Women and children gathered today under the dome of City Hall for “The Big Latch On 2014” — the local iteration of a nationwide event to celebrate World Breastfeeding Week. At exactly 10:30 a.m. PST, mothers gathered in public and private locations around the world to breastfeed together for at least one minute. The event is not a protest or demonstration: “It’s not a nurse-in!” one mother told me, “It’s a chance to get together.” The event is aimed at supporting women who breastfeed, educating and raising awareness, and normalizing public breastfeeding.
The small group of women, babies, toddlers, and even a stray father sat on the marble steps inside City Hall at 10:35, still nursing, chatting, and trying to keep their offspring from licking the steps. The neo-classical opulence of City Hall, which always looks surprised to find itself in a dilapidated corner of San Francisco rather than on a Roman green, was abuzz with a wedding, tourists, and employees; the small cadre of breastfeeders attracted few stares. Suki Kott, who organizer of the San Francisco chapter of The Big Latch On with Lesley Simmons, says that she rarely encounters resistance to public breastfeeding.
“San Francisco is, on the whole, very breastfeeding friendly,” says Andrea Stein, who brought 14-month old Luna; she adds that she too feels comfortable breastfeeding in public in the Bay Area and has not felt stigmatized.
Both women say that they joined in the Latch On to support women the world over. Kott says, “We hope that by being here we’re standing in solidarity with mothers all over the world who might be encountering public sentiment that’s more negative than what we have in San Francisco and California in general.”
Stein, who breastfeeds in post offices and restaurants argues that breastfeeding is stigmatized “because breasts are sexualized and women are thought of as sexual objects and people think anything that you use sexually is purely that way, and people don’t see it enough.” In 2013 The Global Big Latch On, which originated with Women’s Health Action in New Zealand, set its current record with 14,536 children breastfeeding in 845 locations in 28 countries in the same minute.
Kott, whose daughter Gemma recently celebrated her second birthday, is quick to dispel assumptions that public breastfeeding is a personal choice. “There is no choice. If your baby is hungry you’re going to feed your baby. If you happen to be stuck in the BART station waiting for a train, or you have to be in a restaurant, you have to feed your baby.”
Stein agrees, “I breastfeed all the time because she won’t let me not. I don’t use a cover and I never have in my life and no one has ever come up to me and told me to stop, thank god, because I would quote the law to them; I have it saved on my phone.”
The plaza that leads from the Civic Center to City Hall has embossed in with the preamble to the Charter of the United Nations, signed in the War Memorial Veterans Building in 1945. The charter states, in part, “We the people of the United Nations determined: to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.” The jumble of women and offspring quietly nursing on the steps of City Hall today made clear that breastfeeding is a human right, that women are equal, and that humans large and small should have access to sustenance.
I stood facing the swirling marble edifice of City Hall, marveling over the ironies of a society that allows men to run around topless but shames women for using the top half of their bodies to feed children, taking a picture of some of the feeding mothers. “Did you get my nipple in that shot?” asked one woman, concerned. I told her I had not.