Some people don't think Eva Whitley should breast-feed her baby in public. One of them, Jean Sanders of CJ's restaurant in Owings Mills, told her, "Don't come back here until your baby knows how to feed himself," Whitley says. Another, an anonymous caller, asked her how she would feel "if you and your baby were walking down the street and I walked in front of you and spat."
Whitley, who was asked to leave CJ's when she began nursing her baby, has petitioned the Maryland Human Relations Commission to decide whether she was discriminated against because of her sex. The commission has not set a date for the hearing.
Whitley, a 27-year-old homemaker, did not expect hostile reactions when she decided to follow her pediatrician's recommendation to breast-feed David, her 8-month-old firstborn. "We were following the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatricians," she said, "which says that breast-feeding brings medical, nutritional and emotional benefits to a baby."
The co-owner of CJ's, Jeff Sanders, insisted this week that the issue was not discrimination or breast-feeding, but indecent exposure. Jean Sanders says that Whitley failed to cover herself while nursing. Whitley's husband, Jack, a novelist who works at home and shares in caring for the baby, said this week that his wife was not in public view at the time she was told not to return to the restaurant.
CJ's was a favorite haunt of the couple, who used to take out-of-towners there to sample Maryland crabs and other local delights. On the evening of March 3, Jack Whitley recalls, "we asked for the furthest back booth, because Eva, frankly, was embarrassed. She's not the kind of hippie exhibitionist they're portraying. She sat facing the wall. You'd have to really gawk to know what was going on."
As soon as the baby cried and started nursing, Jean Sanders approached Whitley and asked her to stop. "I know this is the fashionable thing and all that," Jack Whitley quoted Sanders. "But you're going to have to stop. This is a family restaurant."
La Leche League International, a group that promotes breast-feeding, has documented some 35 cases in which women have sought legal guarantee of their right to do so in public.
"The statutes on what does or does not constitute indecent exposure seem to be different in each municipality," says Sara Lofton, a spokeswoman for La Leche. The organization feels that a town in Missouri provided an exemplary solution, revising local statutes to state that the female breast constitutes a private part of the anatomy (which should not be bared in public)) except in the case of breast-feeding.
"We encourage mothers to be sensitive to the needs of our culture," says Lofton, "and while we reassure them that there's nothing wrong with the sight of a woman breast-feeding, we remind them that there are many people who have been brought up to believe that there is."
Some of those people have placed eight to 10 crank calls to Eva Whitley since news of her dispute with the owners of CJ's became public last weekend.
"They start out talking very reasonably and then they just sort of wind up, and they won't get off the phone," Whitley said. "I ask them to write their views and send them to a newspaper so we can start a public debate, but they don't seem interested . . . .Let me ask you something for a change. Why is a woman nursing her baby news?"