What US could learn from breastfeeding Australian senator

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Story highlights

  • Australian senator made history by breastfeeding on Parliament floor
  • Filipovic: If we want women in halls of power, we must change norms about what it means to work while female

Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and Nairobi, Kenya, and the author of the new book "The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness." Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Australian Senator Larissa Waters is making headlines by breastfeeding her infant daughter in Australia's Parliament. This is thanks to a change in Senate rules that Waters pushed for last year, allowing politicians who are also new parents to care for their children, briefly, from the floor.

Jill Filipovic
It's an important move -- and it is a shame that it rises to the level of news. The reality is that women have babies, and those babies need to eat. Women who choose to breastfeed, too, need to be able to empty their milk supply regularly, either by pumping or feeding their child -- the biological reality of breastfeeding is that if you wait too long, your breasts can become painfully engorged and may also leak.
If a woman is elected to public office and gives birth, she shouldn't have to choose between serving her constituents and her own physical health -- and that of her baby.
    Around the world, women have long continued to work even after the birth of a child -- tending to their fields, harvesting crops, pounding seed into flour, running small businesses, selling their wares, preparing food. Surely a parliamentarian can sit in a chair, feed a baby with her breast, and still listen, debate, and cast her vote. And surely the men (and women) around her can observe this fundamentally human moment as a simple part of life.
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    Yes, for many people, breasts are sexually alluring or arousing -- but so too are lips and hands, and having those out in Parliament doesn't bring on sexual chaos. We use our bodies for many different things, including having and feeding children. If men are so sensitive and easily distracted that they can't do their jobs while a woman is nursing, well, perhaps they aren't fit to hold public office.
    Mostly, though, breastfeeding at work sends a clear message that women are whole people increasingly living in economies that are not so gender-segregated. In the United States, for example, it was industrialization that erected the clear divide between the public and the private -- men left home to go to work in factories or offices, dominating those public spaces, as well as politics and the outside world more generally.
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    Women were, in the main, pushed to the domestic, charged with keeping either their homes or someone else's, caring for the children, and taking care of a family's inner life while the man offered financial support. That model has been thoroughly upended, but our workplaces assume the public-private divide is still in place.
    It doesn't have to be this way. Our workplaces don't simply exist as unchangeable entities -- we make them. And we could make them better.
    The Australian Parliament has taken one important step in recognizing that we come to the workplace as human beings first -- and female human beings sometimes have babies.
    Especially in a legislative body purposed to represent the people who make up a nation, that's a crucial reminder -- that women's lives and experiences matter, too.
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    This is a particularly resonant concept for Americans, given our current political moment: It is the 21st century and we are living in a modern democracy, which, we want to believe, will move ever-forward toward equality. And Donald Trump's cabinet is the most white and male in generations.
    In the US Senate, the group charged with crafting the new health care bill is a boys-only club, and their understanding of what healthcare entails for half the population necessarily limited by their lived experience.
    When the people in the room are overwhelmingly men, then men's lives, priorities and understandings will be reflected in our laws and policies; the rest of us are rendered invisible. And women will be stuck in a system that was built as if we didn't exist, still trying to catch up.
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    The United States, of course, is particularly backwards compared to our economic peer nations when it comes to women and family rights. Our government doesn't offer or mandate paid parental leave. Universal childcare is a laughable pipe dream. And while it is perfectly legal for women to breastfeed in public in every state, the idea of a woman breastfeeding in Congress?
    While there are lactation rooms on the Hill, it's hard to imagine a woman nursing on the House floor.
    She'd be scapegoated, shamed. Despite the power of "family values" conservatives, there isn't much value placed on women being able to have both families and jobs -- at least not without immense struggle.
    If we want women in the halls of power (or in any room), we have to change the norms about what it means to work while female. Does this mean that there should be children running around every workplace? Of course not. But it does mean that where we can let workers tend to the demands of both work and family, we should. It's not just a key to a more humane workplace; it's a key to happier lives.