On Tuesday, the city council of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, voted to deny councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle the right to breastfeed her 11-month-old son during meetings. City Council President Kerry Kincaid then proposed a resolution to ban children from the dais — the elevated platform where council members sit — after rejecting Emmanuelle's request to breastfeed her baby. The council voted 7-1 to pass the resolution, according to WQOW, a local ABC affiliate, effectively baring Emmanuelle from bringing her baby to the dais.
"I ultimately decided in my duty as a chair that I could not let children be up on the dais during the meeting," Kincaid told the Leader-Telegram, adding that it was important to maintain "decorum." However, there is already a rule in place that says anyone making a disturbance in the chambers must leave, Emmanuelle tells Bustle.
The councilwoman views Kincaid's resolution as an effort to specifically prevent women from breastfeeding at the council meetings. "I think it's a lack of effort to find ways to be family friendly to people in public service," Emmanuelle says. "Our society has an opportunity to do some self-examination about how we make public service more welcoming for moms and all parents."
Initially, Kincaid allowed Emmanuelle to breastfeed behind the city clerk's desk, which is "part of public seating," Emmanuelle tells Bustle. Not breastfeeding wasn't an option, as it affected her physically. "During many of my legislative meetings, my pants would start getting soaked because my milk would leak," Emmanuelle says. She's also experienced pain from the milk calcifying when it wasn't properly expressed.
From the back of the room, Emmanuelle found it difficult to do her job effectively, which she detailed in an email to her fellow council members. "When I sit in the public [seating], I do not have access to a microphone, I'm not able to engage in discussion, I'm not able to offer amendments," she says, "and most importantly, I'm not even able to see the faces of the constituents I serve."
In addition to the email to her colleagues, Emmanuelle and her civil rights attorney, Carousel Bayrd, sent a letter to Kincaid and City Manager Dale Peters that said Emmanuelle would "no longer entertain a request to not sit at my legislative seat," she says. Kincaid and Peters both decided this was an issue for city council.
"My client has a legally protected right in Wisconsin to breastfeed her child," Bayrd told WQOW. "By introducing this rule that prohibits the presence of her child to begin with, they are actually trying to do an 'end run' around her right to breastfeed, and that is illegal discrimination."
Emmanuelle also reached out to Erin Vilardi, founder and executive director of VoteRunLead, an organization dedicated to helping women in civic and political leadership. "It's not a matter of decorum, it's not a matter for the council to approve or disapprove," Vilardi tells Bustle. "I think people don't realize how deeply ingrained sexism is. And to claim that it has something to do with decorum seems very outdated."
After Monday's regularly scheduled council meeting was canceled because, according to WQOW, "members did not get their request in on time," Emmanuelle and fellow councilwoman Kate Beaton held their own public hearing at University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire.
"Every single person that spoke was in support, and every person asked for this legislation to be withdrawn," Emmanuelle says. "We even had the mayor of Superior, Wisconsin, [Jim Paine] drive down to say how concerning and alarming this was."
During the vote on Tuesday, WQOW, reported that there were about 35 people present in the audience, some who were openly breastfeeding. When it came to the vote, there were three abstentions, including Emmanuelle herself, who told Yahoo! Lifestyle that voting "no" would mean banning breastfeeding on the dais, but voting "yes" would make her complicit in forcing women to ask for permission in order to breastfeed.
When asked before the vote what she thought the resolution could mean for other breastfeeding women in public service, Kincaid told the Leader-Telegram, "I only know that 11 people are about to decide a protocol for our meeting." But, Vilardi argues the impact of this decision reaches well beyond Eau Claire.
We're seeing a surge of women who are running for office and then the message that we're sending is, "No, not that kind of woman." So not a mom. And that's totally going to have a negative effect on women stepping up, especially in a time when we desperately need more women in government.
Vilardi points to cities like Boston and Washington D.C. as good examples of government developing "stronger parental [and] family friendly policy" as a result of councilwomen giving birth while in office.
"If you're going to be open and inclusive on your own council, you're going to create policy that reflects that," Vilardi says. "If you're going to be discriminatory on your own council, you're going to create policy that further institutionalized sexism."
Additional reporting by Clarissa-Jan Lim.