WOMEN

Judge Backpedals After Ordering Activist Held Without Bond For Exposing Breast

Michelle Sutherland was recreating Virginia’s state flag, which features a goddess' exposed breast, when she was arrested for indecent exposure.
Two Equal Rights Amendment supporters, Michelle Sutherland and Natalie White, recreate the flag of Virginia outside the state
Two Equal Rights Amendment supporters, Michelle Sutherland and Natalie White, recreate the flag of Virginia outside the state Capitol in Richmond on Monday.

A Virginia judge has reversed his decision ordering an equal rights activist to be held without bond for exposing her breast outside the state’s Capitol on Monday, according to the woman’s attorney.

Michelle Renay Sutherland, 45, was granted a personal recognizance bond on Thursday by Richmond General District Court Judge Lawrence B. Cann III after he initially ordered the New York woman to remain behind bars until her court date on March 21, said her defense attorney David Baugh.

“He said, ‘I didn’t have the backstory and that’s why I denied you the bond,’” Baugh told HuffPost of the reason Cann gave for his change of heart. “It was really interesting.”

Cann, who faced widespread criticism over his decision to revoke Sutherland’s bond, said he didn’t realize that her exposure was part of a demonstration for the Equal Rights Amendment, which would amend the U.S. Constitution to outlaw discrimination on the basis of gender. Cann said this detail was not included in Sutherland’s arrest warrant for indecent exposure, according to Baugh.

Cann did not immediately respond to a request for comment left with his office. 

Sutherland’s attire replicated that of the Roman goddess Virtus as she appears on Virginia’s state flag. A second female protester, depicting “Tyranny” — who appears as a man on the flag — lay on the ground beneath one of Sutherland’s feet as Sutherland stood with one breast exposed to recreate the pose.

Virginia's seal and flag feature the Roman goddess Virtus triumphantly standing with a single breast exposed. Michelle R
Virginia's seal and flag feature the Roman goddess Virtus triumphantly standing with a single breast exposed. Michelle Renay Sutherland was recreating that pose, her attorney said.

Baugh noted that Virtus’ bare breast was on display in the courtroom this week as his client faced a misdemeanor charge for indecent exposure.

“We’re sitting there in front of the judge and he’s explaining ... and the state seal is on the wall ... and I’m looking at a nipple,” he told HuffPost.

Natalie White, who played Tyranny in Monday’s demonstration and is vice president of the advocacy group Equal Means Equal, expressed anger over the judge’s decision to deny bond, calling it a message to silence women.

“This is obviously politically motivated. They’re trying to send us a clear sign that they’re trying to silence women in Virginia,” she told The Washington Post prior to the judge’s reversal.

We’re sitting there in front of the judge and he’s explaining ... and the state seal is on the wall ... and I’m looking at a nipple. defense attorney David Baugh

Baugh called it “kind of unusual, but not unusual” for a judge to withhold bond for a defendant facing a misdemeanor charge. He added that such decisions are common when a judge considers the defendant a threat to themselves or others or believes they’re unlikely to reappear in court. Sutherland, who is from Brooklyn, doesn’t have any connections to Richmond, he said, so the judge may have thought she’d be less likely to appear.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia was among those vocally criticizing Sutherland’s arrest. In an article on Tuesday, the organization’s executive director, Claire G. Gastañaga, noted that men like Maroon 5′s Adam Levine can perform shirtless at the Super Bowl, but women like Janet Jackson get “shamed” and deemed “obscene” for exposing a nipple.

Michelle Renay Sutherland, 45, was charged with a misdemeanor count of indecent exposure after exposing her breast in public.
Michelle Renay Sutherland, 45, was charged with a misdemeanor count of indecent exposure after exposing her breast in public. A judge who initially withheld her bond said he wasn't aware that her exposure was part of a political demonstration, according to Sutherland's attorney.

“What’s ‘obscene’ is the legislature’s fear of attracting criticism from the fringe elements of the electorate who are vehemently opposed to recognizing women’s legal equality in the Constitution,” Gastañaga added, “precisely because they know doing so will finally free women who were once considered the property of their families and husbands, and, not all that long ago, denied the opportunity to vote or to attend certain state colleges and universities, or even to get credit in their own names.” 

The ACLU branch’s Twitter account also shared a list of what it considers to be “actual obscenities,” including gender pay gaps, breastfeeding and pregnancy discrimination, and sexual harassment.

Sutherland, who appears to have been released Thursday afternoon, according to online records, did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.

Asked about Sutherland’s experience behind bars, Baugh said she spent the time educating other women about the Equal Rights Amendment, which died in Virginia’s Republican-controlled House of Delegates on Thursday.

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