Breastfeeding In Uniform: Women Everywhere Should Stand With Military Moms

One step forward, three steps back. Yesterday, we talked about the truly inspiring promotion of Col. Jeannie Leavitt, the first female fighter pilot to command an Air Force fighter wing. Her commander understood the significance of the moment, saying, “Because of what she has done, a lot of people will be able to follow behind her.” It was a big day for one branch of the United States Armed Forces.

But while the Air Force was celebrating a tremendous woman, the entire military and more than a couple civilians, were condemning another group of soldiers and soldiers’ wives. In the past week, there’s been a huge debate surrounding photographs of mothers breastfeeding while in uniform.

It all started with a breastfeeding support group that was formed on a single military base. The group decided to have tasteful professional pictures taken of some moms nursing to use for advertisements in the upcoming National Breastfeeding Awareness Month. But apparently, some believe that the women who fight for our country shouldn’t be breastfeeding while wearing fatigues. While the reasons behind the outrage surrounding these pictures range from mildly sexist to completely insane, there was one vein of protest that made me particularly angry. Here’s an example of the line of thinking from the comments section of the blog Breastfeeding In Combat Boots.

“I feel very strongly that respect for both the uniform and for women would be compromised should women breast-feed in uniform in public. Women have fought the battle for equal rights and must be cognizant of the fact that they are still in the stage of proving themselves as equals in society and should always remain professional while in uniform. Professional women do not breast-feed in public, and female soldiers, who are professionals, should not either.”

Right in this moment, I seriously wish that I was still nursing my daughter and still working in a normal business office. I’m not one for sharing my picture online all the time, but I would so quickly snap up a nursing picture to prove my point. What exactly about a “professional woman” means that they shouldn’t breastfeed their children? And how asinine to pretend that the fight for equal rights has led us to a place where its inappropriate for a strong, competent woman to feed her child in public in the most natural way possible.

Women proved themselves in this society so that we could be both mothers and professionals. We worked hard to show that those seemingly separate personas could exist within one person. The idea that striving for equality means that a professional woman shouldn’t be seen breastfeeding is utterly ridiculous. Should a man in a business suit refuse to feed their child from a bottle?

FMLA laws only allow a woman to be off work for 12 weeks, and those are all unpaid. the World Health Organization recommends that mothers breastfeed for the first year of their child’s life. That would mean that there are still 40 weeks where a mother needs to be both back on the job and still nursing her child. 40 weeks at the very least. The idea that nursing after she goes back to work somehow makes a woman less professional is both ridiculous and damaging to women in general. That perception actually hurts the goals of equal rights and its been proven to cost women money in additional pay disparity when they choose to breastfeed.

We should be supporting women in military, and that means supporting their choice to nurse their children, no matter what uniform they have on.

(Photo: Breastfeeding In Combat Boots)

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    • Kelsey Bell

      The Air Force has to provide private areas in workcenters for mothers to be able to breast feed and they are not discouraged from breastfeeding. It is a completely natural function and very healthy for the baby. That being said, we are far more strict in the military than the civilian world. Not everyone can join the military and while in uniform we are representing the US, it’s people and our flag. We are not authorized to take pictures in uniform that will be used to support any cause without the prior approval of our public affairs office. They knew that. They are also out of uniform while they are breastfeeding, hence the private areas to breastfeed. If they want to breastfeed in civilian clothes on base, I’m all for it. Not in uniform. I get very irritated when anyone in uniform uses a special cause as an excuse to go against regulations. Following orders is one of the most important aspects of being in the military, it is important in maintaining order and discipline. They are being counseled because they skipped the chain of command and deviated from standard procedure. There are ways to go about changing things and they didnt even try to go through the proper channels. That’s why they are in trouble. And as a side note: anyone else that says breastfeeding is gross is a douche.

      • Ginger

        The mission comes first, I am a female veteran. Not on duty or in public. These women should be dischared, men have to wear their shirts on duty. Breast feeding in public in uniform underminds all the effort female military members put in to become professionals. Men are always in trouble for sexual harrisment & the same stands MUST be enforced for women. They knew better, people get busted for much less.

    • Mel

      I certainly support the right of women to choose when/how/where to breastfeed and I want women to be able to incorporate both motherhood and a career into their lives. As you said, that is precisely why we’ve worked this hard so far!

      There are additional factors here, however, that need to be said. My husband is active duty Army. The are a vast array of rules regarding conduct in uniform, regardless of gender. In fact, military regulations state that you cannot hold hands, walk with your hands in your pockets, talk on your cell phone, and many other rules (for better or worse.) The reasons for this range from presenting the military and the military uniform in a certain way to having hands free to salute superior officers. Again, some of the reasons are antiquated and silly, others are important and valid.

      The “issue” I see is that women, who are finally starting to get respect in the military for their undeniable service, should still be held to the same standards for military conduct in uniform (called “bearing.”) If a woman is breastfeeding, she would not be able to salute an officer, or she would be distracted from other duties.

      I agree that some of the comments made on this issue are asinine, and I share in your frustration that women should not be required to “hide” the fact that we are proud mothers AND professionals! I hope I’ve helped to provide a little more validity to the initial concern on this point.

    • Lindsay Cross

      Thank you both so much for your comments. Obviously, I wasn’t familiar with all the rules out there when it comes to uniforms. I understand both of your points.

      As someone who was removed from the situation, I was just so sad to see comments about how they needed to be “professional.” As if professional women can’t nurse their infants. As a mother, I find it so disappointing that we press and press new moms to nurse, basically telling them that they’re failures if they use formula, and then we give them no support or consideration while they’re trying to do so.

      But I definitely respect both of your positions as well. And I really appreciate you sharing them. Thanks so much.

    • Shelly G

      The other ladies here said it best. I was in the Army, and to me, this picture is no different than showing up at my (professional dress) job in a tank top. Yes, most jobs in the military do make it less than easy for a breastfeeding mother to feed her child or even to pump, but the blatantly disregard for protocol in this picture paired with how public it has gone is likely going to hinder any progress that’s been made towards making those conditions better.

    • DMH

      As an Army NCO, and soon to be mother next month, I agree with the previous comments.

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