Dec. 20, 2005 — -- It was one of those moments new moms dread. While Lori Rueger was shopping with her infant daughter, the baby "pitched a fit" -- she needed to be fed.
"When I started heading back to the car, I saw there was a Victoria's Secret," Rueger said. "Being a past customer of Victoria's Secret, I knew they had really nice dressing rooms. [I thought:] 'I'll see if they let me use it and buy something for their trouble and be on my way.'"
Instead, she said, she was told that breast-feeding in the store was against company policy and was advised to go to a nearby bathroom, which she told the employee she would not do. "I just kind of looked at her and said, 'I wouldn't eat in there. Would you?'"
At a time when "lactivists" boycott noncompliant businesses and hold nurse-ins to promote acceptance of public breast-feeding, laws regarding breast-feeding already are in place in 38 states, 31 of which allow mothers to breast-feed in any public or private location, according to October figures from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Prompted by Rueger's encounter, South Carolina is poised to become the 39th state as legislation is to be introduced next month.
Most of the 38 laws were enacted within the last 10 years, said Jody Ruskamp-Hatz, policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "That's fairly new for state laws," she said. "I really think it's a case-by-case situation for a lot of states. When a case gets a lot of attention from the media or the workplace has a problem with someone, then the state has tended to introduce legislation."
In addition to allowing breast-feeding in public locations, 15 states have laws exempting breast-feeding from public indecency laws, 10 have laws related to breast-feeding in the workplace, and four have implemented or encouraged the development of a breast-feeding awareness education campaign, according to NCSL.
"We have been pleasantly surprised to see how much support there is for legislation to protect breast-feeding," said Mary Lofton, spokeswoman for La Leche League International, which supports breast-feeding. "Occasionally, there may be one person voting on it who is opposed to it or maybe a person who is not exactly opposed to it but thinks there should be qualifications."
The laws also come at a time when an increasing number of women are choosing to nurse their babies. According to the La Leche League, most infants were breast-fed (some by wet nurses) at the beginning of the last century. In the 1920s and 1930s, most births moved from homes to hospitals, plus infant formula was introduced, and the breast-feeding rate began to plunge.
La Leche League formed in 1956, and there was a grassroots effort to promote breast-feeding in the 1960s, but the low point of in-hospital breast-feeding came in 1971 at 24.7 percent of new moms. It started to reverse the following year, and the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the initial rate was 70.9 percent in 2003, 36.2 percent at six months and 17.2 percent at a year.
For many women, breast-feeding is difficult, even if ultimately rewarding and beneficial for mother and child. Infants need to be fed every few hours, making venturing out of the home for a significant period of time difficult. Also, lactating women need to empty their breasts (either by nursing or using a breast pump) at regular intervals or they'll stop producing milk -- a particularly challenging obstacle for working mothers who may find it difficult to find a private place to nurse or pump. For women who breast-feed, tolerance for public feedings, or accommodations for nursing, can make the difference between doing it or not.
Laws may be in place to protect the rights of those mothers, and it's not as if there is an anti-breast-feeding lobby. But moms will tell you the practice is still not fully accepted by the general public, and self-proclaimed "lactivists" are taking their fight to the streets and the Internet to protest breast-feeding restrictions and negative attitudes.
"There are more people breast-feeding, and the more people who breast-feed, the more likely you are to have someone who is breast-feeding at a restaurant or a swimming pool," Lofton said. "Rights are a real issue today with everyone, whether it's breast-feeding or some other issue, and I think there is a feeling among women that this is kind of one of the last areas where they feel discrimination and they want to make sure that it no longer exists."
There were about 150 of them outside the New York studio of the ABC talk show "The View" in June, angry about comments that breast-feeding made its hosts uncomfortable. And new moms aren't the only ones organizing demonstrations. In May, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., hosted a nurse-in on Capitol Hill to reintroduce the Breast-feeding Promotion Act, which would encourage new mothers to breast-feed and protect them from discrimination, as well as amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect breast-feeding.
They also turned out, a few dozen strong and armed with signs reading, "Victoria's Secret Supports Breasts but Not Breast-feeding Mothers," to rally behind Rueger at the store in suburban Charleston, S.C., after her story made the local newspaper. And the incident prompted State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, to introduce a bill in the state legislature's January session.
"We've had several instances in South Carolina in the past where restaurants or stores have not been the most cooperative with breast-feeding mothers when they tried to breast-feed in their establishments," Limehouse said. The proposed legislation, modeled after those in neighboring Georgia and North Carolina, reads: "Breast-feeding is an important and basic act of nurture which should be encouraged in the interest of maternal and child health. A mother may breast-feed her child in any location where the mother otherwise is authorized to be."
Limehouse is working with Lin Cook, a postpartum doula and breast-feeding counselor in Charleston, to pass the legislation. "For South Carolinians, unfortunately, we've found that women don't feel protected," Cook said. "And so when they are at the point that they want to start going out, they go: 'Well, I don't really feel that I could have a place to breast-feed, and I'll just fix a bottle.'"
The pair tried to pass a similar law in 1997 and the measure failed. "I guess I was too progressive at the time," Limehouse said.
For its part, Victoria's Secret maintains that it supports breast-feeding and its policy actually allows it in stores. "There was an unfortunate misunderstanding in the incident involving us, but you know what, if it's brought forth even greater things, that's fine," said Anthony Hebron, spokesman for parent company Limited Brands in Columbus, Ohio.
While they support breast-feeding and mothers' rights, many of those involved in protecting them understand that not everyone thinks women should be able to breast-feed anywhere and everywhere.
"These are deeply imbedded beliefs that are hard to change," Lofton said. "People really and truly mean well, but they just truly feel that it's not appropriate. There is a way to discreetly breast-feed. Every mother who has ever been asked to leave has been discreet. You don't have to disrobe to nurse. If it's a fussy baby, there might be a flash of flesh that one might see, yet there's no comparison to what we see not only on the beach but walking down the street."
Rueger agreed, saying: "I think you should have some respect for privacy and try to find a corner. That's exactly what I was trying to do."
She hopes the law passes as easily as Limehouse predicts it will. "It would be a true victory for families here in South Carolina that are in support of nursing," she said.
And while she may be the driving force behind the legislation, she declines the "lactivist" title. "I'm just a mom who was trying to feed her baby the only way that she can eat," she said, "and a lot happened because of that."