I've been thinking about the Maryland woman who says she was discriminated against because she wasn't allowed to breast-feed her baby in a public restaurant. I've read her charge, I've read the restaurant's response, I've heard friends and acquaintances take a dozen points of view, and I've made up my mind.
I disagree with all of them.
I disagree with those who pretend the issue is breast-feeding vs. bottle-nursing. It isn't. Eva Whitely, the 27-year-old mother involved, has argued that "breast- feeding is a natural, normal, medically recommended way of feeding infants, and there is no reason to be a prisoner in one's own home." Which is no argument at all. One might as reasonably argue that nose- blowing is a natural, normal, medically recommended way of clearing the nasal passage of excess mucus. But it doesn't follow that nose-blowing is at all times and situations inoffensive.
I disagree with those who think public breast-feeding is offensive. It can, under certain circumstanc es, be a bit of an embarrassment to captive spectators, especially male, but hardly more of an annoyance than a hungry, screaming baby. What is there about being in close proximity to a nursing mother that brings out the American male's sexual hangups?
I disagree with those who say the problem is the American male's sexual hangups. It is unfair, inconsistent and absurd on the one hand to expect us to react erotically to attractive women with plunging necklines and uplifted mammalia and on the other to have zero reaction to a fully exposed female breast. It's hard to avoid the notion that the public breast-feeder must have a bit of the exhibitionist in her.
I disagree with those who accuse Eva Whitely of exhibitionism. She said she tried several different ways of quieting her crying son. Only when all else failed did she take a seat at the end of the booth, lift her pullover blouse and suckle the hungry baby. (She said she later tested her technique in front of a mirror, and "you couldn't see anything.") What would her critics have had her do?
I disagree with those who say Whitely had no choice. Even young babies can go two or three hours between feedings. Why didn't she feed the baby before going to the restaurant?
I disagree with those who contend that any mother who wants to can schedule her feedings so as to avoid public nursing. A mother can't always know how long she is going to be in the public view, or precisely when her infant will get hungry. Suppose she has to work. If her job is one that permits her to bring her baby to work with her, shouldn't she be able to nurse him without taking him to the restroom?
I remember the Iowa City firefighter who was denied permission to have her baby sitter bring her three-month-old son to the firehouse for twice daily breast-feedings during her "personal time." I remember the Missouri woman who was threatened with arrest for indecent exposure for nursing her baby in her parked car. Perhaps the cop thought she should have checked into the Holiday Inn until din-din was over.
I disagree with those who say the issue is one of clear-cut discrimination, comparable to discrimination against blacks. It is accepted as legitimate to prohibit public nudity, including the exposure -- even on public beaches -- of female breasts. So it cannot be totally mindless to say that a breast is a breast, and that exposure is exposure.
It is, I suppose, a matter of propriety. It is possible to make distinctions, in private reactions if not in public law, between the "earth mother" type with utter disregard for circumstances or sensibilities and the woman who withdraws (whether to a back booth or to a seat in the far side of the living room) and drapes herself discreetly with a shawl or whatever before nursing her child.
Eva Whitely, at least by her own account, was discreet. At least until she filed her formal complaint before the State Human Relations Commission -- five months after the fact. That transforms her momentary inconvenience into a sort of righteous crusade, with implications of lawsuits and court verdicts.
I disagree with that.