It’s supposed to be the misogynist legal decision of this year so far: a judge’s supposed ruling that a breastfeeding mother who claimed she was forced out of her job couldn’t sue her employer under federal laws banning sex discrimination—because some men can lactate, too. And then the U.S. Supreme Court denied the woman’s petition for a reversal!
At least, that is how the American Civil Liberties Union’s Galen Sherwin described the case on the ACLU website, according to Raw Story:
“The court’s reasoning in this case echoes old Supreme Court pronouncements that discriminating against pregnant women at work isn’t sex discrimination because both men and women can be non-pregnant,” Sherwin wrote. “Congress long ago rejected this ridiculous reasoning when it passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. It’s disheartening to see it resurface again.”
And of course Amanda Marcotte got into the act:
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.
Um, turns out that the case wasn’t about male lactation at all. Snopes.com took the trouble of actually reading both the opinion of Des Moines, Iowa U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt (a Bill Clinton appointee, by the way), and that of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld Pratt’s ruling. Here’s what Snopes says:
Although the original District Court ruling in October 2012 that dismissed the lawsuit did include reference to lactating men, that was not the primary basis for the court's decision, nor was it a factor mentioned at all in the March 2014 ruling of the St. Louis-based Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the District Court's dismissal.
The case involved Angela Ames, whose employer, Nationwide Insurance, couldn’t immediately supply her with an employee lactation room (although it did promptly find another room for her) when she returned from maternity leave and needed to express breast milk for her baby. A dispute with Ames’s supervisors followed, over Ames’s work production. A supervisor advised her to go home and be with her babies, then dictated a resignation letter for her.
Ames promptly did so—and then sued Nationwide under pregnancy-discrimination provisions in Title VII, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in employment. Pratt’s remark about male lactation—which also included his pointing out that adoptive mothers could lactate under some circumstances—occurred in a footnote to a portion of his ruling dealing with whether lactation was a “medical condition” relating specifically to “pregnancy” under the law. Pratt ruled that it wasn’t—so Ames wasn’t discriminated against on the basis of her pregnancy. Pratt also ruled that Ames had failed to show that Nationwide had either forced her to resign or treated her differently than it would have treated a male employee.
And by the time the 8th Circuit heard Ames’s appeal, as Snopes noted, Ames appeared to have dropped her claims related to lactation. The only issue at stake by that time was Ames’s claim that she had been forced to resign—and there the 8th Circuit upheld Pratt’s ruling. The Supreme Court obviously agreed.
As Snopes.com said: “So while the original court may have referenced the issue of male lactation, headlines asserting the case turned on the issue that "breastfeeding is not sexist since men can lactate" are inaccurate, and they create a grossly misleading impression based upon one very minor element of a single aspect of the case. “