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Why breastfeeding military moms freak people out

The uproar over photos of two military moms breastfeeding indicates a larger social debate in America about women's freedom and their comfort as mothers in public spaces. 

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Camie Goldhammer, chair of the Native American Breastfeeding Coalition, holds her daughter after testifying before the Seattle City Council April 9. The council later passed a proposed law that adds a mother's right to breastfeed her child to other protected civil rights. Op-ed contributor Jill Abraham Hummer calls breastfeeding the 'A-bomb of the mommy wars.' She cautions: 'If the mommy wars are avoided, then so is discussion of these public issues.'

Elaine Thompson/AP

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Mothers are inundated with messages about what is best for their children, and May has turned out to be a particularly vituperative month regarding breastfeeding.

Earlier in the month, Time published the magazine cover with a woman breastfeeding her toddler. This week, two National Guard members were posed in uniforms breastfeeding their babies for an awareness campaign. The photos, which were posted in a breastfeeding support page on Facebook, quickly raised questions about the appropriateness of women breastfeeding in uniform and breastfeeding in public.

“If we have women in the military, and we have mothers in the military, breastfeeding is going to happen,” says Bernice Hausman, a professor of English and at Virginia Tech. “A father in uniform is an iconic figure. It’s much different for a mother in uniform.”

Hausman, who also teaches at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, says this issue is a broader political issue about what is proper for women to do in the military, particularly considering the campaign to win the right to serve in combat.

“What’s proper for a mother to do?” asks Hausman. “It raises issues about women’s roles and identities in the military. Is it improper for women to serve?”

The Washington National Guard responded to the photos, saying that there is no problem with military mothers breastfeeding in uniform, but there are rules against using uniforms to promote or campaign for a cause.

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