Exposéing My Breasts on the Internet
I work in a family-friendly setting. The staff and administration, my colleagues and my graduate students at American University have been nothing but supportive of me during my difficult first year as a parent. AU is also a campus that prides itself on its gender and sexuality inclusivity, a place where students commonly refer to themselves using words like cisgender, and where the male-bodied student body president came out last year as a woman. It wasn’t until some of my undergraduate students saw me feed my baby through my breast that my workplace became a hostile environment.
A week ago Tuesday my baby woke up with a fever. It was the first day of my intro “Sex, Gender Culture” class with 40 students and a new TA. Cancelling did not seem like an option. A friend who was visiting from Chile said to me over breakfast, “Just take her to class. You’re a working parent. Your students won’t care. It’ll be a teachable moment.”
I have tried to maintain as much of a separation as possible between my small family and my professional life, in large part to protect my daughter from the not-infrequent gendered attacks I receive in response to my writings. I have never mentioned her on my blog (which has made publishing field notes increasingly more difficult) and I try not to talk about her in a way that will make people think it’s appropriate to treat me as some sort of essential mother. I love my daughter unconditionally, but she does not define me, nor do I hope to define her. The last thing I wanted to do was turn Lee’s cold into a “teachable moment.” But desperately weighing the situation, it seemed that I had little choice. I could not bring her to daycare with a fever, and I did not feel like it was an option to cancel class.
I sped through the lecture and syllabus review with Lee, dressed in her comfiest blue onesie, alternately strapped to my back and crawling on the floor by my feet. The flow of my lecture was interrupted once by “Professor, your son has a paper-clip in his mouth” (I promptly extracted it without correcting my students’ gendered assumptions) and again when she crawled a little too close to an electrical outlet. Although I specifically instructed my teaching assistant, Laura, that helping me with my child was outside her job description, she insisted on holding and rocking Lee, allowing me to finish class without any major disruptions. When Lee grew restless, I briefly fed her without stopping lecture, and much to my relief, she fell asleep.
The end of class came none too soon, and I was happy to be able to take the bus home and put my sad baby in bed where she belonged. It seemed like things had gone as well as they could, given the circumstances. Until I got the following email the next day:
Hello Professor Pine,
My name is Heather Mongilio. I am one of the news assistants on The Eagle. I hope you had an enjoyable first week of classes. It was brought to our attention that you breast fed your child during your “Sex, Gender and Culture” class. I was hoping to be able to talk to you in order to discuss what happened in class and allow you to speak about the matter in your own words. I understand the delicacy of the matter and I do not want to make you feel uncomfortable, but for the story to have the most balanced angle it would be best to have your thoughts…
– Heather Mongilio
I was shocked and annoyed that this would be considered newsworthy, and at the anti-woman implications inherent in the email’s tone. “Delicate”? “Uncomfortable”? What did the Eagle, AU’s official student newspaper, think I was? A rice paper painting? A hymen? If I considered feeding my child to be a “delicate” or sensitive act, I would not have done it in front of my students. Nor would I have spent the previous year doing it on buses, trains and airplanes; on busy sidewalks and nice restaurants; in television studios and while giving plenary lectures to large conferences. I admit those lectures haven’t always gone so well (baby can get fidgety), but as a single parent without help or excess income, my choice has been between sacrificing my professional life and slogging through it.
Trying to be polite yet as firm as possible, I responded:
I really wish this weren’t considered “newsworthy,” but I suppose that’s why a feminist anthropology course is necessary at AU. I had no intention of making a political statement or shocking students. I merely had a sick baby who I couldn’t leave at daycare on the first day of class. It was unfair to leave the job of teaching the first class to my teaching assistant, so I had two choices: cancel class, which would have been disruptive to students (and which could also negatively affect my student evaluations, putting my tenure at risk), or bring the baby to class. I chose to do the latter. As it turned out, the baby got hungry, so I had to feed it during lecture. End of story.
Assistant Professor of Anthropology, American University
I have specifically tried to distance myself from lactivism, which has always seemed hopelessly bourgeois to me- those marauding bands of lactating white women who go to collectively feed their babies in places where the right to breastfeed has been called into question. I don’t hold a rigid view on whether breastfeeding is better than bottle feeding. Sure, there are health benefits, but there are also plenty of legitimate reasons why a parent may not want or be able to breastfeed. And the whole argument about the breast being more “natural” than the bottle leads down a slippery slope of biological determinism, in which (as anthropologist Sherry Ortner once famously posited) woman is to nature as man is to culture.
So why do I breastfeed? Because it’s a guaranteed food supply for my baby when I’m traveling, it’s free, I can, and I hate cleaning bottles. For me, breastfeeding has never been any sort of transcendental act. It stretches me, hurts and traps me to my body—which regularly rewards me for the sacrifice with searingly painful mastitis. Breastfeeding is not a sacred or delicate feat. It has just been the easiest way (for me) to make sure the baby gets fed.
It could be argued that my ability to breastfeed in public has been won on the breasts of so many women who have fought for that right, and that I’m ungrateful to them. To be honest, if there were an easy way I could feed my child without calling attention to my biological condition as a mother, which inevitably assumes primacy over my preferred public status as anthropologist, writer, professor, and solidarity worker, I would do so. But there is not. And although until last week it had never occurred, I believed myself a sufficiently belligerent person to take on anyone who challenged my right to feed a child, without having to resort to a gendered essentialism about the naturalness or sacredness of the mother-child bond.
Thankfully, the following class day I found a friend willing to babysit my still-feverish child ($140 for the day, in addition to the $75 I paid for the daycare that Lee couldn’t attend while sick) so I could teach class. Following class I was accosted by budding reporter Heather, who clearly had not understood what I meant in my email by “End of story.” She had emailed me during class to ask if she could come after class (I guess there are faculty out there who think it’s appropriate to check their BlackBerries while lecturing). So there she was, clipboard in hand, peppering me with questions. Having caught and improved upon my baby’s cold, I could barely speak. But I tried to explain to her what I meant by “I suppose that’s why a feminist anthropology course is necessary at AU.” And what I meant, of course, was that the Eagle targeting me as the unwilling subject of a “story” about something so banal was so outrageously sexist that it showed how anti-woman the newspaper was.
It’s not like this was new. The Eagle has long had a solidly anti-woman slant. A couple years ago the paper made news when one of its writers mocked the concept of date rape, helping to pave the way for the current nationwide atmosphere in which “legitimate rape” is a legitimate concept, viz:
Let’s get this straight: any woman who heads to an EI party as an anonymous onlooker, drinks five cups of the jungle juice, and walks back to a boy’s room with him is indicating that she wants sex, OK? To cry “date rape” after you sober up the next morning and regret the incident is the equivalent of pulling a gun to someone’s head and then later claiming that you didn’t ever actually intend to pull the trigger.
“Date rape” is an incoherent concept. There’s rape and there’s not-rape, and we need a line of demarcation. It’s not clear enough to merely speak of consent, because the lines of consent in sex—especially anonymous sex—can become very blurry. If that bothers you, then stick with Pat Robertson and his brigade of anti-sex cavemen! Don’t jump into the sexual arena if you can’t handle the volatility of its practice…
I wasn’t able to get my point across. Heather continued hounding me, as my voice became increasingly hoarse and pained. I, unfortunately, was in professor mode, too polite to tell her to go to hell. So when she asked me “do I consider the classroom a private or public space,” presumably trying to bust me for doing something “private” somewhere public, I told her it was both. AU is so expensive and exclusionary, in addition to formally being a private university, that the classroom could be argued to be private; however, the ideal of the University is to be a forum where ideas can be exchanged and debated publicly, and I hoped my classroom corresponded to that model of open inquiry. But, I added, coughing, “whether it is private or public has no bearing on whether I would choose to feed a hungry child.”
“When the incident occurred…” she began.
“I didn’t think of it as an ‘incident’,” I responded, with what I’d hoped would be visible annoyance. “But obviously one of my students told you, so I guess you think it was.”
She continued, “When the incident occurred, were you worried about what your students would think? Did they seem uncomfortable, did they say anything?”
I slapped my palm on my forehead in frustration. What I wanted to say was “Who cares? Do university students really need to be so mollycoddled that they should not see something I do on public transportation nearly every day?” But I believe my answer was more along the lines of “I’m the professor. I’m in a position of authority in the classroom. How likely is it that they will out themselves as being afraid of a partially-exposed breast on the first day of a course on feminist anthropology?”
Heather then tried to catch me on cultural insensitivity. “AU prides itself on its diversity and on having a large number of foreign students among its student body. Were you worried about what they’d think?” Exasperated, I skirted the issue of AU’s lack of class and racial diversity (in Washington DC, of all places) and tried to explain that in most other societies, people don’t have the kind of ridiculous Puritanical hangups that would turn a working woman breastfeeding into a newsworthy “incident.”
“Since it’s natural, after all, right?” She chipped in, nodding as if she got it.
I held my hands up and rolled my eyes.
She asked me if I thought the District of Columbia was doing enough to protect mothers’ rights to breastfeed. I told her that not once had my right to breastfeed been called into question prior to her turning it into a story, in all the months I’d breastfed in public places in DC. I said that this could be a mark of my white privilege; perhaps if my breast were brown or black there would have been less tolerance for its partial exposure, or perhaps not. Perhaps if I appeared poorer than I do, or otherwise out-of-place, my experience would have been different. But it did seem to reflect poorly on AU, I told her, that it was the one place I had been singled out for doing something that I have done for a full year in every venue I could think of without eliciting so much as a stare.
“Thanks” she chirped, finally sensing my eagerness to escape her. “This was a great interview!”
I became increasingly incensed at the entire premise of the “story.” The naïveté of the reporter’s questions was not promising, nor did there seem to anything newsworthy in the story other than the thrill of joining together the words “university professor” and “breast.” In an increasingly anti-woman national context, I have it easy. I am among the privileged white professional class that legislators would like to see breeding, and I have conformed to my alleged biological mandate. And yet, having worked for many years to build a reputation based on my scholarly and other work, I was loathe to become the victim of the “scoop” of a sexist third-rate university newspaper available online for all eternity, or the darling of a pro-lactation movement that in many ways I find myself at odds with.
I wrote Heather less than an hour after we parted.
I recognize that I already gave you an interview, but I want to register my strong desire that you not publish this story. I gave the interview because I felt put on the spot (having been in class went you sent your email). However, I feel that the focus on my protected actions in class singles me out unfairly in the workplace and as a woman. Especially if you are going to go the typical journalistic route of finding “both sides” of this “story” which I believe shouldn’t be one by seeking out students who felt uncomfortable by my actions, the result will be a hostile work environment for me not just now, but in the long term. You will put me in a very difficult and structurally vulnerable position by publishing this story. As I mentioned in my email (in which I was hoping that “end of story” would be understood as such), I had no intention of making a political statement or causing student discomfort by feeding a hungry baby. It was merely something I had to do in order to not cancel class.
Please do not publish this story.
Thank you, Adrienne Pine
A day later I had not received a response. I sent another email:
Please have the professional courtesy to let me know what your intentions are. Given that this story that is only “news” because of the possible salacious interpretation of my decision to hold class for my students when my baby was sick, and amounts to a possible attack on me personally along the lines of protected categories–one which will permanently exist on internet searches for my name–I would like to be able to prepare myself for the fallout.
Apparently unable to speak for herself, she responded:
I have forwarded your emails to my editors. They will be making the calls on the story. As of right now, we have not met to discuss the story. I am sorry for the wait.
At that point, I spoke with my departmental chair, who gave me his full support and—with my permission and gratitude—notified my colleagues and Dean that we were all possibly about to be drawn into a pointless story centered around my breasts. I received numerous emails of solidarity and indignation. Some colleagues expressed their hope that the Eagle would put a positive spin on the story, while others understood the more important issue—that regardless of the spin, I was being targeted as a working woman in a way that would permanently tie my reputation to my perceived biological condition. Having taken The Dialectic of Sex out of the library as an act of mourning for Shulamith Firestone, I began to wonder if Firestone was right: that women, as a class, should cybernetically seize control of the means of reproduction.
I tried to explain my position in an email to a faculty member who offered their help communicating with the staff of the Eagle:
Thank you for your help. To be honest, I really don’t care what the slant of the article is. It’s just the fact of the article itself that I find offensive. I don’t think I should be singled out for permanent internet discussion of my breasts, simply because of a difficult labor choice I had to make. Next time I will cancel class instead. It feels like harassment that something like this should even become a “story.” I’ve been breastfeeding in public for a year, and this is the first time anyone in three countries and numerous states has made an “issue” out of it. I am wary of a story about a manufactured controversy that serves no other purpose than to be tabloid titillating, permanently overshadowing my reputation (good or bad) based on my actual academic and other work.
I made the mistake of answering several questions by the student reporter who was hounding me, because she caught me off guard coming up to me after a class. Someone in the class, I assume, told her about my feeding my baby in the previous class. But her questions were so biased and sophomoric—although she appeared to admire that I had committed some sort of radical feminist act, which was not in this context at all my intention—that it became clear that the goal of the article was to explore/create a controversy where there was none. I could envision her asking leading questions that will bias my own students or other AU students against me (I am so very thankful to have the support of colleagues and administration), or the Eagle trying to turn this into a bigger story, which in the current national anti-woman climate is just terrifying. The last thing I want is to be a cause célèbre for breastfeeding, which could happen even if it’s a perfectly positive article. What is next? Polls on whether AU professors should be allowed to teach while menstruating?
I don’t know if it makes sense to contact the Eagle or not, because I wouldn’t want to do anything to encourage them further. But the paper is threatening to create a hostile work environment for me, when I am already stretched to the limit of my own health and well-being as a full-time professor and single parent.
Several hours after the email from Heather passing the buck to her editors, I heard from Managing Editor of News Paige Jones, who addressed me as a woman, rather than by any of my professional titles; apparently my breasts got in the way of her letter-writing.
Dear Ms. Pine,
I am in the process of discussing this with Heather and the Editor-In-Chief Zach Cohen. We will let you know our final decision by tomorrow.
Thank you for your time.
Managing Editor of News
Nearly three days later, I finally received an email from Zach Cohen, a junior at AU and editor-in-chief. It read,
Hope you are enjoying your Labor Day Weekend. Heather forwarded your concerns to me, and I have been discussing the matter thoroughly with our administration and local news editor and our managing editor of news.
At this point, our plan is to run the story. Rumors about the incident are already spreading through the student body, and we owe them an explanation of what really happened. We will make a final decision whether or not to run the story when I see the article in full and have no further questions for the writer.
However, providing anonymity for you is an option. I understand your concerns, and we can alternative ways of identifying you in the story.
Please let me know if you have any questions.
– Zach C. Cohen
American University, Washington, D.C.
I began to write a response:
I disagree thoroughly with your concept of what should be news (the righteous claim that “we owe them an explanation” about breastfeeding- would you “owe them an explanation” if I menstruated in class as well?). You are choosing to make a story over something that amounts to little more than tabloid fodder when there actually is legitimate investigative journalism to be done on campus regarding school links to governments, militaries and private corporations. However, I am grateful that you at least are willing to protect my name in some small way. It is clear that this non-incident that the Eagle is turning into one will now define me on campus, but I would prefer it not define me to the larger world via internet searches. Please do not use my name in a way that will be identifiable in internet searches by people…
…and then realized that one way or another and despite so many people’s efforts to provide a family-friendly workplace, the Eagle was determined to create a hostile work environment for all professors who have similarly difficult decisions to make, and who—not imagining they would be singled out for media scrutiny or attacks—might have erred, like myself, on the side of doing whatever necessary to be there for their students. The Eagle would craft a poorly-written story to which my name would be eventually tied, and would shape my online reputation for all eternity. So instead, I sent Zach a different email:
Please hide my name.
…and decided the only option left was to exposé my breasts—on my own terms—on the internet. So here’s the story, internet: I fed my sick baby during feminist anthropology class without disrupting the lecture so as to not have to cancel the first day of class. I doubt anyone saw my nipple, because I’m pretty good at covering it. But if they did, they now know that I too, a university professor, like them, have nipples. Or at least that I have one.
Now, AU Eagle, how about finding some real news to report?
Adrienne Pine is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at American University. Her latest book is Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras (UC Press 2008). She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.