On Tuesday, Australian Sen. Larissa Waters arrived at work, took her place in Parliament and voted on legislation.
Incidentally, she also did something that had never been done before: She breast-fed her 2-month-old daughter, Alia Joy, while on the floor.
That decision excited women's rights advocates in Australia, and it sparked headlines around the world. Waters, though, says that she was just doing her job. “It's frankly ridiculous, really, that feeding one's baby is international news. Women have been breast-feeding for as long as time immemorial,” she told the BBC. “I had hoped to not only be able to feed my baby but to send a message to young women that they belong in the Parliament.”
Just two years ago, another member of the Australian Parliament, Kelly O'Dwyer, was told that she was missing too much work, because of her breast-feeding schedule. Might she consider pumping to avoid missing parliamentary duties?
That request led to a significant backlash. So last year, Australia's lower house joined the Senate in allowing breast-feeding on the floor. But no MP had ever taken advantage of the new rule, until now.
Waters joins a small cadre of female politicians who've made news — and suffered criticism — for feeding their babies while performing their legislative duties. Last year, Carolina Bescana brought her infant son into the Spanish parliament and breastfed him. She was roundly condemned by all parties.
“Honestly, it was not necessary,” one lawmaker told journalists. “I feel badly because there are many female workers in this country who cannot do this. It’s a bad example because there have been many efforts to allow women in Congress, who do not have maternity leave, to breast-feed their children, as I did, without everyone seeing.”
But Bescana argued that her decision was more than just a publicity stunt.
“It is time to bring the reality that is on the streets into official institutions, so that this chamber is more representative of our country,” she said. “We need to encourage that certain tasks stop being a private affair that women need to deal with confidentially in the invisibility of their homes.”
Here's a photograph of a mom on the job in Argentina:
In Iceland, Parliament member Unnur Brá Konráðsdóttir was called on to defend a bill while breast-feeding. My child “was hungry, and I wasn’t expecting to speak, so I started feeding her,” the mother of three explained. “Then a representative asked a question about a proposal I had put forward, which I had to answer. I could choose to yank her off and leave her crying with another representative, or I could bring her with me, and I thought that would be less disruptive.”
In other legislative bodies, breast-feeding on the floor is banned. (In the United States, no member of Congress has nursed on the floor, but the Capitol has 10 lactation rooms.)
In 2015, the United Kingdom considered ditching its ban (something that would, according to a report on diversity in U.K. politics, make government more family friendly). But MP Simon Burns fretted that the measure would “give the tabloid press the opportunity to ridicule us.” The politician said there is “an appropriate time and place for breast-feeding.”