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A Mother’s Rights

By Nalleli Guillen

Posted on March 18, 2020

This week’s POTW takes you behind the scenes, inside BHS collections storage!

Collections storage at BHS
Collections storage at BHS

Hanging on our paintings rack is an unusual portrait of Brooklynite Rachel Hardy Ray that depicts her nursing a child, not something you see too often in nineteenth-century American portraits. It’s almost as if her baby was carefully placed to keep the artist from capturing a full #freethenipple moment!

Rachel Hardy Ray and Child, circa 1830; M1974.30.1, Brooklyn Historical Society
Rachel Hardy Ray and Child, circa 1830; M1974.30.1, Brooklyn Historical Society

As unusual as it may seem, breastfeeding has actually been a traditional motif in art for centuries, used to represent maternal protection and fertility. It was a common trope particularly in medieval art depicting the Madonna and Child.

Looking at this painting today, I can’t help but connect it to modern mothers’ battles over breastfeeding. Nursing children, particularly in public, has been a recurrently controversial issue for decades for which legal strides have been made. New York in fact was the first state in the nation to pass legislation to protect a mother’s fundamental rights.

In 1994, breastfeeding in public became a protected civil right. Starting in 2007, New York State required employers to provide mothers with breaks to express milk or nurse their children up to three years after returning to work. And just last year, New York City mandated that employers provide lactation accommodations to employees and have written lactation policies to provide to all new workers. The battles for equal pay and family leave continue of course, but major steps have been made since Rachel’s time to protect mothers in public and in the workplace.

Our collections staff has recently cataloged and photographed thousands of items from BHS’s historic artifact and visual culture collections. We are excited to make this collection available online for the first time! Explore more artifacts in our Digital Collections.

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