City aims to stop legislator from breastfeeding at work

Beth Greenfield
Senior Writer

While legislative bodies around the globe — from cities in Australia and Argentina to those in the United States, including Washington, D.C. — have been slowly finding ways to support moms wanting to breastfeed on the job, a city in Wisconsin appears determined to do the opposite.

Catherine Emmanuelle, of Eau Claire, Wisc., aims to stop a resolution meant to ban breastfeeding on the City Council dais. (Photo: Facebook/Catherine Emmanuelle)

At least that seems to be the message being sent from the city of Eau Claire to Catherine Emmanuelle, a two-term City Council member there who has been banned from breastfeeding her infant son while sitting in her legislative seat in council chambers.

“I am really perplexed about why the council is focused on how the city is going to put up barriers for particular people versus how we can take down barriers and fold young people into the process,” Emmanuelle, 37, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

When the council member was nearly eight months pregnant, she says, she approached City Council President Kerry Kincaid to say that breastfeeding was important to her and to ask if the council could find a way to support her possibly having to nurse during council sessions. “I was told no,” she says.

Instead, since her 11-month-old son was just nine days old, Emmanuelle has been nursing him for biweekly meetings within council chambers — but while sitting, at the request of Kincaid, in the public seating area and behind the city clerk, away from her official legislative seat.

“During these times, I did not have access to a microphone, ability to ask questions, engage in debate, offer amendments, or have face-to-face contact when citizens were addressing the council…” she explained in a public Facebook post on Monday. “It has become clear that in order to effectively govern, and effectively parent my child, I cannot continue to sit away from my legislative seat when I need to take care of/nurse my baby.”

Emmanuelle and her baby in February. (Photo: Facebook/Catherine Emmanuelle)

Emmanuelle, who also has two other children (ages 12 and 17), works full-time at a university and gets paid $300 a month for her service on the City Council, continued, “Because I am fully committed to both effective governance and effective parenting, I met with an attorney to discover what my rights were and how I can successfully accomplish both. She explained that it is within my rights to bring my child with me in a public setting, including the legislative table, and including when I need to breastfeed my child.”

That’s because the law in Wisconsin, as in many other states, protects the rights of a mother to breastfeed her child “in any public or private location where the mother and child are otherwise authorized to be.”

But now the City Council has responded with a resolution, proposed by Kincaid, that would explicitly ban infants and toddlers from the dais and allow only limited, approved exceptions — essentially turning it into a location where the presence of only the mother, and not her child, would be authorized, thus effectively making it a public space to which the breastfeeding law does not apply.

But Emmanuelle’s lawyer, Carousel Bayrd, tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “Unfortunately, you don’t get to do that.” While Kincaid’s resolution is claiming that kids have always been banned from the dais and this is just a way of cementing that, Bayrd says that isn’t the case, and in fact, this resolution is what lawyers would call “pretext,” meaning, “They state a reason that is a cover-up for a discriminatory, illegal reason.” That reason, in this case, is a desire to stop Emmanuelle from breastfeeding on the dais, Bayrd explains.

A vote on the resolution is set to take place as part of the agenda at the City Council’s Tuesday afternoon meeting. As far as how Emmanuelle will vote, she feels trapped by all options: A “no” vote will signal that she’s against allowing breastfeeding on the dais; a “yes” vote will approve of the idea that women must seek permission from their colleagues for an exception to the new rule that would allow breastfeeding; and abstaining would likely remove her from the room and, thus, discussion on the issue.

“I’m no longer willing to be complicit,” she says. “I don’t want the next mom who wants to run for office to be discouraged because she may not have a seat at the table.” Emmanuelle hopes to have the vote indefinitely postponed, noting that its passage would have “a chilling effect on women across America” by setting up barriers.

[UPDATE: The resolution was passed at the vote on Tuesday — striking the part that would allow for exceptions, thus simply making it against the rules for kids to be on the dais. “I’m talking to my lawyer to see where we go from here,” Emmanuelle tells Yahoo Lifestyle on Wednesday, explaining that she wound up abstaining “in protest” along with two others who joined her in solidarity. “I refused to dignify this type of resolution, that systematically puts up barriers.”]

Kincaid explains to Yahoo Lifestyle why she is not in favor of breastfeeding infants on the dais. “Based on my responsibility as the chair and on my own feelings as a mother and a parent, I did say she couldn’t sit at the dais,” Kincaid says, adding that the reasons she took into account include that “we are on camera, we are in a physically elevated place, there’s a separate entrance, and there are only 11 chairs.” Also considered, she says, was “the weight of past practice … Robert’s Rules of Order [the standard for parliamentary practice], and my responsibility to have a safe and proper work environment in which to conduct business.”

She adds, “We did accommodate the council member and her child for every meeting she wanted to be at,” and notes that Emmanuelle’s new spot off the dais, behind the city clerk, is “a place of importance.”

Emmanuelle disputes that she was accommodated, though, for the reasons she noted on Facebook — particularly that of not having a microphone, and thus not being heard as part of the debates on local radio and TV broadcasts. In preparation for the vote, Emmanuelle is encouraging her supporters to reach out to her fellow council members — only two of which have publicly supported her, she says.

She adds that while pumping is sometimes a viable option, it’s not always predictable with her work schedule and with the baby’s sleep schedule, and that she’s had health issues, including the formation of painful milk calcifications due to not always being able to express her milk when she needs to.

A Change.org petition backing Emmanuelle, started by the national nonpartisan pro-women-candidates group Vote Run Lead, has more than 1,180 signatures. “This Tuesday, October 24,” the petition states, “[Emmanuelle] is being asked to join her council colleagues for a vote that attempts to force her to choose between feeding her child and fulfilling her duties.”

Recently, lawmakers from around the world have shown by example that it is possible to simultaneously breastfeed their babies and attend to official in-chamber business — including Australian senator Larissa Waters, who became the first member of Parliament to breastfeed in chambers in May, when a video of her breastfeeding her daughter while moving a motion went viral. Similarly, Licia Ronzulli of Italy, who is a member of the European Parliament, and Argentinian MP Victoria Donda both garnered attention and praise (and some criticism) for their own photos of in-session breastfeeding.

And just this month in Washington, D.C., council member Brianne Nadeau began taking her infant to hearings; she is one of three council members with infants or toddlers — more than at any other time in recent history, according to WAMU.

“At a time when we need women in government more than ever, punishing leaders for being moms is not only illegal but holds our country back from having talented mothers step up to run,” notes Vote Run Lead founder and CEO Erin Vilardi in the Change.org petition supporting Emmanuelle. “No working mother should have her role as parent and her obligations as a leader be pitted against each other, nor be asked to vote on such an insulting proposal! That’s why we are proud to support Councilwoman Emmanuelle.”

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