Massachusetts law provides legal protection for breastfeeding mothers

9 04 2009

Beginning this Thursday, breastfeeding in public will be legal in the state of Massachusetts (reported in the Boston Globe).  This is a major step in women’s rights, even though it might seem insignificant, or possibly even unrelated to alleviating sexism.  “How the heck is that the case?” you might ask.

First of all, allowing public breastfeeding allows women to make a choice about how they’re going to feed their children.  While the “breastfeeding vs. formula” battle rages on, and each feeding method becomes the “better” one for a time before being topped by the other, what matters is that women can choose which method fits their lifestyles and their beliefs.

When breastfeeding is unaccessible, and women risk sex offender status when they breastfeed in public, that choice disappears, or at least becomes less of a choice.  And while many people argue that women could just breastfeed in the bathroom, or that workplaces should provide breastfeeding areas, they’re just making the choice to breastfeed even less accessible.

Secondly, by making breastfeeding a public action, we are desexualizing breasts.  Breasts are not inherently sexual, as seen in cultures where topless women don’t cause a sensation or make a statement by being bare.  If we shift from treating breasts as sexual objects to viewing breasts as what some people’s chests look like, we can move towards desexualizing the female body in general, and reducing objectification.  I’m not arguing that breasts can’t or shouldn’t be sexy.  After all, men’s chests can be sexy; the difference currently is that men can bare their chests in public without being arrested for indecent exposure.  And since women’s bodies and breasts are hypersexualized, if we desexualize them, they might go from hypersexual to just normal sexual.

And, once again, if we reduce sexualization of breasts, we reduce objectification.

The law itself doesn’t explicitly do any of these things.  It does not state that its goal is to reduce objectification, and I doubt that that is the goal.  But as our culture norms shift, the attitudes of the younger generation also change, which we are seeing today with the growing support of LGBT rights.  Maybe someday, topless women won’t cause such a fuss.



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