2015 is a bad time to be a worker. Not only is the minimum wage well below a living wage, but corporations seem determined to erode the rights of laborers wherever and however they can, and the government keeps siding with them.
In December, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in favor of Amazon, saying that workers do not have to be compensated for the time they spend in security lines both before and after their shifts at work. Even if that time accounts for upwards of an hour a day, and even if the security checks are required by their employer.
Then, last week the Supreme Court refused to hear the case of Angela Ames, essentially ruling in favor of Nationwide Insurance Company's treatment of her. Ames was denied access to the lactation room at her office when she returned to work after maternity leave. When Ames asked for accommodations due to severe pain and pressure in her breasts, her supervisor said she should “go home and be with [her] babies,” and then proceeded to dictate her letter of resignation.
Ames ostensibly lost the case because she didn't take the proper bureaucratic actions at every step, including complaining internally before (being forced to) resign or ensuring her lactation paperwork was filed before she returned to work. This ignores Ames' experience of extreme physical pain the day she returned to work (verified by the nurse on staff), which would surely have clouded her judgement. It also ignores the fact that Ames just gave birth to a fucking baby, and might have had something else on her mind aside from paperwork and red tape. Assuming the lactation guidelines were even properly explained to her before she left for maternity leave.
The Supreme Court refusal to hear the Ames case also let stand a lower court ruling that the behavior of Ames' supervisor was not sex discrimination because some male individuals are able to lactate. Even taking that fact into consideration, it feels like a flimsy excuse meant to detract from and undermine the larger social issues at play.
The United States is still one of only a few countries which does not mandate maternity (or paternity) leave for new parents. So the fact that Ames had maternity leave in the first place, and theoretical access to a lactation room upon her return to work, made her more fortunate than many new mothers in the American workforce.
This Snopes article argues that saying the court ruled against Ames because men can theoretically lactate is too simplistic. They say, “What the trial court stated, in reference to that aspect of the case, was the plaintiff had not sufficiently demonstrated 'lactation is a medical condition [exclusively] related to pregnancy.'”
But that's not much better. Even if lactation is not exclusively related to pregnancy, women who have just given birth make up the vast majority of individuals who lactate, and who would need services like a lactation room in their workplace to begin with.
Plus, here is a Slate article relaying the experiences of a man who tried to make himself lactate by medical and hormonal means, and couldn't do it. So even if there are a few accounts of spontaneous or medically-induced lactation among men, it certainly isn't a common phenomenon.
To add insult to injury, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a similar case in 2013, ruling that firing a woman for breastfeeding IS sex discrimination.
So this case is yet another example of the ways in which women's rights are moving backwards at a frightening rate. We are living in a country doing its best to deny women access to sex education, affordable birth control, abortion, maternity leave, affordable day care, and access to programs like Medicaid and food stamps, but which will fire a woman who does have a baby for needing to pump breast milk during work hours. Because really, shouldn't she just be at home with her baby anyway?
This, in fact, is the crux of the problem. In an age defined by worker efficiency and performance, the female body is too messy and unwieldy. Jobs which count break time down to the second don't account for menstruation, which requires women spend more time in the bathroom that week to not get blood all over their clothes. Or the pressure a fetus puts on a pregnant woman's bladder which might make her need to use the restroom more frequently at work. Plus, any time Ames might have spent in the lactation room would have been taking away from her productivity at work, right? And that's what matters. That's the bottom line.
Female bodies are always leaking fluids everywhere and being inefficient and filled with all these raging hormones and emotions. Why can't women be good little worker robots like men? Men can lactate, too, you see, and they aren't bothering their supervisor's at work with all the messy details.
What's worse is that Nationwide was just in the media for this commerical, “Make Safe Happen,” which aired during the Super Bowl. The commercial features the ghost of a young boy killed in a preventable accident detailing all the benchmarks of growing up he'll miss.
The commercial ends with the quote, “At Nationwide, we believe in protecting what matters most: your kids.” But only in the sense that it means we elicit emotions that make you want to buy homeowner's insurance. Because if protecting your kids means feeding them milk from your breasts, then we actually believe you can go fuck yourself.
So much of this anti-female legislation claims to be about protecting life or children or some backwards notion of equality which means that if one man can lactate no breastfeeding woman can get “special” treatment for her legitimate medical needs.
But equality doesn't actually mean that everyone is treated exactly the same. It means everyone has the same opportunities. Which is why affirmative action isn't actually discrimination against straight, white men. Allowing Ames to breastfeed in the lactation room is an accommodation which allows her to have the same opportunities to advance at work as her male counterparts who don't bear the physical brunt of childbearing and the bulk of childcare responsibilities in our culture.
But clearly we aren't there yet as a society. We tell women they can “have it all,” which really means that they are expected to work 40 hours a week, plus do all the laundry and the dishes and cook dinner and sweep and mop the floor and dust and do most of the work involved in raising children, even if it's socially acceptable for the father to help out a little bit sometimes.
And then we punish them for forgetting to turn in one piece of paperwork on time in the midst of all those responsibilities, and the real physical trauma of labor and giving birth. Because somehow, that's justice. Because women are always held responsible for anything bad that happens to them just because they are women. Like workplace discrimination or harassment or physical assault or rape.
So the next time someone asks you why we need feminism, Angela Ames is why. She's only one of a million reasons why, but it's a good place to start.
This article was first published by The Horn on 02/12/15.