, the Eagle, contacted the tenure-track educator, author and speaker of five languages for a comment on the event. Pine replied to the reporter’s query that she “had no intention of making a political statement or shocking students” and was not interested in being the subject of a story.
Like the journalist she hopes to be, the persistent student next waited for Pine outside of class and asked her to comment in person. Although Pine spoke with the young reporter, she later asked her to spike the story, and when the student referred the request to her editor and faculty advisor, Pine — whose description in the faculty profiles calls her a “militant medical feminist” — took to the ramparts.
Not waiting for their decision, Pine published her own angry and defensive version of the controversy in an essay on the left leaning Web site Counterpunch, known for “muckraking with a radical attitude.” In a humorless tirade entitled “Exposéing My Breasts on the Internet” she explained, like many working mothers, she’d been faced with a childcare crisis, the baby was running a fever and could not be left at daycare. “The last thing I wanted to do was turn [my daughter’s] cold into a ‘teachable moment’,” Pine wrote.
In fact, Pine went on in her 4000-word article, breast-feeding in public is so essential a human right that the fight by women to do so undisturbed “has always seemed hopelessly bourgeois to me — those marauding bands of lactating white women who go to collectively feed their babies in places where the right to breastfeed has been called into question.”
Although the student paper has not yet published anything about the “incident,” a story about Pine’s long rant appeared in Inside Higher Ed after The Eagle published student responses to Pine’s commentary in a letters column (appropriately called “Eagle Rants”).
Although the students who wrote to the paper were split over support for the professor, those who criticized her didn’t seem to care at all about the breast-feeding. Some were upset that by identifying her young journalistic interlocutor by name, she invaded the reporter’s privacy, and others complained that by bringing her sick baby into the university classroom, she exposed students to her germs.
For its part, AU administration told the Post’s Nick Anderson in a statement, “Every working parent can empathize with facing the choice of an important day at work when a child gets sick,” but that “both demand your focus and attention. There is no easy or ideal alternative.”
For the feminists of a previous era, this discussion would surely be seen as progress.
Bonnie Goldstein is on Twitter @KickedByAnAngel