A couple of weeks ago, Margaret Ellen Bradford was attending a Bernie Sanders rally in Cleveland when her baby got hungry. She then pulled down her homemade Bernie T-shirt and began breast-feeding her daughter, sans nursing cover, all the while continuing to cheer on the candidate from the second row. According to Bradford, Sanders and his wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, thanked her afterward “for doing what mothers do and taking care of my daughter when she needed her mom, even if that meant nursing in public!”
A photograph taken of Bradford breast-feeding at the event has since gone viral, inspiring the mom to create a #boobsforBernie hashtag. Bradford and her baby—and her hashtag—have appeared in dozens of national publications, as well as ones in the United Kingdom, Poland, Norway, India, New Zealand, and Australia. Bernie Sanders’ Twitter account also shared the image, taking aim against the negative responses Bradford says she’s been receiving. “As a society, we should never stigmatize women for breastfeeding in public,” the tweet reads.
As a society, we should never stigmatize women for breastfeeding in public. https://t.co/I08wzGrdWH— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) March 3, 2016
Bradford says she created the hashtag in order to encourage Sanders’ supporters to share pictures of themselves feeling the Bern while feeding their babies. But so far, there aren’t many shots of lactating progressives flooding social media. Instead, the hashtag is serving as a prompt to discuss breast-feeding in public—a conversation that tends to attract few agnostics.
The vast majority of those chiming in are supportive of Bradford. “People are ridiculous! There is nothing more natural than nurturing a baby and breastfeeding should be a part of that,” wrote one woman. Most of the criticism of Bradford is presented as a question about her motives: “I'm tired of people assuming people who are not feeling this are anti-breast feeding ... Who brings their baby to presidential rally and breast feed ... A person who want to make it about them and not their baby ... Breast feed in public if you need to but really this is necessary???”
Maybe not necessary, but it definitely makes for good click fodder. Pictures of mothers breast-feeding in public go viral all the time. They’re a big draw for those advocating for more public acceptance for breast-feeding. And they’re a big draw for those who take issue with breast-feeding in public; those who are most upset by an exposed breast are likely to be the those most easily titillated by one as well. The injection of the presidential race into this only made it more alluring. Also, there might have been some appeal in the way it presented a more female-friendly Bernie supporter narrative than the ubiquitous “Bernie bro.”
Of course, the battle public breast-feeding advocates are fighting is a cultural, rather than legal, one. Currently, it’s kosher to breast-feed in public in 49 states. Nevertheless, women continue to be told to cover up or feed their children in bathroom stalls. It’s bananas. Baby-rearing is complicated enough without worrying about having to find refuge every time the little ones need to feed. Also, the expectation that moms should hide away whenever they feed their babies, which happens a lot, limits their ability to anything else besides breast-feeding. Because she was comfortable breast-feeding in public, Bradford was able to tend to her child’s needs while simultaneously tending to her own. That’s fantastic.
To be sure, breast-feeding advocacy can easily veer into dangerous terrain where biology is destiny. Take for example Bradford’s retelling of how the Sanders thanked her for “doing what mothers do” after the rally. The problem here is that mothers do a lot of things, including running for president.
Ultimately, #boobsforBernie reveals both the ways in which we need to make the world more hospitable to moms and the ways in which efforts to do so can end up limiting women. We’ll know we’ve really made it when breast-feeding at a political rally isn’t something to celebrate or condemn. It’s just a mom doing what she needs to do to in order to cheer on the candidate she supports—with her brain.