SYDNEY, Australia — With the complete disregard for politics that is a characteristic of youth, Alia Joy Gates made her position clear: She would not wait to be breast-fed. It did not matter that her mother, Senator Larissa Waters, had work to do in the chamber of the Australian Senate.
She was 11½ weeks old and, for crying out loud, a girl’s gotta eat.
As a result, little Alia made history. On Tuesday, she became the first child to be breast-fed in Australia’s federal Parliament. By Thursday, her mundane bout of hunger had attracted praise for her mother from all over the world, including from Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, who declared (on Facebook, of course), “Go Larissa Waters — leading by example!”
Ms. Waters said in an interview that she was a bit stunned by the reaction.
“Breast-feeding is a normal and natural thing that women have been doing since time immemorial, and in that sense, it’s quite strange to me that it caused such a sensation,” she said during a break from voting in the Senate. “What it really says is that we need more young women in Parliament so that when we breast-feed our babies it’s not considered news.”
The response, not unlike what occurred after a lawmaker in Iceland was photographed breast-feeding while defending a bill in the country’s Parliament, reflects the degree to which maternal functions are still considered bold and political acts in institutions dominated by men.
Even as the sight of women publicly breast-feeding has become more common in many places around the world, mothers are still often publicly shamed, which has, in turn, provoked a backlash from mothers that has gone global.
The internet is full of sharp comebacks that women can deploy when someone (usually a man) tries to shut them down for feeding. One mall in Colombia even introduced breast-feeding mannequins to combat the criticism.
In Australia — where 73 women serve in Parliament, representing 32 percent of all federal lawmakers, compared with 19 percent in the United States Congress — the issue of child-rearing and lawmaking has come up before. In 2003, Kirstie Marshall, a lawmaker in the state of Victoria, was asked to leave the state’s Parliament for breast-feeding her 11-day-old baby because of a rule that bans “strangers” or unelected members in the house (presumably including infants).
In 2009, a similar rule was used in the federal Parliament when Senator Sarah Hanson-Young tried to say a quick goodbye to her 2-year-old daughter in the chamber only to have the Senate president insist that the child be removed, leading to screams from the toddler that were heard through the thick Senate doors.
“Movement in the Australian Parliament on issues like this has been glacial,” said Sue Boyce, a former Liberal Party senator who was there that day.
Last year, after a previously failed attempt, Australia’s federal Parliament changed its rules to allow for breast-feeding and at least some family contact.