Transgressive breastfeeding and the rules of the public sphere

In case you missed it, there has been some controversy in Australia over the last few days over the issue of public breastfeeding.

A mum in Queensland was breastfeeding her baby at a public pool while supervising her two elder children. A staff member approached her to say that another family had complained, because they were offended by her breastfeeding. She then asked her to move to a private area of the pool or cover up. The mother, rightly, refused and said that this demand was illegal discrimination. Nonetheless, the pool attendant insisted and so the mother ended up taking her three children and leaving the pool in tears.

On Friday, a morning television show, Sunrise, decided that it would be a great idea to debate the issue of whether breastfeeding in public is offensive and whether the pool did the right thing. [As an aside: do we often debate whether someone breaking the law and discriminating against another person did the right thing? Why is this OK when it comes to breastfeeding women?] One of the hosts of the show, David Koch (or Kochie, as he is apparently called), expressed the opinion that the pool had done the right thing and that if women are going to breastfeed in public then they ought to “be classy about it.” Later on Twitter, he explained that it was “just common courtesy” to “be discreet” when breastfeeding.

I have to admit that I have been enraged and baffled by these comments and by the comments of the many, many Australians (both male and female) who have come to his defence. However, an article in The Punch today has made a couple of things clearer to me.

As far as I can tell, the argument being made for why women ought to “be discreet” while breastfeeding in front of other people is that breastfeeding is a “private moment between Mum and baby” unlike when those same breasts are being publicly displayed for the male gaze. As Anthony Sharwood argued in his disturbing defence of David Koch’s “keep it classy” comments, this “private moment” shouldn’t be thrust into the public sphere because then it becomes a “spectacle” – a “public exhibition of motherhood.” He goes on to argue:

“Public breastfeeding has become, for some Mums, the last frontier of showy parenthood. What started as a private, intimate thing has become its exact opposite. … Women can breastfeed in public in western societies. Hooray for them. Now maybe we can just wind this thing back a notch and think of the rest of us.”

Despite his absurd and highly offensive accusations that women deliberately make a public spectacle of themselves by “flopping their boob” out in public, Sharwood, like Koch, never actually dares to articulate why us breastfeeding mothers need to “think of the rest of [them].”

What is it about witnessing a breastfeeding pair that is so offensive to these people that it needs to be keep out of their sight?

What I think it is interesting is that Sharwood is very clear that this is not about the so-called “male gaze.” He is not offended because he views these breastfeeding breasts as sexual objects. In fact, as he proudly states several times in the opening paragraphs to his ‘article,’ he loves ogling at sexualised breasts. They are great. (Phwoar yeah, bring it on baby.) No, it would appear that the issue is precisely the opposite; these breastfeeding breasts that are apparently being thrust in his face (or, as he charmingly describes, flopped on to the dinner table) are not available to the male gaze. They are private breasts and shouldn’t be out in public.

It was here for me that this whole debate took on a disturbing level of clarity. You see, according to Sharwood (and his ilk), mothering is an ‘intimate’ and ‘private’ activity that should not be taking place in the public sphere. If somehow it does stray into that public sphere then it really ought to be careful not to become “a public spectacle.” This means that if for some reason a mother of young children does have to leave the house (which, by implication, is a transgresssive act in itself), then she should take every measure to ensure that her ‘private, intimate’ work of mothering young children does not take up public space, because it does not belong.

The public sphere is the world of men and people who can act like men; wage-earning, independent, unencumbered adults who pay their own way, speak the language of adults, move in adult ways and (crucially) obey the unwritten rules of the public sphere. This public sphere, and its unwritten rules, was created for men when women did stay at home and did do their “private, intimate” work of mothering in the private sphere.

We like to think that feminism has created a more equal society – one in which men and women are both welcome in the public sphere; in which both men and women’s issues are relevant to the public sphere. However, if you scratch a little deeper, it becomes clear that liberal feminism has only taken us so far. Women now have the right to join the public sphere, but the rules have not been significantly changed. The rules that were designed for men may have been slightly loosened so that women can obey them, but only if they unencumber themselves of their overt femininity.

Acts of overt femininity, particularly those involving small children, are still in clear breach of the rules. Breastfeeding is offensive because it thrusts the act of mothering into the public sphere. This is problematic, because not only can men not breastfeed, but they are also not parties to the act. Display your breasts for the “male gaze” and you are participating appropriately in the public sphere, because men are part of the transaction. They are, however, explicitly absent from the transaction of breastfeeding and that is precisely the problem. Ergo it is a private, intimate act between two creatures of the private sphere and if you dare to bring it into the male, public sphere then you had bloody well better be discreet about it.

I have been wondering for days now what “discreet” even means in the context of public breastfeeding. I now realise that what it means is that the woman in question must show through her body language that she knows that she is in breach of the rules of the public sphere. The specific position of her body, or her cover, is not really the issue. The issue is the body language of apology (I think the code word being used is modesty). She needs to show that she is sorry for taking up public space with her private activity. Then it would be OK. Then she could be excused.

Being proud or even nonplussed about breastfeeding our babies is an issue, not because we are being public exhibitionists, but because we are (even if we didn’t realise it) openly challenging the rules of the public sphere. We are being unapologetically, overtly female it what is still, essentially, a male space. That is what is so offensive – the brazen transgression of these long-standing, unwritten rules.

[As a final aside, it has also dawned on me that this is probably also at the heart of the ‘debate’ over whether small children should be allowed to be children in cafés, restaurants, etc… and why so-called “mommy blogging” is the object of such derision.]

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