Nationwide Won a Discrimination Lawsuit Against a Breastfeeding Mother. And I Unwittingly Helped.
Angela Ames went to court and got a raw deal. I don’t know her or any of the lawyers involved in her case — and until last week I didn’t even know about this suit. But I unknowingly played a small part in the injustice that befell this Iowa woman.
Ames was the plaintiff in a lawsuit against her former employer, Nationwide Advantage Mortgage Company. The suit stemmed from Ames’ return to work from maternity leave after the birth of her second son in 2010. On her first day back, Ames’ office failed to provide a suitable venue for her to pump milk for her two-month-old. Before she returned to work, she was told there was a lactation room she could use — but not that there was paperwork she needed to fill out before being given access. (“The Mommy Files” blog on the San Francisco Chronicle’s website has a better blow-by-blow of the events.)
After several failed attempts to find a private area to pump, Ames, who was swelling with milk and in tears, appealed to the head of her department for help. Instead of rushing to the aid her employee, the department head told Ames, “Maybe you should just stay home with your babies.” Then she dictated a resignation letter that Ames felt coerced into writing, effectively ending Ames’ stint at the company.
This would turn out to be a canny move.
In July 2012, Ames filed suit against Nationwide for sex- and pregnancy-based employment discrimination in a district court in southern Iowa. In October, Judge Robert Pratt ruled in favor of Nationwide.
In his decision, Pratt wrote that the barb about staying with her babies was a gender-neutral comment on Ames’s status as a parent. He argued that a reasonable person would not conclude from the events of that day that she had no choice but to resign. And he agreed with an assertion made by Nationwide’s lawyers that Ames had not “presented sufficient evidence that lactation is a medical condition related to pregnancy.”
Now here’s where I come in: Among the evidence marshaled against Ames was a story I wrote in September 2007 when I was an online news reporter for Scientific American. The piece was titled “Strange but True: Males Can Lactate.” And, well, you can guess what it is about. Basically, one time in recorded history— or maybe a few times — a guy’s body made milk.
So the fact that it’s plausible that a man could lactate, combined with evidence that even adoptive mothers can summon milk, meant to this court that “lactation is not a physiological condition experienced exclusively by women who have recently given birth.”
Ames appealed Pratt’s decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. It agreed with the trial court that Ames could have done more to keep her job, by, for instance, lodging internal complaints against her coworkers. In January, the Supreme Court refused to hear her case.
So that’s that, Ames has no more recourse.
To recap: Because people other than new moms lactate, it’s okay for a new mom to be told that she should probably just stay home with her babies. Let that sit with you a minute.
Not that my opinion is going to change the verdict, but for what it’s worth, I think the legal system failed Angela Ames. My Scientific American article was a piece of journalism, not an affidavit — and its use in this case boggles the mind. Whether or not a man (or adoptive mother) can be made to lactate doesn’t change the medical fact that most women who have just given birth are going to make milk. And it is appalling that the justice system can’t admit that the vast, overwhelming majority of people who do lactate just had a kid.
I had hoped that my article would inform prospective readers about how a seemingly unbelievable phenomenon could take place under the certain conditions. Instead it’s being used to justify the abominable behavior of Angela Ames’ former coworkers in circumstances that are all-too-familiar — and anachronistic.