In a recent piece for the New Republic, Rebecca Traister argues that “pregnancy and immediate postpartum life itself plays a serious role in slowing professional momentum for women for whom the simple—and celebrated—act of having a baby turns out to be a stunningly precarious economic and professional choice.” Just last week, the Supreme Court took a major step in keeping it that way, upholding a federal appeals court ruling against a breast-feeding mother, Angela Ames, who felt bullied out of her job with Nationwide Insurance. Part of the court’s reasoning was, according to Galen Sherwin of the American Civil Liberties Union, “that even if Angela had been fired because she was breast-feeding, that was not sex discrimination, in part because men can lactate under certain circumstances.”
Ames’ story reads as every woman’s worst nightmare of what coming back from maternity leave could be like. Ames alleges that when she returned to work, another employee’s things were in her workspace. When she asked for a place to pump breast milk, she was sent to a company nurse. Even though the Nationwide offices had a lactation room, Ames says she was denied access and told she had to fill out paperwork and wait for days for it to be processed in order for them to open the door to let her in. With her breasts swelling and uncomfortable, she says the only options offered to her were rooms that had no privacy.
At this point, Ames says she reached out to the department head for help in getting that lactation room door open, which is when she was met with a resignation letter to sign. Ames reports that her department head said, “Just go home to be with your babies.”
The court ruled against Ames’ claim of discrimination, saying she didn’t fight hard enough to keep her job and that she should have gone to H.R. before giving up. The ACLU and Ames argue that it’s hard not to feel permanently fired when your boss is telling you to go home and dictating a resignation letter for you. But while the case was primarily decided on this question of whether Ames fought back hard enough, the trial court also ruled that bullying women over breast-feeding cannot be considered sex discrimination, because men can, in theory, lactate, too.
Of course, whether men can squeeze breast milk out under some circumstances really should be irrelevant. Breast-feeding is clearly and almost exclusively associated with women in our culture—really, all cultures. The fact that the original court latched onto such a silly argument suggests an unwillingness to take Ames’ case seriously from the get-go, which casts a pall over the entire ruling. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has, by declining to take up the case, made it easier for employers to fire women for having babies, whether they put it that way or not.