This past February, the Virginia General Assembly unanimously passed a bill allowing women to breastfeed in public. Prior to this bill, Virginia was one of the last three states that still restricted this right. After the bill was passed, many families attended a nurse-out at Maymont Park. This was to contrast the nurse-ins that women have organized when businesses have denied their rights to breastfeed. Law 32.1-370 intends to have a positive impact on the lives of many Virginians, and one of the primary people behind the law is Kate Noon.
Noon works as a social worker in geriatrics at Better Housing Coalition and is a Collegiate parent (Izzy Bartels (‘22)) and spouse of STEAM Coordinator and Robotics coach Daniel Bartels. She got her undergraduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University in Art Foundations but realized later on that she wanted to do social work, and so she continued at VCU to get her Masters of Social Work. There, she also worked in student health as part of a work-study program and taught women’s health education classes. “Part of my master’s program was doing work at the General Assembly,” she says, telling how one of her assignments was to follow one of the thousands of bills that gets addressed each session. Taking policy classes and completing this assignment was her first true exposure to political activism. The bill she selected had to do with HIV/AIDs funding, because, at the time, she was very interested in public health policy, and the bill had a fiscal impact and was very progressive at the time.The bill failed, but it piqued Noon’s interest and set a precedent for the type of political activism she would support later in life.
She recalls that “Virginia did not have a good law in terms of protecting women breastfeeding in public,” referring to the fact that the language of the law only protected women on federal grounds; that is, a woman could breastfeed openly on the Capitol grounds but then walk to a nearby store and be denied service because she was breastfeeding. To Noon, breastfeeding is “very much a women’s rights issue, and very much a reproductive justice issue,” and when she started working on this bill, the time was right. “In 2012 there was a lot of anti-women’s health legislation, not just in Virginia, and that was, for a lot of people I know, a very pivotal session; people woke up to the fact that rights were being taken from them, and a lot of it was slipping through the back door.” Noon began organizing hundreds of people who supported the cause online and teamed up with friend and delegate Jennifer McClellan, who worked on the language of the bill and acted as a patron for it in session. To their surprise, before McClellan had a chance to introduce the bill, Fairfax delegate Dave Albo introduced one with the same purpose. Albo, a Republican, and McClellan, a Democrat, joined forces, along with Noon and Rebecca Geller, an attorney from Fairfax who had been working closely with Albo. The issue then became bipartisan, and because there was not a fiscal impact to protecting the right to breastfeed in public, and because it was an election year and delegates were looking to say that they had supported legislature for women, children, and families, the bill passed 99-0.
Now, Noon is looking at other opportunities to empower women and assure them rights to their health and bodies. Her current project has to do with pumping laws in the workplace (giving breastfeeding mothers the time and space to pump breastmilk for their infants), and while she recognizes that the newly-elected delegates may be more concerned with their platform issues, she is still hoping to gain traction on this often-overlooked issue. She believes that a challenge looking forward will be “engaging the public at the same level” as she did with the breastfeeding bill.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons via user Anderskev.