One of the ways of starkly illustrating an aspect of the gender divide is DeBecker’s quote:
“At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.”
I think there’s a class and mothering parallel here:
Middle-class women are afraid of being mummy-tracked; working-class women are afraid of being fired.
Valuing and supporting mothering is an essential part of reproductive justice work. Reproductive choice doesn’t just involve the right to prevent or terminate a pregnancy. It involves the ability to continue a pregnancy, to birth in safety, and to mother without risking harassment or beating or child removal – or poverty. The “mommy track”, a lowering of the glass ceiling, isn’t the only risk mothers face.
An Ohio woman was fired for “taking unscheduled breaks” to pump breastmilk at work. She lost her first case against the company, and the appeal. The Ohio Supreme Court is to begin hearing arguments on the case.
The Dayton Daily News reports that LaNisa Allen, a warehouse labourer, was fired by Totes/Isotoner Corp. for “breaking workplace rules” when she took her lactation break at 10 am, three hours after her 10-minute 8 am break, to relieve her breast engorgement. I can’t find any photographs or references to Allen’s racial identification in the news, but I’m hazarding a guess that she’s likely to be a woman of colour, probably African-American.
The company who fired her argues that there is “legal precedent showing that employers don’t have to give extra breaks to breastfeeding women.” As Ohio has no laws specifically protecting a worker’s right to express or breastfeed at work, lawyers are taking the angle of gender discrimination:
Allen’s attorneys say it’s gender discrimination because she was fired to relieve discomfort due to lactation, a condition exclusive to women.
Totes, which prevailed against Allen in a 2008 trial and a subsequent appeal, argues that the company didn’t discriminate because breastfeeding doesn’t legally constitute an illness or medical condition. The company says there is legal precedent showing that employers don’t have to give extra breaks to breastfeeding women.
So if lactation is not an illness or medical condition, as the company argues, then it’s a normal physiological state of the female body – and they’ve fired her for it.
They have fired her for being a woman, for having female body parts. This analogy seems obvious (though lactation and menstruation are not the same thing): firing a woman for taking care of her body’s physiological needs with regard to lactation is akin to firing a woman for taking care of her female body’s physiological needs with regard to menstruation.
Of course, it wouldn’t surprise me if companies are also forcing their low-paid female workers to not take bathroom breaks for menstrual needs – I believe I’ve heard of this happening in the past. Would a gender discrimination lawsuit regarding menstrual needs occasion more outcry than the lactation cases, I wonder? I’m guessing that the antibreastfeeding crowd will start screaming, “But lactation is optional!”. So’s menstruation, folks, if you want to bring it down to that. It can be stopped with hormones, or with pregnancy, or with surgery. The normal physical state of a postpartum woman is lactating, just as the normal physical state of a non-pregnant ciswoman in her reproductive years is cyclic menstruation. There are ways of stopping lactation; there are also ways of stopping menstruation, and yet opting out of menstruation is not forced upon women by the misguided desires of bosses to make more money.
Women should not be forced to drastically alter their bodily functions in order to hold down a job.
I guess it hasn’t occurred to these employers that a worker in pain from engorgement is unlikely to be a productive worker. I remember that antsy feeling very well, when my breasts were an extra hour or two overfull; even before the pain sets in, it’s impossible to concentrate on anything else when your body is screaming to let the milk out. That crawling, urgent feeling is a very difficult thing to explain to someone who has never lactated. The closest thing I can relate it to in intensity is an unslaked thirst on a hot day, though it’s very different in quality. Aside from the engorgement and productivity issue, a breastfeeding mother is less likely to need days off work to care for a sick child, and healthcare costs – where employees are insured! – are reduced. Employers have a lot to gain by actively supporting breastfeeding in their workforce.
There is a lot of lip-service paid to the panic about women of colour and women in lower socioeconomic groups not breastfeeding at the rates that middle-class white women are. Many of the so-called “solutions” proposed just boil down to more “education” of mothers, which is flat-out useless in the face of massive societal obstacles and hostility.
Knowing that “breastfeeding is best” doesn’t help when you have long separations and you’re banned from expressing.
Knowing that “breastfeeding is best” doesn’t help when the only spaces you can express in are a filthy stinky bathroom or a public eating space filled with the men who sexually harass you.
Knowing that “breastfeeding is best” doesn’t help when you’re forced back to work at four to six weeks postpartum, your C section wound not yet healed, because you’ll lose your health insurance and the roof over your head if you don’t go back.
Knowing that “breastfeeding is best” doesn’t help when you are the only person in your extended family who has ever tried to put a baby to your breast.
Knowing that “breastfeeding is best” doesn’t help when you can’t afford a lactation consultant to help you over a surmountable hurdle.
Knowing that “breastfeeding is best” doesn’t help when you can’t afford the pump you need to maintain your supply while separated, and you don’t know how to hand express (or your hands are too painful from disability, or too exhausted from work).
Knowing that “breastfeeding is best” doesn’t help when the healthcare and welfare workers you respect are pushing free formula into your exhausted hands, urging you “This will help you, dear, it’s full of nutrients for your baby’s brain development”, and you find out, too late, that the free formula doesn’t last to the end of each month.
Knowing that “breastfeeding is best” doesn’t help when you’re kicked out of public spaces for nursing.
Knowing that “breastfeeding is best” when all of the lactation support services available are staffed by wealthy white women who don’t speak your language or don’t understand your community, or who look down on your for being the “wrong sort” of mother.
Knowing that “breastfeeding is best” doesn’t help when you’re fired.
There are other complex cultural interplays as well as the practical barriers. In the USA and countries with similar colonialism stories, where African-American women were systematically forced into wet-nursing for their white oppressors, those resonances of breastfeeding with slavery continue to carry great power. Where breastfeeding is seen as a sign of poverty, formula feeding can sometimes be seen as a sign of upward mobility. Where your body is constructed as inferior, defective, less-than; why should you trust it to produce the best food for your child?
If we want to have a gender-equal society where mothers and children are valued as humans, we need to start valuing them, across the board. Not just mothers who happen to be lawyers and CEOs and bank workers and movie stars — all mothers.
References and further reading:
Mocha Milk: a blog for all things related to breastfeeding and the African-American woman
“Aboriginal maternal and infant care workers: partners in caring for Aboriginal mothers and babies“, GE Stamp et al, Rural and Remote Health 8: 883, 2008
Hoyden About Town: Flimsy. Wimpy. Weak. The Parliamentary Breastfeeding Inquiry Report.
“Comparison of Maternal Absenteeism and Infant Illness Rates Among Breast-feeding and Formula-feeding Women in Two Corporations“, Rona Cohen et al, American Journal of Health Promotion, 10(2), 1995
“Health Care Costs of Formula-feeding in the First Year of Life“, Ball and Wright, Pediatrics 103(4), April 1999, pp. 870-876
SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective
Breastfeeding Support At The Workplace: Best Practices to Promote Health and Productivity, Rowena Bonoan, Washington Business Group on Health, Issue 2, March 2000.
 The conjunction of “Ohio” and “breastfeeding discrimination” was ringing a bell for me. I found out why: that’s the state where City Kids Day Care was charging an extra $50 a week to feed expressed breastmilk to babies in its care.
[Image: Don't Be Afraid to Nurse by Inocencio Segura, sourced from promom.org. Do you know how hard it is to find breastfeeding art that doesn't feature white women and babies?]
Update: There is more on the legal reasoning in this particular case here at the Columbus Dispatch.