February 21, 2011
By Jessica Claire Haney
On Saturday, February 12, an estimated 150 nursing mothers and their supporters came together for a two-hour nurse-in at the Hirshhorn Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Organized by LJ Fletcher Pelham in response to an experience her friend had at the museum. The event celebrated women’s rights to breastfeed in public with a positive spirit of community.
On January 30, Norika Aita was nursing her 11-month-old daughter, Elaine, on a bench near an escalator in the museum when a security guard told her to move to a restroom to breastfeed. When Aita found no seat other than a toilet in the restroom, she returned to sit on another bench and resumed nursing. Another security guard then approached her and said, “Mom, you cannot do that.1
Shortly thereafter, Pelham began organizing a nurse-in to raise awareness about laws that protect the right to breastfeed in public. The Hirshhorn Museum apologized for the incident and indicated that guards would be made aware of the Right to Breastfeed Act, which was signed in 1999 and says that women can breastfeed children at any location in a federal building or on federal property where the mother and child both have the right to be.2
Pleased with the museum’s response, Pelham moved forward with the nurse-in, hoping to increase the public’s awareness about this law and other local laws that protect nursing mothers’ rights. At the time of the incident, Aita did not know her rights.
The tone of the nurse-in was celebratory and communal, with mothers, fathers, babies and children of all ages happily chatting, nursing, and enjoying the art. Museum staffers were supportive and enthusiastic about drawing such a crowd. “We’re glad you’re here,” beamed Hirshhorn Director of Administration and Finance Anthony (Chris) Walloo, who is expecting his first child in April and chatted with mothers about the best options for baby carriers.
A volunteer braved the wind outside the museum to pass out laminated cards with the language of the federal law as well as Maryland, Virginia and D.C. laws protecting women’s right to breastfeed in public so that everyone would walk away informed. In 2007, the District of Columbia added breastfeeding mothers to its Human Rights Act in the Child’s Right to Nurse Human Rights Amendment Act of 2007, which states that women have the right to breastfeed on any federal property in which both mother and child have a right to be “without respect to whether the mother’s breast or any part of it is uncovered during or incidental to the breastfeeding of her child.” D.C. Ann. Code § 2-1402.82(c)(1).3
Pelham explained that when the nurse-in organizers approached the museum with D.C. law, the museum responded citing federal law because the Smithsonian Institution is a federal building. Whether inside a federal building or on D.C. city property, women have the right to breastfeed in public.
Pelham was thrilled with the turnout of such a diverse array of families and with the positive energy of the event. “Because of what happened to Nori, more women know their rights regarding public breastfeeding,” she said. “And, when women know their rights, they are empowered to exercise them more confidently and more frequently, which is key. Because when public breastfeeding becomes commonplace, it will be more widely accepted and the stigma will be gone.”
On local online email lists prior to the nurse-in, response to Aita was “not uniformly supportive,” Pelham noted. “Breastfeeding in public is such a sensitive and emotional issue for many people,” she acknowledged, adding that she is grateful to Aita for her courage to speak openly about her experience and lead to more women understanding their right to nurse in public.
1. Norika Aita’s statement as quoted by LJ Pelham on the Facebook page for the nurse-in. http://www.facebook.com/notes/i-nursed-in-public-in-frederick-maryland/nurse-in-at-the-hirshhorn-museum-on-saturday-february-12-2011-from-10am-to-noon/175471635829449
2. http://www.breastfeeding.com/advocacy/advocacy_bfinpublic.html or http://www.breastfeedingwa.org/fed_leg
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