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.