Two Breastfeeding Americas

Remember when then-vice presidential candidate John Edwards kept speaking back in 2004 about the “two Americas”-one for the wealthy and one for the poor? Well, today The New York Times reports that there are two Americas for working women who want to continue breastfeeding their babies.

There’s the America for the corporate executives, like those the article describes who work at Starbucks, who, when they return to work after having a baby, have access to a room with plush recliners equipped with a company-supplied pump, where they can express breast milk at peace into bottles to take home later.Then there are the Starbucks baristas, who if they want to pump must head to the restroom while on a break. And believe me, as I reported here, no woman wants to pump milk in a toilet stall. Of the ten states that have laws to make breastfeeding or pumping easier for working mothers, six explicitly state that employers should should try to find a private place for mothers to express milk that is “not a toilet stall.”

And that’s at Starbucks, which has the reputation of being a progressive company that provides benefits for all of its workers. Reports the Times:

As pressure to breast-feed increases, a two-class system is emerging for working mothers. For those with autonomy in their jobs – generally, well-paid professionals – breast-feeding, and the pumping it requires, is a matter of choice.

It is usually an inconvenience, and it may be an embarrassing comedy of manners, involving leaky bottles tucked into briefcases and brown paper bags in the office refrigerator. But for lower-income mothers – including many who work in restaurants, factories, call centers and the military – pumping at work is close to impossible, causing many women to decline to breast-feed at all, and others to quit after a short time.

It is a particularly literal case of how well-being tends to beget further well-being, and disadvantage tends to create disadvantage – passed down in a mother’s milk, or lack thereof.

Poor women are at a disadvantage, too, because they are less likely to be able to afford a fancy $300 breast pump. The less expensive ones are often also less effective in expressing milk and also often require a woman to take more time to do so.

The great majority of states do not have laws requiring employers to make it easier for their employees to breastfeed. And while Rep. Carol Maloney has a bill to provide breastfeeding women protection under the Civil Rights Act, as well as providing employers a business tax credit for breast pumps, the legislation is languishing in committee.

Maloney told the Times that she “can’t understand why this doesn’t move. This is pro-family, pro-health, pro-economy.”

It’s not that big a mystery. The business community often opposes this type of legislation. And of course it’s the business community that’s the biggest source of the campaign contributions lawmakers need to win their political campaigns.

In Colorado, earlier this year, the legislature considered a bill that would have required employers to provide two ten-minute breaks and a place where a mother could use a breast pump to express milk for her baby. In February, the Senate passed a weakened form of the bill but then quashed it the next day.

Who opposed the bill? The Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, a trade association representing the business community. At the time, Donnah Moody, a lobbyist for the group, told the Rocky Mountain News, “What problem are we trying to solve? Breast feeding is not a right to be mandated. I can’t imagine an employer not willing to provide flexibility for an employee to go to the restroom to take care of their needs.”

She can’t imagine that, huh? Maybe that’s because, as a lobbyist, she lives in one of the Americas, the one where wealthier, professional women are more likely to find employers sympathetic to their desire to continue to breastfeed their children.

[crossposted at Muckraking Mom]

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About the Author

Nancy Watzman

is a Denver-based writer.

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