The calls for a "nurse-in" began on the Internet mere moments after Barbara Walters uttered a negative remark about public breast-feeding on her ABC talk show, "The View."
Inspired by similar events organized by a growing group of unlikely activists nationwide, the protest brought about 200 women to ABC's headquarters Monday. "Shame on View," their signs read. "Babies Were Born to be Breastfed."
Walters, who had said a few weeks ago on the show that the sight of a woman breast-feeding on an airplane next to her had made her uncomfortable, said through a spokesman that "it was a particular circumstance, and we are surprised that it warrants a protest."
But the rally at ABC is only the most visible example of a recent wave of "lactivism." Prodded by mothers tired of being asked to adjourn to a bathroom while nursing in a public space, six states have recently passed laws giving a woman the right to breast-feed wherever she "is otherwise authorized to be."
An Ohio bill saying a woman is "entitled to breast-feed her baby in any place of public accommodation" passed the Legislature last month over the objection of one representative who wanted to exempt businesses from liability for accidents caused by "spillage."
"I really don't know any women who `spill,"' said Lisa Wilson, mother of a 4-month-old in Fairview Park, Ohio, who helped organize a nurse-in at a local deli to support the bill.
Trying for federal law
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) hosted a nurse-in on the Capitol's Cannon Terrace last month as she reintroduced federal legislation to amend the Civil Rights Act to protect women from employment discrimination for using a breast pump or feeding babies during breaks.
Nursing mothers are pressuring businesses too. Burger King has declared they are welcome. Starbucks, the target of a letter-writing campaign that asked "What's more natural than coffee and milk?" also has.
The flurry of moves come as the number of American women who choose to breast-feed has climbed from about half in 1990 to close to 70 percent.
"We're all told that breast-feeding is the best, healthiest thing you can do for your child," said Lorig Charkoudian, 32, who started the Web site www.nurseatstarbucks.com after being asked to use the bathroom to nurse at her local Starbucks. "And then we're made to feel ashamed to do it without being locked in our homes."
Legislators, business owners and family members are debating how to reconcile the health benefits of nursing with the prevailing cultural squeamishness toward nursing in public.
"It's nothing against breast-feeding. It's about exposing yourself for people who don't want to see it," said Scotty Stroup, the owner of a restaurant in Round Rock, Texas, where a nursing mother was refused service last fall.
But the new generation of lactivists compare discomfort with seeing breast-feeding in public to discomfort with seeing interracial couples or gays holding hands.
"It's like any other prejudice. They have to get used to it," said Rebecca Odes, who attended the ABC protest. "People don't want to see it because they feel uncomfortable with it, and they feel uncomfortable with it because they don't see it."
Whether to breast-feed in public, many nursing mothers say, is not simply a matter of being respectful. They cite research by the Food and Drug Administration showing that the degree of embarrassment a mother feels about breast-feeding plays a bigger role in determining whether she is likely to breast-feed than household income, length of maternity leave or employment status.
Medical advice on practice
The American Academy of Pediatrics urges that women feed their babies only breast milk for the first six months and continue breast-feeding for at least an additional six months. But while more women are breast-feeding for the first few weeks, fewer than one-third are still nursing after six months.
"To many mothers, breast-feeding runs up against sexual attitudes toward the breast," said Dr. Lawrence Gartner, who leads the academy's research on breast-feeding. "That reduces the prevalence of breast-feeding, which is a bad situation because duration of breast-feeding is an important factor in children's health."
Even mothers who are committed to nursing say they are shaken when confronted.
"People make you feel like you're doing something dirty almost," said Rene Harrell, 26, of Chantilly, Va., who recently was asked to leave a Delta Airlines lounge in Atlanta as she nursed her 8-month-old son, Elijah.