Last week, a fascinating controversy erupted that is worth mulling over. According to an article in The Huffington Post, an American University professor, finding herself in a child-care jam because her baby was sick, took the baby to class, let the baby crawl around while she lectured, and then started breastfeeding when the baby got hungry. Evidently this act was hugely controversial.
Now we must admit that if there was a reasonable threat that the child was spreading disease, or if the professor was somehow unable to present the material because of the child, perhaps she should have made other arrangements. On the other hand, with regard to the latter concern, cancelling class would surely have disrupted presentation of the material more than lecturing with a fussy child. When one reviews internet comments on the incident, it becomes evident that many people have a visceral, negative reaction to what the professor did—despite the absence of any allegation that she failed to do her job adequately in teaching class that day. Apparently, many people take the view that her choice was per se unprofessional. The interesting question is, why?
Let me hazard a hypothesis: as a society, we are deeply uncomfortable with women in public. Hold on, you might say, what about feminism? What about the Nineteenth Amendment, what about civil rights law, etc.? I repeat my hypothesis, and now let me extend it: we have no problem with honorary men, i.e., pants-wearing persons with two X chromosomes, in public. What really bothers us is when a person with two X chromosomes engages in exclusively feminine activity like breastfeeding, while on the job—irrespective of whether the breastfeeding meaningfully disrupts what is going on in the workplace. In other words, we don’t like it when a woman combines traditional and modern roles.
If you are skeptical, let me offer some evidence. The two female politicians who received the most scathing criticism of late were Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. Both combined traditional and modern roles—Hillary Clinton by touting her professional background as a prospective first lady, and then running for the senate after being first lady, and Sarah Palin by having a child in office. By contrast, female politicians appearing solely in their modern, professional capacity (Barbara Boxer, Michelle Bachman); or political wives whom we associate almost exclusively with a traditional role (Laura Bush, Michelle Obama), do not find themselves on the receiving end of anything close the same negative attention. Controversy also swirled around former Massachusetts Acting Governor Jane Swift when she had children in office.
My point is not to endorse either Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin (personally I am not a fan of progressive politics, on the one hand, or reality TV, on the other). Nor am I trying to editorialize on a right to breastfeed in the workplace. I just find the visceral negative reaction fascinating. It could be that there is good reason for our discomfort with the combination of traditional and modern roles on the part of women. There is nothing illegitimate about concern for the needs of children. Most of people, however, generally consider it appropriate to leave judgments about the needs of children to the children’s parents. And frankly, the ire over the professor bringing her baby to class is absurd.