Dozens of women exposed their breasts in the halls of the Smithsonian’s contemporary art museum, the Hirshhorn, this past Saturday.
It wasn’t some sort of avant-garde artistic statement – it was a modern-day civic protest against the idea that breastfeeding in public could be considered indecent.
It all started on January 30th, when a mom from Rockville, Maryland was nursing her infant daughter while sitting on a bench in the Hirshhorn. She was told by a museum security guard that she couldn’t breastfeed in public, and was instructed to move to the ladies’ room.
After not finding a place to sit in the restroom, and being told to stop breastfeeding by yet another security guard, she and her family ultimately gave up on their day at the museum and went home.
But like any good Washingtonian, she decided to go on the Internet and find out her rights.
It turns out, the Right to Breastfeed Act, signed by Bill Clinton in 1999, guarantees that mothers can breastfeed on federal property.
The story quickly made the rounds of mommy blogs and local parenting listservs, and suddenly there sprung up a genuine civil protest – a planned nurse-in at the museum.
Hirshhorn officials actually offered an apology as soon as they learned about the incident, and promised to educate their staff about breastfeeding rights. This was a good example by the Smithsonian on how to correctly handle a controversy about public indecency at one of their museums.
But the organizers of the nurse-in also saw this as a teachable moment for the public at large.
Having spent a fair amount of time in African villages and clinics for my day job, public breastfeeding is certainly something I’ve become accustomed to. (In Africa, women actually face social stigma if they’re not seen breastfeeding in public.)
As a neutral observer, I decided to go down to the Hirshhorn on Saturday morning to document the two-hour nurse-in. The organizers described it as less of a protest, and more of a grassroots, educational event to destigmatize breastfeeding.
The mood was certainly light and festive, with perhaps 100 people gathered – “lactivists” as the Washington Post called them. Mothers nursed their babies while sitting on benches and floors. Fathers stood by idly in a show of support. Little ones crawled and wobbled down the exhibit halls.
Unsuspecting tourists yesterday could have been forgiven for thinking that there was a sudden surge of interest by the under-two set in the modernist Belgian artist Hans Op de Beeck, who had a video exhibition downstairs.
While I didn’t see many people admiring the art, there was a lot of socializing, some swapping of parenting tips, and general cooing.
It could have been a large Capitol Hill play date.
Although there seems to be room for honest difference of opinion on how discrete to be when breastfeeding in public, there was no sign of public indecency on display at the museum.
After taking in the scene for about thirty minutes while nursing my morning coffee, I decided it was best to depart early – before the younger protesters began to get fussy.