Controversy Erupts Over Photos Of Military Women Breastfeeding

A local group’s effort to support breastfeeding mothers at Fairchild Air Force Base outside of Spokane, Washington has opened a debate about whether it is appropriate for military women to breastfeed their children while in uniform.

The controversy started with staged pictures a photographer took of two mothers for a breastfeeding awareness campaign. But because Sgt. Terran Echegoyen McCabe and Staff Sgt. Christina Luna serve in the Air Force and were breastfeeding in uniform, critics attacked the photos and called it a “disgrace to the uniform.”

There are many restrictions on a servicemember’s behavior while wearing their uniform: bans on walking and smoking and walking and eating, no chewing gum, and even a Navy rule against pumping gas while in a work uniform. But according to Air Force spokeswoman Captain Rose Richeson, the Air Force has no rule against a woman breastfeeding while wearing her uniform. “Airmen should be mindful of their dress and appearance and present a professional image at all times while in uniform,” she said.

That did not stop the complaints that breastfeeding in public was equivalent to urinating in public and criticism that it broke with military tradition. As Mother Jones’ Adam Weinstein explains, the concerns about disrespecting the uniform have been widespread online:

“So this is the modern military…No apparent sense of military bearing, personal restraint, or consideration for the uniform is required,” Army veteran Rob McCaskell complained on the photographer’s Facebook page. “You wanted attention….congratulations on a mission accomplished and further showing how the military is so easily exploited to further a social or political agenda.” […]

The traditionalist impulse, though, isn’t unique to conservatives or men. In fact, when it comes to breastfeeding, it’s so pervasive that even some military women side with the cultural fuddy-duddies. “Women before us have worked too hard to earn and retain the respect of their male peers,” wrote one commenter on the exhaustive website, who identified herself as a retired Marine officer.

But it should not be “unmilitary” for women to breastfeed their children while in uniform. To help working mothers, the Affordable Care Act requires employers to accommodate women who are breastfeeding. And in August, a provision providing breastfeeding support at no cost to women will go into effect

Instead of turning into a fight over what is appropriate for women in the military, these photos should be an opportunity to serve their intended purpose: raise awareness and support for every woman who chooses to breastfeed.