LAST FALL, KASEY Madden, the mother of two small children in Illinois, walked into a health club in the Chicago suburbs. She left her 5-month-old daughter, Sadie, in the club's child care section for infants and her 2-year-old daughter, Lizzie, in the adjacent toddler section, and she went to work out. Babies being babies, pretty soon Sadie got hungry and started to holler. When Mrs. Madden went to nurse her (on the toddler side of the partition, because Lizzie was also clamoring for attention), the health club manager asked her to desist. Some people, he said, might take offense at the sight of a woman breast-feeding outside the infant section. Furious, Mrs. Madden left.
Quicker than you can say "lactation," the Illinois General Assembly was spurred to action. Partly on the strength of Mrs. Madden's testimony, the legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill safeguarding a mother's right to nurse her children in any public or private place she is otherwise authorized to be. The bill is before Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is expected to sign it. When he does, Illinois will join about half the states in the country that have enacted similar legislation.
Still, some people are a little slow on the uptake; problems like Mrs. Madden's at the health club are common. Last month, an employee at a Starbucks in Silver Spring asked Lorig Charkoudian, a conflict resolution trainer, to cover up or repair to the ladies' room while nursing her daughter. Irate mothers have struck back, at the Starbucks in Silver Spring and elsewhere, by organizing "nurse-ins." Starbucks has reminded its Maryland employees that state law protects a mother's right to breast-feed where she likes, but it skittishly stopped short of adopting a policy that applies uniformly to its stores across the country. Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the conservative radio call-in host, has scolded women for nursing their babies in open view. It seems breast-feeding in public has become a skirmish in the culture wars.
We're all for letting babies eat when and where they want, and for making life as easy as possible for their beleaguered mothers. Starbucks might also get with the program by adopting a nationwide policy (although we wonder about a store whose stock in trade is caffeine becoming a favorite watering hole for nursing moms). As for health clubs, of all places, you'd think they could handle a mother demurely breast-feeding her child. After all, this is not a Janet Jackson display. As Mrs. Madden put it: Health clubs have "thongs and spandex in their ads and that's okay, but all of a sudden it's, 'Oh my goodness, under that shirt there's an infant coming into contact with that woman's breast!' "