Mormon feminists urge LDS authorities to remind local leaders that breastfeeding isn’t sexual

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A nursing mother on one of the panels of the Seagull Monument, on Temple Square, just east of the Assembly Hall, in downtown Salt Lake City, Friday, July 27, 2018.

Mormon feminists have launched a churchwide letter-writing campaign, urging LDS officials to issue a “statement of support for nursing mothers.”

“We need to remove the barriers and difficulties placed upon [Mormon] women for how they mother their children and we need to make it easier to be a woman in this church,” Carrie Stoddard Salisbury declared in an Exponent II blog. “Without such an official declaration, women will remain at risk for judgment and exclusion if their chosen way of nurturing their babies doesn’t align with the preferences of a local priesthood authority.”

Exponent II, which publishes a magazine for and about Mormon women, encouraged its readers to address the faith’s female leaders — including Relief Society President Jean B. Bingham, Young Women President Bonnie H. Cordon and Primary President Joy D. Jones — and ask for their active support in defending breastfeeding.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no written policy regarding breastfeeding in its buildings. Church spokesman Eric Hawkins declined to comment on the request for such a policy or the women’s push for a statement of support.

This campaign was spawned by a breastfeeding incident that Salisbury reported earlier this week on Exponent II’s blog, which has generated hundreds of comments and outrage.

An LDS stake president, who oversees a handful of congregations, refused a “temple recommend” for a woman who nursed her 18-month-old child in the foyer of a Mormon meetinghouse without covering up.

A recommend gives the holder permission to enter LDS temples, attesting to the person’s adherence to church behavioral and belief standards. The questions are prescribed; none has to do with public breastfeeding.

The local lay leader said it was a “modesty issue,” Exponent II reported, and “blamed her for the men and boys having impure thoughts.” He insisted she cover up or use the mother’s room, off the restroom.

When the women refused and argued that he was “sexualizing breastfeeding,” the blog post said, the stake president would not sign her recommend because she was “not sustaining her leaders.”

She said she would seek “a higher authority.” He told her to go ahead. “I’ve already called Salt Lake. They agree it’s a modesty issue.”

The LDS regional leader also denied the woman’s husband a recommend, saying he did not “control” his wife as “patriarch of the family.”

The church also declined to comment, Hawkins said, on the stake president’s alleged actions and remarks.

The woman has said she doesn’t want to use her name for fear of reprisal in her northern Utah ward nor has she named the stake president. She does hope the publicity will push the church and its female leaders to take a stand that at least parallels the legal protections of the state.

“As a law-abiding entity, the LDS Church should not impose stricter guidelines or punishments on nursing women,” Salisbury wrote in a follow-up blog, “than reasonably exist in the state or country where she lives.”

Earlier this year, Utah was one of the last states to pass a law, making it clear that it’s legal to nurse a child in public.

For some Mormon women, the solution is simple: Add a line to the church’s Handbook, spelling out that nursing moms are welcome in meetinghouses covered or uncovered.

“Maybe that is micromanaging,” said Heather Moore-Farley, a Mormon mom of three in the Bay Area, but the church has lots of detailed instructions, including “what instruments can be played in [services].”

If LDS leaders want to “continue to hold up motherhood as a blessed calling,” she said, “they need to demonstrate that with actions.”

A perennial problem

Every couple of years, another story of a breastfeeding Mormon mother facing criticism, gossip or even reprimands from church leaders erupts.

In 2010, that was Moore-Farley’s own tale.

As a new mother in Provo, she got a call from her congregation’s Relief Society president, asking her to use a blanket or go to the mothers’ lounge in the women’s restroom to protect others’ sensitivities. Her bishop then suggested Moore-Farley and her husband pray about it.

They did and got the same answer: She was doing nothing wrong.

Sometime later, another ward member accused her of "contributing to the pornography problem" and "not keeping [her] covenants."

After that, she moved to the Bay Area, where she is a lactation specialist, and has had both accepting and judgmental experiences in church settings.

She breastfed uncovered in the Sacramento LDS Temple and “got a lot of support from temple workers there,” Moore-Farley recalled. “But I’ve also been shamed for breastfeeding in the Oakland Temple Visitors Center.”

A generational issue

When Moore-Farley’s Provo incident went public, LDS feminists asked for a similar churchwide statement, said Jenne Erigero Alderks, founder of the blog Birthing in Zion.

Back then, she recalled, the church said no statement was needed, that “it wasn’t a big deal and that people could handle it.”

But it continues to be an issue in some quarters, especially in the Mormon Belt of Utah, Idaho and Arizona, Alderks said this week — especially with men of a certain age.

Older men rarely saw their moms or wives nursing babies, she said. In the 1950s, bottle-feeding was more prominent and widely preferred. It was seen as more “scientific,” “clean” and “healthy.”

That began to change with 1960s feminists and the practice has been dominant across the country during the past two decades.

In fact, the Beehive State, with its predominant Mormon faith, has one of the highest percentages of breastfeeding moms in the nation, according to a 2012 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I know that Mormon women are still encountering [disapproval] from ward members,” the Seattle woman said in a phone interview. “But this is the first time in awhile I have heard [it being raised] in a power dynamic with a church leader.”

How can a Mormon leader say it’s wrong to nurse uncovered and deny of recommend to a woman who does it, she wonders, “if the church has no policy?”

Breastfeeding has become part of the church’s “modesty rhetoric,” she said, especially in the United States.

Her husband served an LDS mission in Germany, where women openly breastfeed at church, Alderks said. “He just had to get over [any squeamishness].” After all, there should be nothing sexual about nursing.

As to the stake president’s assertion that women should cover up so that men and boys don’t have sexual thoughts, she suggested he listen to what Jesus had to say.

“If you lust after a woman,” she paraphrased, “pluck your eye out.”

Time for change

A Davis County blogger for Sisters Quorum, who goes by Laura, has strong words about lactation.

“I’ve made being a militant breastfeeder a badge of honor in my life,” she wrote. “And yet, unlike some, I’ve never once been counseled by Mormon lay leaders for breastfeeding openly and uncovered. Most of the time it was shirt up, showing very little skin, but sometimes neck down, with my whole, gigantic breast exposed.”

That could be because critics were afraid to bring it up, the blogger and former doula wrote, or because “they had served missions in places outside of North America and had become accustomed to the act of women openly breastfeeding. Or maybe they just never noticed and no one ever complained.”

No matter what, she wrote, it’s a question of who owns a woman’s body.

“Our bodies aren’t objects to be owned. Our breasts aren’t sex toys for the benefit of the male gaze,” she wrote. “Our babies and our consciences get to drive our choices. We do not need to be hidden away to prevent society from facing reality.”

Whether to go to a mother’s room or covering or using formula, should be a choice made by individual women.

After all, the blogger wrote, “it is our bodies.”