This week, I watched in stunned silence as the Eau Claire City Council in Wisconsin voted to bar Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle from breastfeeding her infant son on the dais, the platform where councilmembers have their official seats.
As the president of a national organization that recruits, trains and provides a powerful network for Democratic women across the country and a mother of three children, each of whom I breastfed for an entire year, I am offended by this action. I feel a personal need to stand up for Catherine and all breastfeeding mothers who seek to balance the well-being of their children with their professional obligations.
Prior to last week, Catherine, an Emerge Wisconsin alumna, had to leave her seat on the dais and sit in the front row of the audience while breastfeeding. After she decided this setup would not allow her to best perform her duties as both a councilmember and as a mother and refused to continue to be sidelined, the president of the Eau Claire City Council decided to call a vote to see if the council would make an exception that would allow Catherine to breastfeed. Shockingly, on Tuesday, they voted to officially bar her from being on the dais with her infant son.
The fact that the city council thought that it was appropriate for them have a vote on where and where not women in Eau Claire can breastfeed their children is troubling. Catherine, along with two of her council colleagues, actually abstained from voting on this measure, because they did not believe that it’s something the council should legislate. In addition, breastfeeding in public is protected by law in Wisconsin and the council chambers is paid for by public dollars. But more important than just the legality of whether or not the council should have a say in this matter, policies that make public service less accessible to working parents and create barriers to breastfeeding for moms are harmful to our governing bodies. Moms should not be forced to choose between taking care of their babies and representing their communities.
Women are already dramatically underrepresented in the political sphere. Just this week, there was a report by Who Leads Us showing that 71 percent of all office holders are male. One of the reasons women are kept out of the halls of power is because they are not able to balance their biological responsibilities like childbearing and childrearing with their work lives. If we want to see more women in politics and in leadership positions, we have to make it possible for them to have children, work and move up the leadership ladder.
How are we ever going to build a truly reflective democracy if we leave half of our most talented members of the population out in the cold during their reproductive years? What women bring to these tables are assets, not liabilities. We must demand our rightful place at the decision-making tables and do it not just for ourselves, but also for those women who came before us and those who will rise to take our places when our time has passed. Allowing working mothers to have a place at the table, while also caring for their children, shouldn't be an exception.
Right now, in America we have a misogynist, who jokes about sexually assaulting women, in the White House. The Republican Congress wants to limit our access to birth control and other reproductive healthcare. We’re seeing news that powerful director Harvey Weinstein has been using his position to to demean and assault women for years. Now, this week, the Eau Claire City Council has banned one of its members from breastfeeding her baby on the dais. These are all ways that women are being systematically oppressed. I, for one, am going to stand with Emerge Wisconsin alumna, Catherine Emmanuelle and make sure she knows that she is not alone. We are going to use our voices to fight for your right to be a breastfeeding mother and a politician.