It was a moment of no particular significance for Margaret Ellen Bradford this past February that turned into so much more. There she was at a Bernie Sanders rally in Barberton, Ohio, when her 6-month-old daughter, Harper, needed to eat. So there amid the crowd, she fed her… breastfed her to be exact. That decision — or rather that instinctual move — led to a viral wildfire that brought about both accolades as well as death threats issued against her family.
“It’s funny because when everything happened, at first it was even like this big thing,” she said. “When I was at the rally it was a very positive experience; no one minded that I was nursing Harper. She got a little antsy, and I was nursing her to help her fall asleep. It was this really short moment. I had no idea that someone was taking a photo. I was standing in a crowd of a couple thousand people, and you would think all the cameras were all on Bernie.”
Bernie and his wife Jane did notice her, and on the way out they stopped her to thank her for being there with her child, for doing what mothers do. The Vermont Senator told her he appreciated that she didn’t leave just because she needed to feed her child.
“It was a 30-second conversation, but it was really cool,” said Bradford. “I thought, ‘Wow, Bernie Sanders just thanked me for breastfeeding.'” Then she didn’t think more about the whole thing until a friend emailed her a picture she found online and said, “Isn’t this you?”
A longtime public breastfeeding advocate, Bradford posted the picture to her Facebook wall to share with family and friends and thought that would be about all there was to it. Soon, however, it spread, even inspiring the viral hashtag #BoobsForBernie.
She said at first the reaction was positive, as it was shared primarily on breastfeeding and motherhood sites, where she received plenty of feedback from people congratulating her and telling her she was inspiring. Then the mainstream media picked it up, and the comments that followed were downright frightening.
“Some were so offended that I had the audacity to feed my child that they wished me death,” she said. “Some threatened to come and kill me themselves. I didn’t understand how the simple act of breastfeeding my child could cause such hatred in a stranger.”
She said strangers picked apart everything in the photo they could possibly find and called her an attention seeker. Some condemned her for her tattoos, while others couldn’t get over the fact that she had a cellphone in her hand while holding her child. Note to those people: As a Type 1 diabetic, she had her phone in hand so she could check an app that monitors her blood sugar. Some felt that a political rally was no place for a baby.
“I was raised to believe that my vote is my voice and it matters, and I want to make sure my children are raised to have the same respect for your political system and desire to be involved,” she said. “Besides, it’s not like it was a Trump rally where there were people throwing punches.”
On and on, the hatred came. She was so shaken by the comments that she turned off social media time.
Beyond her own personal experience after this photograph, she said attitudes such as those from the hateful commenters are why women have such a challenging time breastfeeding in this country. Having worked for years for the site Breastfeeding Mama Talk, she knows how much women struggle with breastfeeding in public and cites statistics such as the fact that 81 percent of women start out trying to breastfeed, but by the time their babies turn 1, only 25 percent are still breastfeeding.
“That’s abysmal, and I think that’s because women are made to be ashamed of their natural biology. They stay home because they don’t feel comfortable feeding their children in public, so they try to pump at home where they don’t offend anyone, but then their supply dwindles, and then they start supplementing with formula. It’s a vicious booby trap that destroys breastfeeding relationships.”
“The biggest issues as a society, we have made biology second to sex,” she continued. “We consider breasts to be only sexual, but breasts aren’t any more sexual than an ear or an arm. They are meant for nourishing our young.”
Despite all the hatred and ignorance, however, she said overall, she’s glad her picture got the attention it did.
“Looking back, I’ve connected with a couple thousand women on Facebook because of the photo and have gotten messages from people that say the photo changed their mind about breastfeeding in public, saying they appreciate my openness,” she said. “I’m pretty happy now that the photo did what it did. I think it helped women. I think it helped men too, and to make societal change, it takes both genders. At this point, I’m thankful. It took a while, but I’ve seen a lot of good in the long run.”
Her only real regret? She didn’t get a picture of her daughter with Bernie and Jane. “Maybe someday,” she said.