Broadening the Conversation about Adrienne Pine

by | October 11, 2012
filed under Feminism

by Susan Harper

When the story of American University anthropology professor Adrienne Pine breastfeeding her child in class first broke, I admit I was mostly intrigued by the conversation I hoped it would spark about the politics of breastfeeding, and (somewhat selfishly) about the sudden interest of the US media in what exactly “feminist anthropology” is. It was exciting to suddenly see my field being talked and tweeted about.

My task in this piece is not to rehash the finer points of Pine’s situation, which have been well covered in the media, including pieces by the New York Daily News, ABC News, and the UK’s Daily Mail. That news coverage, and Pine’s response to the incident at Counterpunch, have generated national and international discussion. American University itself called Pine’s actions unprofessional. Rush Limbaugh picked up the story, calling Pine a “Feminazi.”

The Association for Feminist Anthropology, of which I am Program Co-Chair, drafted a statement in support of Pine and calling attention to the larger issues her experience raises about support for parents on university campuses.

I posted on my personal Facebook page about Pine’s experience, and about the work the AFA was doing to draft a statement of support and to look at the larger issues. My friends list boasts its fair share of “lactavists,” anthropologists, feminists of various stripes, working moms, liberals, and lefties.

So color me shocked when the very first response was not a comment in solidarity with Pine, or even with the greater conversation her experience was opening.

No – the very first comment, and the majority that came after, instead expressed outrage and annoyance that Pine had taken her child to work with her in the first place. Not because the child was sick and could have been contagious, but because Pine was able to take her child to work whereas most working mothers do not have that opportunity.

My community of left-leaning, feminist friends was not outraged at Pine’s treatment by American. They were instead outraged at the class privilege that allowed her to even take her child to work with her.

Why couldn’t she, in the words of more than one commenter, have just called in sick like any other working mother would have had to do? Why did her education and position in academia entitle her  to some special treatment denied women in other workplaces? Why should Pine’s employers  accommodate her need to bring her daughter to work, when women in most other workplaces would have risked discipline or dismissal had they arrived with a sick child in tow?

I admit my first reaction was to sputter, “You people just don’t understand what’s involved when a professor calls in sick! You lose a day of lecture, it’s not like you can get a substitute, it’s hard to notify students…”

But checking my own academic privilege led to the sobering realization that there are myriad other issues at work here. From the beginning, it’s been clear to me that the backlash to Pine’s actions was not about breastfeeding, or at least not only about breastfeeding – it was about that lack of support for working parents who often feel like they have few options when faced with a sick child and a full work day.

What I missed in my own reflections was that even as she was being excoriated by the university and the media, Pine was operating from a place of incredible privilege that  most working mothers – working parents, in fact – do not occupy. I don’t vilify her for this in any way – but I do think it’s an issue that’s getting lost in the larger noise about the whole incident.

What if Pine, instead of reporting to work as a professor of anthropology, had been reporting to work on the assembly line at General Motors? For that matter, what if she’d been reporting for work at American University, but as a member of the maintenance staff? There’s clearly no way that she could have brought a sick baby to work, or would even have been able to entertain doing so. Nor would bringing her child have been an option if Pine had been one of the millions of working parents reporting to low-wage jobs, from the Wal*mart stocker to the Bank of America teller to the receptionist.

Working parents in jobs with no paid time off, no sick time, no vacation time – all situations that are far too common throughout the United States – face few other choices than to take time off of work and lose out on pay when faced with an ill child. Over 40 million Americans get no paid sick time, even if they work full time. These are workers who must choose to report to work sick or lose pay. Add a sick child into this equation, and parents’ options are highly limited.

If a parent’s regular daycare provider does not allow children to attend while ill – a common policy – and the parent cannot make other childcare arrangements, missing out on a day of work (and of pay) is the only option. Even those working parents who have paid sick time or paid leave may experience difficulty getting permission to take the time off to care for an ill child.

As several commenters pointed out, and as my own experience in  low-wage employment backs up, many employers only allow paid time off with sufficient advance notice. Those who take their sick days may find themselves docked on evaluations, scheduled for fewer hours, or otherwise punished for having the temerity to take a day off.

And given that sociological research seems to indicate that women in the United States (and elsewhere) pay a “motherhood penalty”  in both wages and employment/promotion opportunity, in part because of perceptions that mothers will often be out of work to care for sick children, the costs of taking a day off to care for a child with the flu or chicken pox can be high and long-lasting.

There is a real opportunity in Pine’s experience, not just to open a conversation about and challenge cultural ideas about breastfeeding. We have a chance to make this moment the moment we really begin talking about the challenges faced by working parents, and about what employers can do to support working parents. A wider conversation is already beginning in academic circles about what campus communities can do to best support faculty, staff, and students who must make difficult choices about parenting and childcare.

But for Pine’s experience to be a truly transformational moment in the conversation about working parents, we have to move it out of the ivory tower and into the larger culture. There is an opportunity to use her experience, which springs not only from deep cultural attitudes about women but also from the privilege afforded to the educated academic class, to catalyze change for working parents in all class locations.

Pine herself has acknowledged that her story has implications for the broader issues of gender equality. I hope we seize this moment, and start those conversations, rather than simply letting this story be about one woman at one university on one difficult day.

(photo of mother and child by Koivth via Wikimedia Commons)

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