The debate over nursing in public got a new layer recently, when photos taken on an Air Force base began to circulate online. In the series of tasteful professional photos showing beaming moms as they nurse their kids, one jumps out: the photo of two servicewomen with their uniform shirts unbuttoned and hiked up to breast-feed.
"A lot of people are saying it's a disgrace to the uniform. They're comparing it to urinating and defecating [while in uniform]," says Crystal Scott, a military spouse who started Mom2Mom in January as a breast-feeding support group for military moms and "anyone related to the base" at Fairchild AFB outside Spokane, Wash. "It's extremely upsetting. Defecating in public is illegal. Breast-feeding is not."I saw it as another unnecessary blow up about breastfeeding. I shared it on Facebook saying, "If you have a problem with this picture, maybe you should examine what's wrong with you." A few friends affirmed my opinion and a military member or two even agreed that it wasn't a big deal. And then I moved on and promptly forgot about it.
Flash forward to this morning when I was listening to NPR's Tell Me More. Michel Martin was chatting with one of the women in the photo and some other military moms about the picture. The opinions were mixed. However, what stood out to me was the opinion of one woman who was not in favor of the picture.
"I support women and their right to breast-feed," former Marine Chrystal Foster commented to NPR via Facebook. "I did it myself. This photo however will bleed in to combat situations, and is the exact reason many women are kept from serving on the front lines. Women have fought long and hard to get where they are on the battle field and attention screaming photos like this set them back leaps and bounds."So, in fewer words, the core of Foster's critique is that because men in combat are uncomfortable with motherhood and/or breastfeeding, military women will suffer.
This general idea is not new but it is dangerous and anti-feminist.
You see, I feel strongly that you can't achieve real equality through expecting women to behave and think like men in order to be seen as legitimate, to get ahead, and be successful. My brand of feminism has never been about this. Instead, it is about making systems (which have always favored men in the past) also work for women.
Think about it like this--when women began rising into higher positions within corporations, there were a lot of men who quite intentionally sexually harassed the women in order to undermine them and instill fear. The women who spoke out against this treatment and pushed for law suits and legislation were probably also confronted by peers like Foster who essentially expected them to "not rock the boat." It's the same mentality of "Look how far women have come! You don't want to cause problems now!" But many harassed women did not listen to naysayers like Foster. They pushed forward and demanded better treatment and the result is has been better protections for all people against unwelcome sexual advances in the workplace.
So I can't help but come back to the fact that Foster and anyone who is against these photos for a similar reason is just flat out wrong. Yes, some military moms probably will be looked down upon by their male counter parts because of these photos--seen as unprofessional, incapable of leadership, or weak. However, the solution is not to blame the photo or the women in it. The real problem is the biases and mentality of the men involved. That's what we must change. Because you will never end patriarchy if maleness is still seen as the default and the expectation.