It will likely come as no surprise to most feminists that the Defense Department remains sexist, specifically against women (mothers), even as it embraces gay and lesbian enlisted and officer personnel. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that the Department of Defense “gave in” and allowed members of the military to wear their uniforms in the Gay Pride Parade in San Diego July 21, 2012. It’s a sign that the military is recognizing the humanity of its members. I celebrate with all people who work for equality of all peoples, of all races, religions, ethnicities, and sexual orientation. Gender, well, that is one on which the Department of Defense still needs to work. One may be gay or lesbian and serve, yet nursing mothers are asked to stay in the closet, or bathroom.
Just a few months ago this spring, female Air Force members were chastised for allowing themselves to be photographed while breastfeeding their babies in a public relations campaign aimed at supporting breastfeeding among active duty moms. While the mothers in question are reported to have not suffered sanctions or punishment, that has been publicized, at least, there was uproar from within and outside the military. On websites and radio talk shows, men and women bristled at the thought of women in uniform nursing babies in public. The National Guard made a public statement claiming that regulations do not allow our military members to use their uniforms to promote any kind of cause.
State legislatures have passed protective legislation around breastfeeding. These laws are aimed at protecting a woman’s right to breastfeed in public, and to view any disapproval by any party as discrimination and harassment. It seems bizarre that legislation had to be enacted so that women were not asked to leave malls, museums and other public places. Especially considering that women’s breasts are used in every manner possible to promote everything from cars to alcoholic beverages, women doing what is natural and healthy for their children being seen as vulgar seems incongruent. This is a testament to the sexism that exists in our society, and the attitude that women’s bodies are not their own, but rather for men. Breasts, when used for their natural and biologically intended purpose, are viewed as somehow undesirable, which, I suppose, is the point. Breasts that are feeding babies are viewed as unavailable sexually, and thus not for the public eye.
This is taken a step further in the military, which still seems not to know what to do with the presence of women in its midst. The issue is not just the photograph which has made the rounds of the Internet over the past several months. Women in the military who go to well-baby visits while on duty, when they are required to remain in uniform, are told they cannot breastfeed their children in the doctor’s waiting room. Those against women breastfeeding in uniform claim that breastfeeding undermines the authority of the uniform itself and cannot be done in a manner that maintains the decorum expected of active duty military members. Others who won’t condone breastfeeding in uniform claim that the act of breastfeeding feminizes and thus compromises or diminishes the authority conveyed by the uniform. That an act that is considered “feminine” detracts from authority speaks volumes about the pervasive sexism in the military.
A blog that deals with breastfeeding issues for women in the military brings up an interesting argument in this debate. First, there is no policy about women breastfeeding in uniform, and thus, individual commanders invoking their own policy based on their personal feelings is not adequate. Additionally, the argument is made that if a woman cannot breastfeed in public in uniform, then she should also be prohibited from bottle feeding. When viewed from that standpoint, it is interesting that we consider nurturing and feeding babies as an act that denigrates the uniform. What does that say about our military and our culture at large? Taken a step further (into absurdity, I admit), I suppose fathers returning from war zones should not embrace children or be pictured rolling in the grass with long-missed dogs upon homecomings. The act of embracing and lifting a child out of doors might disturb the cap worn by military members as required by uniform standards. Additionally, how can one take seriously a man who drops to his knees to tearily embrace his toddler? Isn’t his authority diminished? We see his human side, his nurturing side, and how can we then later take orders from him?
With the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” we have actually proven that even if someone is not heterosexual, he or she is still to be taken seriously and remains authoritative. We have seen military members embrace, both metaphorically and sometimes even physically, their comrades in arms who are gay or lesbian. The structure of the military and its authority have not been undermined by something less than our constructed definitions of masculinity. It is femininity that remains unable to be embraced.
This summer, public sentiment about the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the climate for acceptance of gay and lesbian members of the military were enough to topple the Defense Department. (Don’t tell the Taliban!) Typically, members of the military are prohibited from marching in parades in full uniform, according to the Department of Defense. In this case, when the parade is in support of sexual orientation, it would seem doubly egregious for uniformed military personnel to march, since not only does it go against policies about parades, but also supports a cause.
While San Diego is known as a military community with the Marines and Navy both based out of the area, it is also known as a city that embraces all lifestyles. (San Diego is even known as a “dog city” for those who want to live in a place that accepts pets as readily as people.) I think it is absolutely wonderful—a cause for celebration—that our men and women of the armed forces were allowed to wear their uniforms and march in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Parade, and a huge step forward for our country and society, in fact. What bothers me is that if any of our enlisted or officer moms marched or sat on the sidelines in uniform, that they would have been ridiculed and possibly disciplined for nursing their babies. It seems a total miscarriage of justice that mothers who serve our country are treated still as second-class citizens, and are asked to remain behind closed doors, in metaphorical closets, even as I celebrate the acceptance and equality of gay and lesbian soldiers.
Kate Robinson, M.A. adult learning and development, is a Master’s in Social Work candidate at Bridgewater State University. She lives south of Boston with her family.
Kate enjoys writing, reading, collage and felting. She also works in medical education and as a counselor at a women’s health clinic.