This is not a Bordello: the Story of One Mother's Victory Over Discrimination by Raven Healing

As if nursing wasn't already hard enough - the sore nipples, the restless nights, the torn shirts, the toddler screaming "boobie" in the middle of a crowded restaurant - the act of publicly nursing a child places many women in a category they haven't been in before: that of victims of discrimination.
 
Stories are told of mothers being sent to the back of the bus or asked to leave a store, but when the nursing moms in my west coast city wanted to hold a nurse-in, it seemed that they were preaching to the converted. This is, after all, the twenty-first century. The public transit buses are covered in promotional material from the La Leche League. Gay couples hold hands as they walk down the street and there are as many peep shows as there are Starbucks. Who would in this day and age oppose nursing?
 
For the first year of nursing my son, the only bad experiences I had with public nursing was when creepy men became a little too excited about the opportunity to steal glances of a real, live (albeit deflated) breast.
 
Alas, all my utopian delusions of unilateral support for breastfeeding came crashing in on me one day in April. I had decided to get my name changed and had to appear before a judge. As my son threw his toys across the office, the city clerk assured me it would only take a short amount of time. When I got to the courtroom, the door was locked, so I waited as my son slept. Gradually, other people showed up to get the official approval to use the name of their own choosing. All the others were Asian Americans and, as I would soon learn, had recently received citizenship.
 
When we were allowed in the courtroom the judge sat up on his bench, a middle-aged, white male. He called us up one by one, as the process goes, to question us about our intentions. The first person wanted to change his name to "Joe." The judge took one look at him and said condescendingly, "So, you want to sound like an American, do you?"
 
What? Did I hear that right? Citizenship is what makes you an "American" and the last time I checked, Joe wasn't a Lakota or Iroquois name. The second person called up received similar degrading treatment. And then the judge called on me.
 
Admittedly, I assumed I was immune to the abuse. After all, I pass for white (even though I'm multi-racial) and I was born in central New York. I was only changing my name to honor my mother's maiden name and to pass it on to my son. With my nursing son in one hand, I opened the gate and entered the front of the courtroom. The judge seemed surprised that I was managing all of this and, as could always be expected, mama pride kicked in and I beamed "I can do it! I do this all the time!"
 
The judge asked me to stop nursing. He told me that he thought it was inappropriate. I thought he was probably joking and laughed "are you serious?" He said in that kind of authoritarian voice only mustered up by cops and judges and my very own father, "This is a courthouse, not a bordello!"
 
My face flushed with embarrassment, as if I had done something horribly wrong. My body shook with this feeling of guilt and my confused mind reached to grasp an explanation of what I had done wrong. Did he really just say that? Did he just call me a whore for nursing my son? I was shocked. I was humiliated. I felt naked in a way I had never felt before. I was without defense, an unusual feeling for such an outspoken, empowered feminist. This insult came out of the mouth of a man with so much power behind him, in a place where any response could give him an opportunity to hold me in contempt of court. I was in uncharted territory and I was scared.
 
I pried my son off my breast. I could tell he felt rejection. His screams broke my heart, as if he were saying "Mommy, why won't you nurse me? What did I do?" I tried to reassure the judge, over the wails of my little child, that I wasn't running from my debt. When the judge was satisfied, he told me I should leave the courtroom to continue nursing my son.
 
As I waited outside the courtroom for permission to reenter to gather my things, my humiliation turned to pity. What a terrible life that judge must have that he has to treat everyone so poorly in the courtroom! But soon psychoanalytical mama turned into pissed-off mama. Being told we are unfit to stay in the same room as others for such reasons is discrimination. And discrimination is illegal.
 
This man represents the law, and like many people who represent the law, he believes he is above it. Rage turned into determination. As I nursed my son back to sleep, my mind gave birth to action. I marched back into the courtroom to find the judge gone.
 
I flagged down the court clerk and demanded her card, the judge's full name and copies of the transcripts of the afternoon's events. She gave me her card, his name was Judge S. and I was pleased to learn that they no longer take transcripts, but instead rely on technology to keep the records. Judge S. was on tape and that tape was available at the clerk's office.
 
After a brief talk with my lawyer (also my son's grandfather) I knew which courses of action I could take. I could call the press and let them publicly humiliate the judge, or I could report the judge to the Judiciary Committee of Conduct, who could remove the judge from the Bar Association. My lawyer did some research and discovered that Judge S. was a part-time (pro-tem) judge working under another judge. My lawyer faxed a letter to both judges saying that Judge S. brought disgrace to the bench and should no longer be allowed in a courthouse.
 
Within a few days, Judge S. wanted to apologize to me in open court. He told my lawyer that he regretted using the word "bordello" and should have said "nursery." For a brief moment, I thought about accepting his offer, but then I began to realize that even that would have been a violation of my rights.
 
It is not ok to segregate children and mothers to nurseries, playgrounds and waiting rooms. We are a part of every community and should be allowed anywhere that others are allowed. It's true he was sorry that he used the word "bordello," but what he was really sorry about was that he mistook me for someone who doesn't know her rights.
 
As a result of my actions, the King County district court will no longer allow Judge S. to preside in their courtrooms.
 
After emailing this story to a few mama list-serves, I received numerous e-mails from mothers who had similar experiences of discrimination. Getting asked to leave restaurants, being told to cover up on the bus, being subject to ridicule and having their rights violated.
 
None of the stories ended with any sort of legal victory. It is clear that many of us are now experiencing the kind of treatment others have had to deal with since birth-as the result of racism, or classism, or as a result of discrimination against disabilities. As it turns out, the kind of people who discriminate against nursing mothers discriminate against others as well. And many mothers feel powerless to do anything about these injustices. This feeling of disempowerment is very intense. Even after I effectively had the judge removed from the bench, I experienced a lingering feeling of ridicule and humiliation as I nursed in public.
 
It is important to consider the connectedness of all things. That the racism witnessed in the courtroom that day was not completely unrelated to the sexism, and that the solution to the problem lies in the ability to challenge our own "isms" and to form meaningful and lasting connections with those not as privileged as ourselves, so that our resources may be used by all to challenge discrimination.
 
The next step beyond unified resistance is the real solution to discrimination: the rejection of power. When no one recognizes the power of the man on the bench (or the man with the badge, or the man with the money), he will no longer be able to humiliate and degrade us as separate individuals.
 
Lest any mother out there worry that she is unable to fight for a better world, let us remember the tarot card for strength. It is the image of a woman and a lioness, referencing the ferocity with which a lioness will protect her young. May we aspire to live up to this reputation. It is the mothers who are going to fight for the kind of world our young ones should live in. We do not want our children to grow up in a world where all relationships are tainted with racism, and the very sexism we have had to deal with our entire lives. Nor do we want our children to feel powerless in the face of war and violence.
 
We have the power to change the world not only in how we choose to raise our children, but also in how we choose to respond in the face of oppression.
 
Incidentally, mother's day began in 1872 as a rallying call against war, violence, and slavery: "we mothers of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs." It is our mother's duty to defend all children, and all adults who used to be children, by no longer tolerating such injustices.
 
Let us reclaim mother's day as the day to celebrate mothers who change the world by becoming women who change the world. My victory was a small victory, a drop in the bucket of what we could do together.
 
Raven Healing is a member of the Left Bank Books Collective in Seattle, WA and is an active member of the Wemoon's Army and Co. She is the very busy mother of a very active little boy.