Feminist writer and campaigner Kirsty Strickland blasts the "prehistoric views" of the DUP's Sammy Wilson MP on breastfeeding in the Commons
THE phrase "a week is a long time in politics" has been given a new lease of life in 2016. Since the Brexit vote, a week is enough time for a new prime minister to be chosen, Boris Johnson to become foreign secretary and the official opposition to implode.
It is also ample time for editorials on the significance the second ever female prime minister in the UK to be replaced with reports on yet another male MP with prehistoric views.
A recent report by Bristol University gender and politics professor Sarah Childs recommended that female MPs should be allowed to breastfeed in the chamber, in order to fully participate in House of Commons business. The report came after a year-long review into how to tackle sexism in parliament.
Imagine knowing so little about breastfeeding – or women – that your brain makes a link between a mother feeding her child and a furtive sexual practice. Aside from being a comparison riddled with sexism, it doesn’t actually make sense.
Asked about the report during a radio interview, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP Sammy Wilson said: "In the House of Commons there are plenty of places where women, if they want to breastfeed their children, can do it without being under the glare of the cameras in the Commons chamber.
"This kind of voyeurism, to an extent, that is how it would be viewed in some cases."
Voyeurism. Imagine knowing so little about breastfeeding – or women – that your brain makes a link between a mother feeding her child and a furtive sexual practice. Aside from being a comparison riddled with sexism, it doesn’t actually make sense.
He went on: "To me, anyone who chooses to do it in the chamber rather than who do it in the quietness of their office, is doing it for reasons other than simply feeding the child, to make a point."
The justification might not be sound, but the meaning is clear. Breastfeeding women should be discreet, out of sight, and most importantly, out of the chamber.
I had a short-lived period of breastfeeding when my daughter was born. I never considered my leaking boobs a statement, an act of voyeurism or exhibitionism.
The objectification of women’s bodies mean that for some, breasts are inherently sexual. This manifests itself into a situation where Page 3 was a national treasure but the sight of a child suckling from their mother is a tasteless, obscene statement.
The DUP has distanced itself from its MP's remarks, but the double standard around the acceptability of breastfeeding in public is widespread.
Women should be supported in their feeding decisions, but so often that isn’t the case. Bottle feed through choice or necessity and there are those who will ask you why you don’t care that 'breast is best'. Breastfeed, and prepare to become a pawn in a debate about whether you should be allowed to leave your house with your cluster-feeding baby for the first six months.
I had a short-lived period of breastfeeding when my daughter was born. I thought a lot of things during that time. How can somebody with no teeth bite so hard? Why am I so thirsty? Why is she sleeping when I’m here with all this milk pouring out of me?
I never considered my leaking boobs a statement, an act of voyeurism or exhibitionism. The few times I did feed in public, all that could be seen was the back of my baby’s head and her tiny fingers clawing my neck.
While women are still under-represented in parliament it is essential the female MPs we do have are active and vocal in breaking down the barriers to women in politics.
If anybody ever sees more than that when a woman is breastfeeding then I’d suggest they are standing too close or looking too keenly.
Breastfeeding Peer Supporter Lauren Collett responded to the report and Wilson’s comments. She said: "Breasts are almost wholly sexualised by the popular media. Language such as 'voyeurism' and 'exhibitionism' reinforce that discourse.
"New mothers, often already lacking in body confidence post-natally having gone through the physical changes of pregnancy and birth, may be even less likely to breastfeed in public places, when they hear comments such as those put forward by Sammy Wilson."
"So many mums visiting us at our breastfeeding support group say they are too nervous about 'getting it wrong' to breastfeed in public. MPs feeding in the chamber when their babies need to feed would be a wonderful example to new mums everywhere that breastfeeding can happen anytime, anywhere, as a natural, normal part of parenting."
While women are still under-represented in parliament it is essential the female MPs we do have are active and vocal in breaking down the barriers to women in politics. That means dragging the House of Commons into the 21st century, kicking and screaming 'order order' if need be.
That means dragging the House of Commons into the 21st century, kicking and screaming 'order order' if need be.
Speaker John Bercow endorsed Sarah Childs' report but has yet to say whether or not he will overturn the current ban on infants in the Chamber. In reaching his decision he might want to look at the European Parliament, where MEPs are permitted to breastfeed and the sky hasn’t fallen in.
The very idea of a 'family friendly' parliament will always face opposition from those who think tradition and convention should matter more than progress. Sexism in parliament won’t be eradicated with the addition of feeding babies, but as part of a wider culture change it could be a positive step.
Some MPs spend the time between evening votes propping up the Commons bar. Others might use that time to give their baby its last feed before bed. If one is an accepted practice and the other uniquely disruptive, then surely that is something we need to challenge.
It’s time for the 'mother of parliaments' to move away from the gilded gentlemen’s club atmosphere to a more grown up, inclusive, and representative symbol of our democracy.
Picture courtesy of Chris Alban Hansen
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