Standing waist-deep in a Manchester swimming pool recently, Stephanie Wilby was suddenly told by staff to stop breastfeeding her infant son. They justified the decision on grounds of hygiene and indecency. Unsurprisingly Wilby complained and soon staff employer Serco was on the case, offering apologies and sending memos to staff about how mothers had a right to breastfeed wherever they chose. While Wilby has been portrayed positively, even prompting a swimming-pool ‘flashmob’ to support her, the employees have generally been presented as knuckle-dragging morons.
Yet here’s the interesting thing: like the all-too-prominent Lose the Lads’ Mags campaign, which argues that displaying lads’ mags in supermarkets constitutes harrassment and discrimination in the workplace under the Equality Act 2010, the Manchester swimming-pool staff were also moving in the same legal climate. That is, under the Equality Act, employees can claim that exposure to bare breasts in the workplace creates an atmosphere that is degrading and humiliating to women - while women can of course insist that baring some or all of their breast to feed their child is their right.
It was certainly wrong of staff if, as claimed, they compared Wilby’s breast milk to urine. But it is under the disorientating effect of Equality Act that so many employees operate today. In this sense, the staff were not entirely wrong to interpret breastfeeding as a possible cause of offence, a source of indecency.
If you feel uncomfortable about seeing women breastfeeding because you are from a generation where it was only done in private, or you have particular religious beliefs, you might also find the sight of breastfeeding offensive. Fortunately, the vast majority of the British public are not that easily offended. That doesn’t mean everyone feels great about seeing women breastfeed in public, and such people should be able to voice their criticisms without being shouted down. It’s just that this should not be a matter for lawyers.
And here we come to the contradiction. It seems that there are plenty of self-styled liberals willing to cheer on a woman for breastfeeding in public, despite the views and feelings of employees. Yet that self-same constituency is willing to call for the banning of lads mags on the basis of the putative views and feelings of employees. Tolerance, it seems, appears to be a very selectively applied today.