Breast-Feeders Unite to Demand Their Rights

Nov. 22, 2006— -- Inspired by an incident at a Burlington, Vt., airport last month, protesters held "nurse-ins" at airports around the country today to call attention to a woman's right to breast-feed in public.

On Oct. 13, after waiting several hours for a delayed Freedom Airlines flight out of the Vermont International Airport, Emily Gillette says she was kicked off the plane for breast-feeding her 22-month-old daughter.

A flight attendant allegedly told the 27-year-old mother the she offended her. The attendant then offered Gillette a blanket and asked her to cover up.

When Gillette balked, a ticket officer boarded the plane and escorted Gillette, her husband, Brad, and their daughter, River, off the plane, Gillette says. Gillette tells ABC News that she was humiliated, and felt incredibly helpless, given the environment.

"There are so many TSA guidelines, restrictions. … We step really carefully and we're much more aware of our behavior on airplanes," Gillette says.

As she was leaving the plane, Gillette reportedly asked the flight attendant, through tears, "Why are you doing this to me? I did nothing wrong."

Delta, the parent company of Freedom Airlines, apparently agrees.

In a statement, the airline says it "fully supports a mother's right to breast-feed her baby onboard our aircraft. And we regret the decision to remove the passenger from Flight 6160. This is absolutely not in keeping with our high standards of customer service."

Today, Gillette says she believes this statement contradicts the way the company has treated her since the incident occurred.

Gillette filed a complaint with the Vermont Human Rights Commission against Freedom Airlines and Delta. Her attorney, Elizabeth A. Boepple, tells ABC News that Gillette would like a personal apology, among other things.

"Emily's desire is to see written policies in place for these two companies providing for the rights of breast-feeding mothers, and part of these policies is ... training their employees," the lawyer says.

Freedom Airlines also says it had disciplined the flight attendant.

Self-proclaimed "lactivists" breast-fed in front of Delta ticketing counters today, the "nurse-in" organizers say this is not an isolated incident. They scheduled "nurse-ins" today in at least 18 airports, including the airport in Burlington, as well as at airports in Baltimore; Detroit; Nashville, Tenn.; New York; Minneapolis; and Columbus, Ohio.

Gillette saysd she is grateful for the support.

"I just feel really lucky to be a part of something so important," she says. "This is much bigger than what happened to me. It's women coming out to say I need to breast-feed my child anywhere, anytime."

Thirty-seven states, including Vermont, have passed laws protecting a woman's right to breast-feed in restaurants, malls and other public places. Thirty-one of these states allow mothers to breast-feed in any public or private location, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But some mothers still feel pressured to be "discreet" when nursing in public.

"On airplanes, you're in an enclosed space, so I've tried to be more secretive about it," says Jennifer Missbrenner, a New York mother.

New mother Monique Lyons-Greenspan says she agrees.

"I also try to be discreet about it. It's also for my privacy as well," she says. "It's been a choice to be kind of mild-mannered about it."

And a third mom, Carolyn Risoly, points out the irony in the outrage that breast-feeding moms sometimes arose.

"It's a very natural thing, and it's too bad people aren't comfortable with it," Risoly says.

Gillette's case adds another chapter to the debate that pits the rights of nursing mothers against notions of propriety.

Linda Blum, an associate professor of sociology and women's studies at the University of New Hampshire and author of "At the Breast," tells ABC News that some people see breast-feeding as improper, even though researchers have established that nursing delivers long-term health benefits to infants and mothers.

"It seems perverse to some," Blum says. "Because we have made breasts into sexual objects, we don't want to see women breast-feeding their children, although we keep saying 'breast is best.' We want breast-feeding to be out of sight."