This article’s research is based on the “The accidental feminist: Iowa’s breastfeeding firefighter and the national struggle for workplace equity,” a dissertation by Sharon Lake. For a more detailed telling of this story, read Lake’s report in its entirety here.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n her official photo, former Iowa City firefighter Linda Eaton flashes a dimpled smile, her head held high, her long brown hair piled beneath a navy blue firefighter’s cap. Her gaze is direct, indicative of a confident and fearless attitude that distinguished her from friends and classmates at West Liberty High School, where she had been a popular student, a star basketball player and was on the homecoming court.
The photo was taken in 1978, just under a year after Eaton joined the department and becoming the first female firefighter in Iowa City history. In the year that followed, all the strength her picture conveys would be sorely tested. Eaton faced the challenge of negotiating entry into an aggressively male domain—a challenge made all the more daunting when, two years into her job, she became a mother. The trouble began when Eaton requested permission to breastfeed her son, Ian, during personal break time. The department’s refusal resulted in a fraught and nationally publicized legal battle. Hers is a perennially relevant case that raises important questions about sex discrimination in the workplace and the social stigmas holding fast to breastfeeding even now, over thirty years later.
Born to working class parents in 1953, Eaton entered the workforce immediately after high school. Her search for well-paying work drew her to jobs not traditionally held by women. (At Heinz Distribution Center, for example, she became the first woman at Heinz to operate a forklift.) When Eaton heard that Iowa City was hiring firefighters, she thought the work sounded exciting and decided to apply. After outperforming fellow applicants on a series of demanding civil service tests designed to measure intelligence, personability and physical ability, she became one of just three new hires in 1977. The job offered regular raises, good benefits, and lifelong employment. At 26, Eaton was well on her way to achieving the kind of comfortable middle-class existence that, for many members of her graduating class in rural and working-class West Liberty, seemed just out of reach.
Initially, the job went well. Eaton enjoyed the work. “I just love to get on the truck and go, not knowing what you’ll find when you get there,” she would later tell national audiences during an appearance on the Phil Donahue show in 1979. Eaton made a few close friends at the station and though she sensed that some of her fellow firefighters were wary of her, doubtful that she could do a “man’s work,” she felt that she would win their acceptance in time. In 1977, the Press Citizen ran a profile of Eaton and friends, family, and ex-classmates at home expressed pride in Eaton’s accomplishment. When Eaton made national news for breastfeeding at the firehouse, however, the response in West Liberty and from her colleagues in the department was far from positive.
Although firefighters engage in a variety of activities during their breaks, Eaton’s request to nurse Ian in the women’s locker room during her personal break time was denied on the basis that, if allowed to breastfeed, Eaton would appear to be receiving special treatment. The fire department had an unwritten rule against regular family visits and Chief Keating feared that other firefighters, frustrated by the city’s affirmative action policies, would file a reverse discrimination lawsuit if Eaton’s request was granted. Keating also expressed concern about Eaton’s reaction time, suggesting that nursing could slow her down and make her a liability for the department. Firefighters’ wives soon weighed in and backed their husbands. If Eaton could breastfeed at the station, one wife told the Cedar Rapids Gazette, then wives should be allowed “the same privacy to enjoy the company of our husbands.”
Monday, January 22nd, 1978 marked Eaton’s first day back on the job, a little over three months after the birth of her son. Eaton’s sister arrived with Ian around lunchtime and the two retired to the woman’s locker room. Keating feared that Eaton was violating his order and sent a civil rights specialist employed by the Human Resources Department of Iowa City to visit the locker room. The specialist confirmed that Eaton was breastfeeding and Eaton was dismissed without pay for the remainder of her shift. The following day—her day off—Eaton filed a motion in state district court asking for a temporary injunction to prohibit the city from firing her for breastfeeding. She reported for duty on Wednesday morning, again breastfed Ian, and again was dismissed without pay.
If she continued to disregard the order, warned Keating, she would be fired. Eaton refused to give in.
On Friday morning, January 26th—Eaton’s next shift—a flock of picketers and activists holding signs that read “Keep Ian Eaton Eating” gathered in front of the fire station, eager to watch the struggle. Around 9:30 a.m., before Keating had the chance to fire Eaton, a city judge granted Eaton the injunction, forbidding the department from terminating her before her January 29th hearing. A few hours later a fire call came in and local news cameras caught Eaton, who had just finished nursing, rushing to the truck. She was the second firefighter to board the vehicle, refuting claims that breastfeeding would delay her response time.
Eaton’s stand put Iowa City at the center of a cultural war. Iowa City’s strong feminist community, driven by young women energized by the national campaign to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, mobilized around Eaton. The local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the La Leche League, a Chicago-based organization that promotes “good mothering through breastfeeding,” backed Eaton as well. Eaton herself refrained from embracing the heightened rhetoric of the moment. She didn’t consider herself a “women’s libber” and, like many working-class women, her activism arose from immediate need rather than academically informed gender ideology.
“I want to continue where I have been, on the job that I feel is still rightfully mine, and still be able to fit my son into my life,” Eaton told one reporter. She wasn’t interested, she claimed, in getting caught up in “the feminist fuss” of the 60s and 70s, and didn’t want to make her struggle political. Nevertheless, it was. The case had national attention and appeal. By the end of the week ABC, NBC, and CBS had run her story on evening news broadcasts.
The publicity helped. Within a month the Iowa Civil Rights Commission notified city officials that they had found probable cause to charge the department with violating Iowa’s Civil Rights Act. The city’s no-nursing rule, the report read, subjected Eaton to differential treatment based on her sex. Because all firefighters were allowed visitors for “necessary business,” and since breastfeeding was necessary indeed (Eaton’s attempts to pump enough milk to last during her 24-hour shift were unsuccessful), the city was in fact denying Eaton equal treatment. Furthermore, the investigation found, the city’s rule against regular visits had a “disparate impact” on Eaton because it forced her to choose between employment and motherhood.
Eaton and city officials began talks to reach a conciliation agreement. The city offered Eaton three options: a new city position as a bus driver or maintenance worker, an unpaid leave of absence for up to twelve months, or the opportunity to pump her breasts twice per shift at the fire station. Eaton refused. In a fraught seven-day hearing held in late July, Judge Chapman refused to terminate Eaton’s nursing visits, affirming the arguments of Eaton and her attorneys, Clara Oleson and Jane Eikleberry.
Despite the legal triumph, Eaton’s career in the fire department remained in jeopardy. Her work environment had become hostile. During an argument over a television show, firefighter Dick Craig allegedly threw Eaton to the floor. Anonymous letters sent to the fire department and local newspapers attacked Eaton’s moral character, criticizing her for being a single mother. One letter-writer threatened violence against Eaton and her “ugly bastard.” Another likened breastfeeding to sexual intercourse. “Pretty soon,” one housewife wrote, “you’ll be having sex in front of everyone.”
By April of 1980, Eaton had had enough. Two weeks after learning that the city council had decided to appeal the commission’s ruling, she resigned from the Iowa City Fire Department.
“Do know that I loved this job and wished to make it my career,” Eaton wrote in her resignation letter. “I had hoped it would be another way.” Her last day as an Iowa City firefighter was May 27, 1980.
The ICFD did not hire another female fire fighter until 1990, when Janet Vest, who had previously worked as an EMT in North Liberty, joined the department. Since joining, Vest has had several children and remains on the job. Tina McDermott followed in 2000, and in 2009 was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, making her the ICFD’s first female officer. No one who worked with Eaton remains on staff.
In 1981, Eaton filed a $1 million lawsuit against Iowa City. She lost. “Ex-Firefighter Loses her Bias Suit in Iowa,” read the New York Times headline. Several members of the jury believed that Eaton had been treated “unfairly” but did not believe that city officials had harassed or discriminated against her. Since leaving the department, Eaton has, according to friends, worked a series of low-wage jobs, her dream of achieving middle-class economic security moving farther and father out of reach.
In the late 1970s, many viewed Eaton’s initial case as a political, if not a personal, victory. But today—in a culture in which the display of a woman’s body is welcome until it’s no longer for adult male consumption—the rights for which Eaton fought remain under fire. Last February another breastfeeding mother, Angela Ames, also from Iowa, made headlines when the state Supreme Court declined to overturn a lower court’s ruling that her former employer, Nationwide Insurance Company, was within bounds for firing her for breastfeeding at work. The grounds for dismissal? It wasn’t sexist, the Eighth Circuit concluded, to fire a woman for breastfeeding because, under certain circumstances, men can lactate too.
Timeline: Breastfeeding in the United States
|1994||Iowa Code § 607A.5 allows a woman to be excused from jury service if she submits written documentation verifying, to the court’s satisfaction, that she is the mother of a breastfed child and is responsible for the daily care of the child.|
|2002||Iowa Code § 135.30A a woman may breastfeed the woman’s own child in any public place where the woman’s presence is otherwise authorized.|
|2010||The Affordable Care Act amends the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 to require an employer to provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express milk. The employer is not required to compensate an employee receiving reasonable break time for any work time spent for such purpose.|
|2015||In April, 2015, Instagram updated its community guidelines to permit photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding.|
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 182