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Vote Milk: The Battle for Female Politicians to Breastfeed at Work

Last week, Australia lifted its ban on breastfeeding in parliament. But for other female politicians round the world, feeding their children at their place of work is a lot more complicated.
Italian politician Licia Ronzulli. Photo courtesy of subject

The Australian House of Representatives changed its rules to allow lawmakers to breastfeed in the chamber at the beginning of February. "No member, male or female, will ever be prevented from participating fully in the operation of the parliament by reason of having the care of a baby," house leader Christopher Pyne said. "There is absolutely no reason that rules should remain in place which make life in politics and the parliament more difficult for women."


Breastfeeding in parliament is a controversial issue in many countries, and lawmakers have been criticised for taking their babies to sessions. The proposition was put forward in Australia when frontbench politician Kelly O'Dwyer was reportedly advised to express more milk in order to not miss sessions in parliament last year.

The debate has also been back in the limelight in Europe after Spanish MP Carolina Bescansa, from the Podemos (We Can) party, was criticized for taking her baby into parliament in January and breastfeeding him. Her support was shown in a retweet from Italian politician Licia Ronzulli, who has led the debate on improving working conditions for mothers in the European Parliament after she was first pictured breastfeeding during a parliamentary vote in 2010 when the child was seven weeks old.

La eurodiputada italiana — Idafe Martín Pérez (@IdafeMartin)January 13, 2016

In the UK, calls for the ban on breastfeeding in the House of Commons to be lifted by some female MPs last year were met with criticism, with male ministers warning it would risk ridicule from the tabloid press. "I think some male members really need to grow up and understand that women have to feed their babies," MP Alison Thewliss of the Scottish National Party tells Broadly. "A lot of Parliament is wrapped up in tradition."

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Thewliss speaks based on her former role as a city councillor in Glasgow. "Similar to being an MP, there was no maternity leave unlike other jobs. It was impossible for me to take a few months off as there was so much to do," she reflects. "But my colleagues there showed an understanding, and it made a real difference. Nobody had a problem with me breastfeeding my baby during committee meetings when it was hungry. The choice is personal, and the environment at the Council offered a flexibility which should also be available in the House of Commons."


In the United States, such a debate still seems distant; a proposed bill to make it a crime for women to expose their nipples in public drew sexist comments on Facebook from male lawmakers in January. A YouGov survey shows the American public were less tolerant of breastfeeding compared to the British; although the Fair Labor Standards Act was amended in 2010 to require employers to "provide reasonable break time" and space for women to pump breastmilk at work, only 16.4 percent of American women breastfeed exclusively.

Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, who nursed her newborn son in the House. Photo courtesy of subject

Dr. Virginia Sapiro, a professor of political science at Boston University, suggests that the case for breastfeeding whilst conducting legislative duties has not surfaced in the US because so few young women are elected. "Most women in the US Senate are well past the age when most women are likely to or capable of bearing children," she tells Broadly. "The youngest woman in the Senate was born in 1970, and she entered the Senate first in 2015, when she was 45 years old. As far as the House of Representatives is concerned, 12 women have given birth while in the House; they were not young, by the way. Many have had small children, but I don't know if any arrived with babies young enough to be nursing… I doubt it."

Congresswoman Linda Sanchez is one of those 12 women. She made use of nursing rooms available in the House buildings after she last gave birth in 2008. "It was certainly a challenge for me to balance being on the House floor for votes and having to feed my infant son," Sanchez says in a written statement to Broadly. "I'm glad to see the Australian parliament made progress so that being a parent and a legislator is a little easier. My hope is that sensible changes to the laws and norms in countries across the globe are made to help working parents better manage their work and family responsibilities."


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The changes in Australia were approved after a recommendation from a parliamentary committee. The new regulations mean MPs' infants will no longer be considered as "visitors" banned from entering the chamber of the lower house.

Back in the UK, Bristol University professor Dr. Sarah Childs is currently assessing gender sensitivity in the British parliament as part of a proposal that could bring the debate back. Dr. Childs tells Broadly she is "not undertaking media interviews or comments" while working on the recommendation—but says that she will be "reporting in the next month or so."

Until then, politicians like Thewliss can only wait for the proposals. "Our political system is similar to Australia, so I think we can follow in their footsteps to ensure that there could be some flexibility here too to accommodate women," she says.

"To be a MP is an unusual job, and it's a real honour. The country needs to lead the way in showing younger women that it is possible to work whilst looking after our babies if we really have to."