The lactating feminist

I'm not a porn star. I'm not burning my bra. I'm just feeding my baby in public.

Published July 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I was born too late to actively participate in the women's movement -- not that it would have mattered anyway, since I was born in Jamaica, where you are still either "Miss" or "Mrs." and never "Ms." I didn't get to burn any bras, either, but I wonder how many people would have torched their bras, had they been LaPerlas or even Victoria's Secret numbers, instead of those old-fashioned bullet-breasted ones so readily available at the time. I've always considered myself a feminist, even when the mark of a really popular girl at my Southern Baptist liberal arts college was to say, "Oh, I'd never call myself, you know, a feminist," as if it were the c-word. In seventh grade, I even sported an "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" button on my Catholic school uniform.

Lately, however, it feels like much of the work of feminism has been done. I'm in my early 30s now, and pretty happy in my life. Young women seem to have a world of choices open to them, and all is right with the world. We can now do and be anything -- at least in the United States.

Anything, that is, other than use our breasts the way they were intended to be used.

The facts are dismal. Far too few American women nurse or keep at it for very long. I think part of it is out of a desire to get their "old" life back, which is, of course, a fantasy on par with guys thinking that their pizza will be delivered by two lusty coeds with a lot of time on their hands and a desire to get really good at giving oral sex. Yet in an effort to relieve the guilt of those women who choose not to, or maybe just as a good old-fashioned American response to breasts being used for something other than to sell cars, people are working themselves into a lather about women who feed their babies in the presence of others. A Southern California writer brought suit against Borders Books for kicking her out of a store in which you're invited to sit, read, drink coffee, listen to music -- anything except lift your sweater to feed your baby. And there's been a flurry of news about "Breastfeeding Gone Horribly Wrong," which is usually a story about the failure of medical professionals to provide any kind of support and guidance to mothers, but presented as a cautionary tale about how difficult it is to make human milk. Not very, if you have support and information and can get past the first six weeks.

I was not given away by anyone at my wedding and I fought rape and sexual harassment and I kept my own name after marriage (I'm changing it now, as a gift to my dear husband and child. He, of course, thinks I'm only doing it on the advice of an attorney.)

But it turns out that the most radical feminist act I've recently undertaken has been to nurse my child in public.

I am not advocating performance artist Karen Finley's approach -- squirting milk on random passersby. Nor am I a Birkenstock-wearing, hair-shirt-sporting, tofu-grilling, home-schooling mother of seven (not that there's anything wrong with that) who nurses a first grader. Rather, much like many of my friends, I'm a Blahnik-loving, cell phone-toting chick who likes cabernet with her filet mignon. And who nurses her toddler. The reasons are simple: it's the very best thing for him. And for me as well.

Early on in my new day (and night) gig as a mommy, I discovered that people are pretty squeamish about knowing where a baby's nutrients are coming from. Now, I'm not big on exposed breasts -- nursing in public requires, for me anyway, access that does not put the nipple into public play. There's an art to it, and simple decorum suggests we not share the blow-by-blow of latching on with the room. This can take practice, but that's what La Leche League meetings are for. I'm a whiz at getting the food delivery system operational with a minimum of show. You don't even need special clothes, although those sure can help. In fact, in my free time, I've started designing nursing dresses a woman can feel and look great -- even sexy -- in. I've nursed Cameron on planes, trains and automobiles, in restaurants, in Russia and Scandinavia, at home in Jamaica, on movie sets and while being a maid of honor in a wedding, and I can proudly say that, after the initial practice period, I haven't flashed anyone. At least not anyone that I know of.

We have a male friend who thinks women should nurse in bathrooms, but he proudly tells me that I haven't grossed him out once. Thanks ... I think. By the simple act of responding to my child in a way only a woman can, and yet refusing to be locked away in my house, in my car or in a public restroom (for God's sake, I won't even use my hand to flush those toilets. Why would I feed my child there?), I have become ambassador, educator, rabble rouser, mother. Not a bad resume for a feminist, no?

This instinctive behavior has required me to stand up to men and to the Establishment in ways that would make Gloria Steinem proud -- I hope. I had to fight to keep my baby from going to a newborn nursery for no logical reason, had to struggle in the early days of his life to choose his needs over the discomfort of older, more powerful male relatives. Although I am an actress -- the most people-pleasing, bow-to-the-pater/producer member of our species -- I once told a director in no uncertain terms that his small talk was a waste of time, as I had a baby to nurse. That took guts I'm not sure I would have had without biology and engorged breasts on my side. I got the gig, by the way, and played a fiesty femme who keeps her clothes on, unlike the Hollywood norm.

Whether in gray flannel, cowboy boots or little black dresses, I am a life-giver, and that's a pretty radical thing to recognize. It may sound a little earth-mother sappy, but I am! I am not a man -- although being a man is an admittedly attractive proposition at 3 a.m. when I feel for all the world like a 24-hour Dairy Queen. But in not escaping my biology or my progeny, I found myself. Maybe not a blow-dried, Parents magazine glossy self, but it's me.

So, ultimately, why is nursing -- something done by refugees in Kosovo, poor immigrants in America and starving mothers in Africa -- a feminist undertaking? Because instead of viewing your boobies through the distorting prism of Hugh Hefner's bifocals -- too small, too flabby, too pendulous, too stretch-marked, not centerfold-material -- now you realize they are, as Martha Stewart would say, A Good Thing. Viewed through the milk-induced drunken smile of your baby, they are The Very Best Thing. And to hide that from the rest of the world would be very bad, indeed.

By Roxanne Beckford Hoge

Actress and mother Roxanne Beckford Hoge has been in too many lame sitcoms that aired and brilliant pilots that never saw the light of day to count. She and her husband, Bob, live in Los Angeles, where they mastermind the cool parenting and nursing clothes site One Hot Mama while not learning from the master, their son Cameron.

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