No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service

And at last no arrest either! Women as well as men have the civil right to bare their breasts in public in New York. Why is this important? So what?

Be advised: those seeking titillation will be sorely disappointed in the content of this post about desexualizing women’s breasts.

The Memorandum, or prepublication synopsis of law defining this right is from 1992, so this should not be news, but it is (http://www.law.cornell.edu/nyctap/I92_0160.html.) The 1992 law grants women in New York the right to be show their breasts anywhere that men may show theirs. The language of the memorandum makes clear why this is important despite being contrary to public sentiment. Whenever an issue has to do with race, gender or other category protected by civil rights, the law may diverge from public sentiment and common social practice.

Even many of my most liberal friends think I am wrong-headed on this point. But though Ms. Van Voast is not directly doing the work of an organization like Amnesty International, her annual ritual of breast-baring and arrest is not unlike acts of protest against Jim Crow laws. She is advocating for women to have equal the same rights and privileges that men have.

As many of us read in a May 15, 2013 New York Times article by J. David Goodman, Ms. Van Voast will not be arrested this year. NYPD officers have now been trained not to arrest women merely because they are topless from the waist up.

Typically wrapped up like a mummy, this will only have an indirect effect on me. A friend at a recent gathering laughed at my son’s XL hooded Carhart coat and my Ugh boots donned on top of several other layers. I looked, she said, like the character from the movie Nanook of the North. However swathed and swaddled I may be, I applaud this step toward equal rights.

This weekend’s hate killing of a gay man in New York, and crimes committed worldwide against oppressed groups, are true tragedies. One important safeguard against tragic oppression–when upheld–are laws guaranteeing equality. Such laws are steps toward ensuring a greater measure of safety for all.

An earlier generation of women abandoned its bras. That era has passed, and we are more conventional now. However, in a limited area and arena, we have the freedom to peel off our t-shirts wherever men may legally do the same. This practice will probably remain rare, but its significance lies in its extrapolation to far more serious injustices.

Acknowledging the anatomical similarities of all human breasts must be liberating to men who have breast cancer as well as to those whose hormonal or genetic conditions cause them to grow larger-than-average male breasts. It should also serve as yet another liberating force in the LGBT community and for intersex persons.

Thank you, Ms. van Voast. My kids are grateful to you, too, as I have made idle threats of taking on such a campaign. Though suburban New Jersey does not seem ready for topless women at parks, pools, and playgrounds, hopefully fewer nursing mothers will be subjected to harassment. Then again, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not believe in waiting for the right time to fight for civil liberties.

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2 thoughts on “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service

  1. ABE

    Okay, I guess – if that’s what you’re going to spend your civic currency on.

    Since I’m unlikely to need that particular law any more, it is more of a curiosity than a necessity. But common sense should have protected nursing mothers – and it didn’t.

    Reply
  2. Circe

    Agreed that gun control, for instance, is of far greater importance to the health and safety of people in the U.S. than gender-biased restrictions regarding attire! We might, however, change our minds about the importance of attire should complete coverage in public become mandated. I have read arguments about the freedoms, as well as restrictions, that comes with wearing a burqa. To date, I prefer going without.
    As I (without professional qualifications) read the NY law regarding breast exposure, it does cover nursing mothers.

    Reply

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