Lactivists Across the US Fight to Breastfeed in Public

The Milk Truck of Pittsburgh (via Gizmodo)
Lactating mothers that feel breastfeeding is a public right seem to have been coming out of the woodworks and are more vocal than ever in recent days.

In August, a Utah woman blogged about a negative confrontation by Whole Foods staff after she had tried to feed her child there. One social media campaign led to another, and soon a “nurse-in,” or the lactating mother’s version of a “sit in,” was established at 20 stores across the country. Whole Foods has since issued a public apology.

And just last month, a woman shopping in a Texas Target location said employees harassed her after she had breastfed her screaming infant in a secluded corner of the store. This spurred more than 100 nurse-ins in at least 35 states; and after 250 or more national demonstrations, Target Corporation issued a statement welcoming breastfeeding. Especially in the fitting rooms: “…even if others are waiting to use the fitting rooms,” claimed the apologetic memo.
They call themselves “lactivists,” or, more memorably, “NIP (Nursing in Public),” and, in case you haven’t caught them at a big box chain or major grocer near you, you may soon find them on wheels.

At least in theory, that is. An ice cream truck with a giant erect breast on its roof has been roaming the streets of Pittsburgh, PA as a safe haven for the lactating mother in need. Jill Miller, an art instructor at Carnegie Mellon, designed what’s known as the “Milk Truck” to come to the rescue of mothers wishing to nurse whenever they feel shunned publicly. The Truck, while not exactly practical for every breastfeeding mom in Pittsburgh, was part of the Andy Warhol Museum’s 2011 Biennial exhibit, which ended January 8.

As symbolic as the Milk Truck may be, the community support was overwhelming: Miller’s kickstarter campaign to launch the truck racked in more than $15,000 to start up, and the Pittsburgh City Council named Sept. 13 "Milk Truck Day."

A city proclamation declared: "Whereas, the Milk Truck…believes babies should be able to eat anywhere and everywhere; and … be it further resolved."

On a national scale, the Surgeon General issued out a call to action to support breastfeeding in January of last year. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin said: "Many barriers exist for mothers who want to breastfeed. They shouldn’t have to go it alone."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that while 75% of US babies start out breastfeeding, only 13% are exclusively breastfed at the end of 6 months. According to the call to action, breastfeeding protects babies from infections and illnesses like diarrhea, ear infections, and pneumonia. Breastfed babies are also less likely to develop asthma, and those who are breastfed for six months are less likely to become obese. Mothers themselves who breastfeed have a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

It wasn’t until 1999 that a US federal law was enacted to specifically address mothers wishing to breastfeed in public, but it only protects women wishing to feed in a federal building or a federal property. There are no stipulations for private organizations and properties that include retail stores and restaurants, although some states are passing laws for further protection.

In Canada, a 1989 Supreme Court case held that, since pregnancy was a condition unique to women, discrimination against women on the basis of pregnancy is a form of sex discrimination.

The most recent battleground for public breastfeeding? The streets of Sesame. That’s right, one of the nation’s most beloved children’s shows has now been targeted for failing to support breastfeeding women. So far, more than 30,000 people have signed a petition to bring breastfeeding back to Sesame Street.

Have women ever felt safe breastfeeding their babies in public? And if not, are these “lactivists” just the beginning of a new feminist movement?