The Willard Wire Just Dropped a Bare-chested Bomb

Willard Wire cover
The Willard Wire is a student newspaper at the Willard Alternative School in Missoula, Montana.

 

It may take years for us to understand the importance of what is happening in Missoula, Montana this month.

I have been waiting for the next real turning point in the topfreedom movement.  I think the student journalists of the Willard Wire have created it, especially coupled with last week’s New York Times piece on topfeedom that showed uncensored images of female nipples, a landmark in the mainstream media to my knowledge.

When I see media coverage of topfreedom, I watch for several things at once… details of whatever event took place, the motivations behind the act, the quality of the coverage itself, and most importantly to me, the wake effect of that coverage, the commentary, the reactions, etc.

Last month, a mixed-gender staff of Missoula, Montana high school students, Chase Boehmler, Kylie Hoedel, Keaton Alexander, Sarah Donald, Tilly Kushner, Skylar Stanley, and Aurora Staggs published an issue of their school paper with the headline “Free the Nipple.” Boehmler authored the “Free the Nipple” article itself. Hoedel took the photos, designed the piece and co-edited it with Alexander.  Donald and Staggs are assistant editors.  Kushner contributed a story about her experiences with slut shaming and violence.  Stanley, the paper’s business manager, wrote on the joys of bralessness.

Articles in that issue drew attention to bullying and slut shaming that was occurring at Missoula schools and the inadequacy of administrative response to that bullying.  They also successfully make the connection between the fetishizing of the female breast and gender inequality.

Upon learning of the issue, Missoula County Public School officials attempted to obtain all printed issues of the newspaper and eventually issued a formal reprimand and 3-day suspension to the school’s principal, Jane Bennett, and formally reprimanded the newspaper’s adviser, veteran teacher, Lisa Waller.

The students have responded with resolve and maturity and their advisers have stood by them without any apparent hesitation despite being punished for doing so.

Missoula Superintendent Mark Thane cited U.S. Supreme Court cases from the 1980’s to justify his censorship of the newspaper, and cited a school district policy barring material that may “cause a substantial disruption of the school” to justify his reprimands of Bennett and Waller.

The problem Thane and the school district face is that no school policy defines what types of things might inappropriately disrupt the school, what “disrupt” even means in this context, and nowhere does school policy differentiate between female and male nipples or even bodies.  Yet Thane and school board interpret this nebulous language as somehow applying to the female nipples shown in the photos but not the male nipples beside them.  They actually used this language.  They said it was the presence of female breasts and the use of lewd language describing a sex act that led to the censorship and punishment.

What was this “lewd” language?  It was part of a Q&A of a woman who had experienced shaming for breastfeeding.  The article was dispelling myths about breastfeeding.

Misconception: “Breastfeeding is no longer important, use a breast pump!”

Response: “You could use a breast pump or formula, but as I said, formula is not as good for the baby. Pumping takes time and you have a limited amount. If I’m out and about with my son, and he’s hungry and we run out of the milk I pumped, then I have to breastfeed him. I can’t just let him be hungry.”

Misconception: “I can’t just whip my dick out and feed my wife at a restaurant, so why should you get to whip out your tit and feed your baby?”

Response: (laughs) “Ew um that’s, I have never heard that comparison. That’s absurd. How someone could make a connection like that makes no sense to me. I definitely would rather see a breastfeeding mother than a person getting a blowjob in public. That’s a wild comparison. I mean, it’s not like I’m out in public with a 14 year old kid sucking on my boob, I am simply feeding a hungry baby.”

Sound hyperbolic?  It is not.  I have received this very same type of comment on my blog and under my videos, with people equating “boobs” and “tits” to “dicks” and “cocks,” and claiming that if women can pull their tits out men can pull their cocks out.  So the question is valid and the interviewer’s language reflects language that has been used against breastfeeding mothers.

But this is a celebration!

So that’s the context of what’s going on in Montana, which is heavy, but I am writing this article as an absolute celebration and to highlight the incredible successes I see.

First, can we pause and consider the courage of the student writers who by their own description have been working on this issue for months, knew they were creating a “head turner,” and went about their project with an eye for eliminating any objections people could have to their articles that did not involve the content itself?  They secured carefully worded permissions from their photo models and verified their ages, researched school policy and local, state and national laws, and fact checked their articles.  Armed with knowledge, they made their statement accurately and effectively.  That is incredibly savvy.

Second, they have stood up to the social and administrative power structure of their school system repeatedly in the past, calling for action to stop bullying, slut shaming and gender inequality, and now they are standing up again on an international stage to assert the fundamental importance of free press and conscientious dissent.

Third, despite being reprimanded for failing to stop the article, adviser, Lisa Waller, and school principal, Jane Bennett, both career educators with decades of impressive work behind them (I’ve been researching them), have put their reputations and careers on the line to stand in solidarity with these young women.  I find this as inspirational as the articles themselves.

And fourth, in the balance, the Missoula community appears to be standing behind these young women and their advisers.  People identifying themselves as mothers of the students are supporting the work.  The comments I’m reading in the local newspapers reflect a striking awareness of the importance of their act.  I have not seen this level of quality in the support of topfreedom in mainstream media anywhere, ever.  I’m sure they are receiving some vitriol and shame too, but I’m heartened and hope they are too by the support they are receiving.  It’s unprecedented, in my opinion.

The censored articles have been reprinted by the University of Montana Kaimin.  (Take that Missoula County Public Schools, how will the U o M respond?).  And now the censored material is flying around the Internet for all the world to see. how it looks when young people assert their strength to entrenched power.

Spoiler alert.  It gets ugly fast…not because the young women react poorly, but on the contrary because they continue to behave with dignity, strength and competence.  Their behavior contrasts with and highlights the indefensible positions being used against them, like a candle illuminating a corpse.

These young people represent the future of the topfreedom movement, whether or not they ever say a word on the topic again, because they have shown a true awareness of the nuances and have anticipated them.  The journalists of the Willard Wire have voiced the importance of topfreedom in a way their community has heard.

I believe we will look back and see a turn in the road in 2016, for a number of reasons.  I hope Ramona and Gwen are somewhere smiling.

Update March 29, 2016: The staff of the Willard Wire wrote to me to tell me the school board had asked them to reprint the issue, but censored.  They refused, and instead published the issue intact and uncensored, here.

U of Montana Kaimin article with uncensored images and comments

Student Press Law Center article, the most comprehensive article on the Willard Wire situation I’ve found

The Missoula Independent’s article with comments

The Missoulian’s article with comments

KPAX Missoula TV coverage, factual, no hyperbole or demeaning language

New York Times topfreedom piece with uncensored images

 

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23 thoughts on “The Willard Wire Just Dropped a Bare-chested Bomb

  1. I applaud these young people who took a stand. Missoula is becoming an interesting place. Last year, they had their first ever World Naked Bike Ride amidst something of a public shitstorm. Ultimately, the city council allowed the ride as there was no law against it, and the Constitution was on the side of the riders. The ride came off without a hitch, and gained support with the populace.

    Free the Nipple has been around for a couple years now, and coupled with the sociatal and legal success of the WNBR in their town, I believe was the trigger for the school newspaper staff to say, “the time is now.” Legally speaking, as long as the students who posed were all over 18, then I believe the school district is on shaky legal ground.

    Missoula may be the place to watch. Free the Nipple has completely stalled because it’s protests are always where it’s already legal to be top free. No one cares. Now a group of students have taken the protest right where it has always needed to be: a very conservative state. This is how things get done. As one who lived through the 60’s and 70’s, you have to protest where you NEED the message to be, not where it’s comfortable and safe.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi guys: Applause indeed. I don’t know exactly what their motivation was, but from talking a bit with the students themselves, they kept returning to their past experiences with sexual harassment and bullying at Missoula schools, and their frustration with the lack of adequate response. I think they felt motivated to air their concerns about gender equality, mostly. As far as Free the Nipple being stalled, I don’t think it is at all. I’m not aligned with Free the Nipple, of course, which is more of a hashtag phenomena than anything, but the New York Times piece last week that ran with uncensored photos of bare-chested women led with the fact that the term “free the nipple” had surpassed all other feminist search terms last year. That’s hardly stalled. Maybe it’s just becoming so ubiquitous it feels unremarkable. Win. Also I think we should celebrate the women going bare-chested where it’s safe and legal, because we need them as much or more than those on the tip of the spear. It’s one thing for protesters to chant and shout, that does have its purpose. But normalization will never occur until women go bare-chested without any note-worthiness at all. The effect of seeing women bare-chested where it is normal and legal is more powerful to me than seeing people with signs and chanting. People are followers, for the most part, and few will follow the lead of protesters. Most people don’t want that type of attention. More women will go bare-chested if they think no one will notice them at all, and the only way to prove that is to go out and have no one much pay attention. And that’s only possible where it is safe and legal. Also, if we use the places where it is safe and legal to build normality, those images and experiences travel across state borders in the form of photographs, stories, memories, so when protesters do show up on the steps of the Iowa state house or wherever, the idea isn’t coming from Mars. But yeah, brava to the Willard Wire. Thanks as always.

      Liked by 5 people

  2. Agree with everything you’ve said, but the NYT article. Again, top free is legal in New York. The fight has to be taken where it’s illegal, and in your face. It’s the only was to eventually normalize breasts to the mainstream public. Women flashing their breasts online from the comfort of their rooms, is not activism. Walking in public is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s not that the NYTimes covered a story in NYC that’s relevant, it’s that a mainstream media source, a really big and important one, ran a video story uncensored. And though bare-chestedness is legal there, it is normalized in only a few pockets, and even that took over 20 years.

      Outside of NYC, but in the rest of NY state, we’ve a long way to go. But that is precisely Gingerbread’s point. Legality has been established, so now begins the process of normalization. It will still take many forward thinking women to do as she does, researching the topic, contacting police, getting assurance of respectful treatment, and carrying through, not just once but repeatedly.

      Nor is an in-your-face approach necessarily a good idea. Getting an opponent’s hackles up is just as likely to make the job harder, not win adherents to the cause. To me, it’s just as hard to stay cool under pressure as it is hard not to turn to jelly when courage is needed. This is a mental game, not a yelling one.

      I think she’s right, though. We’ve turned a corner.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Sorry Jim, I hope these liberal woman stay out of areas that look down upon bare breasts in public. Please stay in your liberal states and do not come to conservative states, we don’t want to see your bare breast, don’t want our children seeing your bare breasts, and don’t care about your feminist/equality agenda.

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      1. You use some interesting language here. For example, you say “look down upon” bare breasts, implying a hierarchy, atop which “you” sit. Referring to conservative states, you speak for “we” don’t want this and “we” don’t want that. It would be more effective if you spoke for yourself, because I imagine I can find people who support equality in every state. But I will say this without sarcasm, I respect you for letting me know where you stand. In all the time I’ve been doing this I haven’t heard anyone just come out and say in clear language they are against equality. I know people feel that way, they just aren’t bold enough to say it. So kudos for speaking clearly. Thanks for stopping by my blog. Oh… According to pornhub, Georgia, Virginia and Kansas (#1) are in the top ten states for viewing the most porn per capita. Which tells me these conservative states aren’t actually against female breasts, just against female breasts being controlled by the females who own them.

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        1. Exactly the sort of response I expected, all in the name of “equality”
          Why do woman feel they have to equal to men?

          You don’t think that showing boobs in public will not get minds of men to think lustfully? I got news for you, even the guys that are nice to you and make nice comments, they are loving seeing your boobs and of course they are going to support you!!!

          Do you think it is a good thing for a young boy for example to see your boobs? Or, do you think the example you are giving girls to throw out modesty and share their boobs with the public, is really a good thing for the health of society, all in the name of “equality”

          For your info, there is just as much porn in other places of the country, not just the conservative states.

          Your blog has been very informative, and thank you for your response.

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          1. I know porn is watched throughout the country. My point is that these conservative values you hold up point to a devaluation of women’s autonomy. It’s not the breast that is dangerous in your construct, it is the power women are taking over our own bodies and lives that threatens conservative values of the ilk you highlight. I have many very solid supporters, in my personal life, who identify as devout Christians. They tell me they feel that desexualizing the female body is more Christian than shaming women into forced modesty. That’s a conversation to be had among evangelicals. There are Mormons and Jews having the same conversations right now. I know because they share these conversations with me, here in the blog and in my personal life. Yes, I believe having young people see real women’s bodies in non-sexual contexts is vitally important, because right now the average age of first porn viewing is between 11 and 12 years old for boys and not much older for girls. Young people are forming their expectations of female sexuality and male sexuality based on commercialized, ever escalating pornography. It is not difficult to find articles from reputable sources speaking about young women who feel they must do the things they see in pornography to please their sexual partners, who are watching ever increasing amounts of pornography. I read a recent article sighting how a majority of “mainstream” pornography involves some form of violence or control over women. It’s just so ubiquitous we don’t see it anymore. Look at the comments of some of the people on my YouTube videos… They call me ugly, fat, call my breasts floppy or flat or mannish, one man recently told me to do sit ups. All this crowd has to use against me is canned insults about parts of the female body they have learned somewhere will deeply affect a woman. When they see they haven’t hurt me with their insults, they get really upset, realizing their perceived power is eroding, their one tool (shame) is no longer effective and they can’t control me. This is terrifying to them because it means if other women learn this secret men who hold power through cruelty and abuse will soon be out of power. There are advanced countries all over the world that allow their young people to see real bodies and the civility of their societies reflects it. The incivility of some elements of American culture reflects a deeply entrenched power imbalance that is beginning to shift again. That’s what some people find so troubling about my little walks. I’m glad you’ve found my blog informative. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but I would prefer people disagree over facts than over fear and misinformation.

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  3. Do you know if the NYT’s print edition also run uncensored photo(s), or was it just in their online version? That would be truly unprecedented in American newspaper journalism.

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  4. Reactions to the Willard Wire story (and the New York Times story) illustrate that the underlying resistance to normalization is a notion that seeing a woman’s chest somehow unleashes a primal uncontrollable sexual reaction in men that women can or seek to exploit.

    This old idea contains several related facets that normalization needs to address. That men become automatically aroused and helplessly disoriented is disproved by your outings, but normalization, by definition, means that there must be enough experience in various contexts for both genders to see the myth routinely discredited. That women, “knowing” the impact on men, bare their chests for sexual purposes is a corollary idea that only evaporates when people get some experience actually seeing women, like you, bare chested in an easygoing way in the same circumstances that men are. That bare female chests cause a predictable public disturbance, or, worse, put women in danger, is a last line of resistance that is broken through when it is documented, as your videos do, that in fact no such disturbance actually occurs.

    The Willard Wire reporters have had few such progressive, reinforcing experiences in Missoula, but they investigated and showed that they understood both the wider context of attitudes toward breasts as well as the local context of how those attitudes get translated into their own personal experiences with shaming and bullying.

    The fact that the students developing the articles were mixed-gender is particularly “subversive” because it shows how we can all work together to challenge basically dumb preconceptions. The guys got an opportunity to note that they can distinguish between an invitation to intimacy and a normal female chest. The women got a chance to make the point that if they “let their breasts go free” it signals nothing more than a personal comfort choice. Both reassure that no reaction or “disturbance” is intended or expected. A message lost on the Willard School Board.

    Another common objection to normalizing female bare-chestedness is “But what about teenagers with raging hormones?” Well, the Willard Wire writers were precisely from that demographic and they are just fine with chest equality. Next objection?

    This is when we are bound to hear someone say, “But what about the children?” For children to consider any bare chest abnormal, as Rogers & Hammerstein might sing, “they’ve got to be carefully taught.”

    The Willard Alternative High School administration was clearly very embarrassed that their “rape culture” curriculum had failed to be “carefully taught.” I hope the Willard Wire newsroom can hear our collective reaction to that — “Yay!” Oh, and the Willard mascot is the crow, which, according to KGVO radio in Missoula, is “An apt choice! Curious and adaptable, crows are considered among the world’s most intelligent animals.” Go Crows!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I thought this seemed to be the most relevant recent post to make this comment on. :p so

    First of all, I wanted to say thank you. Seeing what you guys do gives me hope that things are going to change- perhaps already are changing- for the better. As an aspiring nudist I’ve been a huge supporter of barechested equality and the desexualization of the human body for years, but being a high schooler surrounded by immaturity, from peers and adults alike, I’ve often become discouraged. You and others fighting alongside you, showing things in the light that it truly should be, have restored that hope. So thank you.

    I suppose my question is about the upcoming American presidential election. All candidates have spent quite a bit of time talking about “the issues”. However, I haven’t been able to find a single snippet where the issue of barechested inequality, censorship, nudism, etc had been brought up at all. I know and strongly believe its a huge issue, and I guess my wondering is we know the movement is gaining ground, and that its becoming a national “controversial issue” (sigh…There shouldn’t be any controversy over equality!!) So why does it seem like the entire political scene is repressing the movement? Why doesn’t anyone (in the political realm) address this very serious issue? As one who will be voting in November, This disturbs me- that an entire nation of “leadership” can ignore some of the biggest problems and one of the most important movements in the nation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for writing. I always get a boost when I hear from young people active in pushing causes and expressing opinions of inclusivity and equality. I do believe that each generation can get closer to equality than the previous ones. I do hear a lot of echoes of the topfreedom movement in the rhetoric of the presidential campaigns. I would be pretty surprised to hear any of the candidates address it directly though. So much of a campaign is trying to hold your base while winning the middle. I obviously feel topfreedom is important, but mostly because it should be a nonissue and so in a weird way the fact that we are making all this progress and women are going barechested and it is not a campaign issue is to me a good thing in parts. No one is campaigning against topfreedom as a platform, which tells me they view it as unwinnable or at least an issue that will lose them more votes than it gains them. But with that said I do hear the language of inequality all over the campaign and in the media and it bolsters me to continue this work. I feel more motivated to establish topfree equality, to normalize equal treatment under the law, and to move the standard and change normal. If it gives you hope, a large mixed-gender group of topfreedom supporters spoke against New Hampshire bill 1525 on Monday, which proposed to criminalize female nipple exposure but not male, and the Criminal Justice committee unanimously voted against the bill. It’s not dead yet, but this means it goes before the full house with a strong recommendation to take no action (which is what we wanted) so this is a really big positive step for topfreedom. May I ask how you identify your gender and where generally you live? Just so I can get a feel for your situation. Feel free to PM or email me if you don’t want to post it in a comment. Thank you again. We are making progress.

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      1. I’m a male from the Raleigh NC area. I’ll be moving to Charlotte NC soon for college, though. But I just read your article on HB 1525. It is very encouraging! Seeing things like what happened with Williard and the things that are happening now in New Hampshire and in smaller cases across the country, for barechested inequality and for nudism, continue to grow my hope in seeing huge progress.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I like the way you look at it though. You’re right, nudity, barechestedness, these should not be issues in the first place. And as a whole, the biggest progress we see (in my opinion) is the fact that in many places, as you showed with some of the videos of you just walking naturally, is that it seems like people are finally beginning to not even give it a second thought. People are finally seeing it as natural, and as not even just okay or acceptable, but a complete non-issue. The fact that it is slowly beginning to be the minority who oppose these things is very encouraging. The only way that barechested inequality, nudity, or even the desexualization of the human body will ever really fully happen the way we hope it to is if it becomes a nonissue, something that is widely accepted, without the need to bring it up as an issue in the first place. Thank you for this new perspective on things! Your site has given me such a refreshed view of barechested equality, and even indirectly of nudity itself. Since beginning to read this blog, I’ve had a renewed understanding about progress made, I’ve stopped using labels like topfreedom and nudism (after reading your post about how barechested is a better term that references how natural it is), and I’ve gained a renewed respect for people like you. Not only are you making a stand in a peaceful natural way, but there’s a level of character I see in your views, your actions, how you speak, that I rarely ever see from anyone. Thank you so much again, and God Bless.

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        1. Thank you for those kind words. I, of course, am following in the footsteps (pun) of so many strong and quiet activists before me, some of whom are just emerging now, sharing stories about their own efforts 20 years ago, that went unheralded. I was just reading a court case from Chincoteague, Virginia from the 1990’s in which a woman walked bare-chested down the beach and was arrested and argued basically everything we say now and she came soooo close to winning her case. There was a beautiful dissenting opinion that predicts what is happening now regarding the normalization of female bare-chestedness. The only reason I found this case is because I was researching local (to me) laws and precedents and found this obscure case. I think it’s just awesome and inspiring to think of so many people over the years adding a brick to the structure, some in total anonymity and obscurity, some in full public view. I noticed immediately, by the way, that you used the term bare-chested fluidly in your first comment and I meant to high five you for that. Progress… it happens slowly, then suddenly. But it happens.

          Liked by 1 person

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