A new state law that went into effect in January ensures that mothers have a right to breastfeed their children in public, without harassment or discrimination. But that doesn't mean everyone knows about or understands the new law, as a recent, much-covered case proves.
On June 19, a Belchertown woman traveling on a PVTA bus in Amherst was twice asked by the driver to stop breastfeeding her daughter—a clear violation of the law. As word spread about the case, PVTA officials and the driver apologized to the mother, and the transit authority publicly committed to making sure its drivers are informed about the law.
That quick response seems prompted at least in part by pressure exerted by Pioneer Valley MomsRising, the political arm of the Amherst-based advocacy group MotherWoman. MomsRising (which recently launched a campaign to get local hospitals to strengthen their breastfeeding support services; see "Going Baby Friendly," May 14, 2009) promptly informed supporters of the incident and asked them to contact the PVTA. Meanwhile, a MomsRising staffer joined the mom in approaching the driver when the bus returned to downtown Amherst on its next loop. MomsRising also sent a letter to the PVTA asking for management to meet with the mother and a lactation consultant to discuss the incident.
That's all part of a protocol MomsRising has established as the "go-to" group for women whose right to breastfeed in public has been violated, explained Melanie DeSilva, executive director of MotherWoman. The group takes a two-pronged approach: first, it advocates for the mom, providing support, making sure she knows her legal rights, even helping her file a complaint with the Mass. Commission Against Discrimination, if she desires. MomsRising also offers to work with the business, for free, to help it develop appropriate breastfeeding policies and employee training, to make sure similar incidents don't happen in the future.
While the PVTA has issued apologies and publicly stated its plans for employee training, as of last Friday, MomsRising was still waiting for a direct response from the transit authority. MomsRising would like to meet with PVTA officials to discuss plans for ongoing driver education, DeSilva said. MomsRising would also like the PVTA to display "breastfeeding-friendly" signs on its buses.
Before the new law took effect this spring, Massachusetts was one of just a handful of states that offered breastfeeding moms no legal protection. That didn't mean that scores of Massachusetts moms were being hauled away in paddy wagons on indecent exposure charges for nursing their babies in mall food courts. Public breastfeeding wasn't illegal; it just wasn't legally protected. But it did mean mothers could find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having a restaurant manager or department store clerk tell them to stop feeding their child, or even ask them to leave the business.
The law, which came after years of hard work by activists, allows a woman to breastfeed in any public place except places of worship (an unfortunate exception that, intentionally or not, plays to the idea that there's something obscene about breastfeeding). It also allows a woman (or the Attorney General) to bring a civil action against anyone who harasses her or tries to prevent her from breastfeeding in public. If a court finds the woman's rights have been violated, she could receive damages of up to $500, as well as her attorney costs.
DeSilva encourages women whose breastfeeding rights have been violated to contact MomsRising at (413) 253-8990, or by email at email@example.com. MomsRising holds regular meetings, open to the public, on the fourth Thursday of every month at the MotherWoman office at 96 North Pleasant St., Amherst. In addition, the Pioneer Valley Breastfeeding Task Force (www.valleybreastfeeding.org) offers free business cards, printed with the text of the law, that moms can carry to give to anyone who gives them a hard time for nursing in public.