The Eau Claire, Wis., City Council voted Tuesday to ban children from the council dais during meetings after one of its members said she had a legal right to breast-feed her child during council sessions.
The council voted 7-1 after a highly charged debate. Three members, including councilor and mother Catherine Emmanuelle, abstained from the vote in protest.
“What I really want to say is ‘I refuse,’ ” said Emmanuelle, in explaining her abstention. She had proposed that children be allowed to sit with their elected parents as long as they weren’t a distraction, but she was voted down.
The vote follows months of tension after Emmanuelle first brought her now 11-month-old son to a council meeting. Emmanuelle said she was told by Kerry Kincaid, council president, that four council members had complained about her breast-feeding. In a compromise, Emmanuelle agreed to sit in an area reserved for the public when she had her son with her.
Speaking about the experience during Tuesday’s council meeting, Emmanuelle said it took several months and a consultation with an attorney before she had the courage to say earlier in October that she planned to stay in her chair during meetings, even if she had her son along. She said it had been impossible to fully participate in the council meeting when she sat in the public area.
Her attorney pointed to a 2010 Wisconsin law that grants protections for breast-feeding.
Kincaid couldn’t be reached Tuesday for comment.
Show of support
Emmanuelle’s case has drawn support from several organizations working to put more women in public office, including the nonprofit VoteRunLead.
That group, along with Emerge Wisconsin and Moms Rising, sent petitions with some 12,000 signatures in support of Emmanuelle to the City Council.
In sometimes testy comments at Tuesday’s council meeting, several members said they had the authority to restrict access to their area if they felt it was necessary. Council member Kathy Mitchell said a child would be a distraction.
“My view is that being on the City Council is that it’s not about us,” she said.
Another council member wondered what would happen if Emmanuelle was allowed to bring her child: Would that mean that other members could bring in all of their children?
Member David Klinkhammer, who voted with the majority, said it comes down to “how the council wants to run its meeting.”
The vote was split largely by age, with two younger members of the council joining Emmanuelle in abstaining.
Council member Kate Beaton told those voting for the ban that they were on the wrong side of history, saying young professionals in Eau Claire were upset by the council’s rejection of public breast-feeding.
“This conversation is embarrassing to them,” she said.
Erin Vilardi, the founder of VoteRunLead, said she’s invited Emmanuelle to speak at an upcoming conference about women in leadership.
The Eau Claire decision, she said, “says you can’t come to office as your full self, leave that Mom stuff at home.”
She continued: “It’s not just about Catherine, but it’s also about this idea that a City Council can just tell you where and when to feed your kid. It’s crazy.”
After the meeting, Emmanuelle said she still believes state law is on her side.
“I’m going to continue to wear all the hats that I wear — working mom and elected official — and I’m going to do what I need to do to balance those roles,” she said.