On a Sunday in late January, Noriko Aita sat down on a bench in the gallery’s basement to nurse her baby daughter. After less than a minute, she later said, “a security guard rushed over to us and told me that I should nurse her in the restroom.”
Putting aside the obvious objection that no one should have to eat in a bathroom, Aita tried -- but there was no bench in the restroom.
“I returned to the bench and explained that to the guard when he came again,” she said. “The guard then suggested I sit on the toilet if I couldn't find a chair. I moved to another bench and then another -- bigger, muscular -- security guard came over and said, ‘Mom, you cannot do that.’” So they left.
But both guards were wrong. A 1999 federal law states that “a woman may breastfeed her child at any location in a federal building or on federal property, if the woman and her child are otherwise authorized to be present at the location,” and D.C.’s Child’s Right to Nurse Law also protects the right of mothers to nurse in public.
To its credit, the Hirshhorn realizes it was wrong, apologized both personally and publicly, and says it welcomes the families this Saturday. The museum said, “We have responded to the mother’s complaint and have made our security staff aware of the federal law allowing women to breastfeed in any public or private location. We regret that this incident occurred and we apologize for the frustration it has caused.”
So why is the nurse-in going forward? Because many people -- not just security guards, but often mothers themselves -- are unaware of the right to nurse.
“This is not a protest against the Hirshhorn or Smithsonian,” organizer L.J. Pelham told me. “The objective of the nurse-in is to raise awareness of the laws and rights among breastfeeding moms -- who might not know -- and among the public so that this doesn't happen again.”
Pelham said that “the fact that they have apologized is wonderful. The Hirshhorn and Smithsonian have really stepped up and made right a bad situation, and Nori is satisfied with their response.” The situation “did not happen because we lack protective laws or because the Smithsonian doesn’t have a policy about this,” she said. “Instead, this situation happened because of a lack of awareness, a lack of education.”
It’s a shame that the security guards, even if misinformed, would even have to worry that someone might be offended by the sight of a mother feeding her child. Being put off by seeing breasts used for nursing would be like being offended by seeing legs used for walking. It’s what they’re there for.
The Hirshhorn -- a favorite museum of my young sons since they were nursing themselves -- stepped up and is doing the right thing. They are welcoming Aita and her daughter, and other moms and children too -- and hopefully, helping to educate others about the right to breastfeed.