The power of activism

October 22, 2019

Senior Danielle Anderson shows how grassroots movements around public breastfeeding changed state policy.

At a country fair, a crowd gathered around newborn goats. The animals were snuggled up and drinking milk their mother was providing as people gathered trying to get a closer look at the small fuzzy babies. Steps away, at the same country fair, a human mother did the same with her infant son — except she had a blanket draped over her  — and was told she needed to leave the premises or use the public restroom.

It was one of the many news articles senior Danielle Anderson discovered during a research project about breastfeeding in public in the modern age; History Professor Georgina Hickey served as her faculty adviser. 

"In the county fair example, the woman spoke up instead of being shamed into compliance and silence,” says Anderson about the report in a 1991 Los Angeles Times newspaper article.”The women who spoke up when it was extremely difficult to do so are who helped lead to a movement that pushed all 50 states to legalize breastfeeding in public.”

Curious about political activism in the public sphere and women’s issues, Political Science major Anderson — a legal clerk who has a strong interest in social justice — conducted research on perception and policy regarding breastfeeding in public as part of a Summer Undergraduate Research Experience project. She also assisted Hickey with material for Hickey’s upcoming book about the public landscape for women in the 20th century.

Looking at nearly 100 years of history — but doing a deep dive on the past 40 — Anderson shares how the advent of formula and Victorian ideals of feminine modesty made a once normal part of life unfashionable. (For example, a stereotype emerged that only poor people breastfed.) And it took 1990s feminist movements and educational campaigns on the benefits of breastfeeding to begin removing the cultural taboo.

“Women are minimized in public spaces — we’re told in a variety of ways to not bring attention to ourselves, to not take up too much space, to be hidden when patriarchal society doesn’t want us seen — even when it comes to something that is a natural part of life and something that science says is a very good thing. Nationally, policy has changed when it comes to breastfeeding in public. But the topic is still relevant because social change is slow.”

Jail time for indecent exposure isn’t a punishment given for public breastfeeding anymore — however side-eye glances, harassment and shaming remarks are still directed to women who feed their children in public.“This stigma associated with public breastfeeding can prevent women from having the freedom of choosing what they feel is best for their child. The inconvenience may also stop women from pursuing economic and political opportunities.”

Anderson says the arguments on either side of the topic — for example, exhibitionism vs. natural human behavior — are the same today as they were 40 years ago. “In other words, we still have a long way to go. And awareness and education is key in moving forward.”

She acknowledges that the delay in public acceptance may be frustrating. But the legislative results from grassroots movements — in 2018, it became legal to public breastfeed in all 50 states — is  encouraging.

“You cannot discount the legislation. That shows grassroots activism has power: It gets people once silenced to talk. When the talking gets loud, legislators listen — which leads to law changes. Then cultural norms slowly shift. That’s the most important lesson from my research. Don’t stay silent. Speak up. Things will eventually change.”

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