A university professor recently became involved in a controversy over breast-feeding her child in class (click here for story). Was it right for her to do so? The prudish answer is a clear “no”; a breast in public is simply inappropriate. More interestingly, what conclusion should be reached by those who do not mind breast-feeding in public? Some clarifying details are in order. The professor had some special circumstances with which to deal. The child was sick, daycare wouldn’t take the child with a fever, and it was the first day of class, which she did not want to miss. However, as mentioned in comments to the story, the professor surely has friends with flexible schedules who could take the child. Failing this, the professor has the financial resources to hire a baby sitter for the time she was in class. It is also perfectly acceptable to cancel the first day of class for an emergency. The professor had options. She was not forced to take the child to class, but exercised a choice to do so, and this choice definitely lacked certain decorum. There are a number of acts that are generally acceptable in public but impolite to do in class, e.g., eating and answering the cell phone. Surely breast-feeding falls in this category.
Even though the action was arguably impolite, there are larger issues to consider. Nobody would have cared enough to turn eating in class into a controversy. Nobody would have cared enough to turn answering a cell phone into a controversy. Even passing gas due to illness, although unpleasant, would not have become a controversy. Breast feeding, however, did become a controversy. It is interesting to think whether this would have been the case if women had created the rules of acceptable social behavior. Probably in such a world breast-feeding would be as normal as is sipping a cup of coffee. It is impossible to know the answer, but the thought experiment illustrates that current rules of decorum in a professional setting are heavily influenced by the needs and desires of men. Women must conform to a world that was not created for them.
The proper answer in this case is perhaps to disagree with the professor, for she did violate rules of decorum, but to realize that the transgression was as minor as eating in class. To the extent that the transgression is made to seem more serious than that, one must recognize that the professor has been maneuvered into a difficult choice that is a product of a male-dominated society. Men and women both should recognize these social pressures and work together as equals to rework the rules for the benefit of all.