Family Matters

In Pittsburgh, Public Art Doubles as a Sanctuary for Breast-Feeding Moms

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If you’re a nursing mother being made to feel uncomfortable for breast-feeding your baby in public, you might want to consider moving to Pittsburgh. On Sept. 17, that city will unveil a mobile sanctuary for breast-feeding moms. You can’t miss it: it’s a souped-up ice cream truck with a 3-ft. fiberglass boob on top, painted light pink, with a hot-pink areola and a flashing dome light for a nipple.

“It’s definitely something to marvel at,” says Jill Miller, the truck’s creator and an instructor in the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University. “We joke we had to give it a breast reduction because it was too tall.”

For all its gimmicky appeal, there’s a serious backstory to the truck’s evolution. Miller, who had moved to Pittsburgh from San Francisco, noticed that breast-feeding on the East Coast attracted way more unwelcome attention than it had out West. She heard stories about women being harassed by mall security guards and about fellow mothers making snide comments. After an urgent-care nurse gasped at the sight of Miller nursing her 15-month-old, Miller figured Pittsburgh could use a little enlightening.

When Miller was invited to participate in the 2011 Pittsburgh Biennial exhibition at the city’s Andy Warhol Museum, she decided to use the opportunity to champion both public art and public breast-feeding.

With $18,000 raised mostly through Kickstarter, which helps creative projects find seed money, Miller purchased a 1990 ice cream truck, gussied up the interior with pink paint and brushed aluminum and outfitted it with a breast-milk pumping station, a rug and some chairs.

Women anywhere in the Pittsburgh area can contact The Milk Truck through its Facebook and Twitter sites, if they’re told they can’t nurse in a public place or have been admonished to cover up or find a restroom. The truck will also make rounds providing a private place for working mothers to pump milk.

Miller, along with a former La Leche League leader and a doula, say they are “first responders,” and they anticipate helping lots of local moms. “Basically, the truck shows up, and we have a nursing party,” says Miller. There will be snacks and lawn chairs and a soundtrack featuring some classic odes to femininity: Rusty Warren’s “Bounce Your Boobies” and Ruth Wallis’ “Boobs.”

MORE: Child’s Play: What’s So Bad About ‘The Breast Milk Baby’?

Earlier this week, Pittsburgh’s City Council got in on the fun, lauding the mobile breast-feeding unit as a “combination of guerilla theater, activism and a little humor” and issuing an official proclamation:

Now, therefore be it resolved that the Council of the City of Pittsburgh does hereby recognize The Milk Truck for delivering an important public service by ensuring that our community’s babies are nourished when and wherever needed; and,

Be it further resolved, that the Council of the City of Pittsburgh does hereby declare Tuesday, September 13, 2011 ‘The Milk Truck Day’ in the City of Pittsburgh.

Pennsylvania is one of 45 states that protects the rights of women to breast-feed in public and is among 28 states that specifically exempts breast-feeding from public indecency laws. But legislation hasn’t necessarily changed public opinion. An unscientific poll published by the Pittsburgh Gazette that gauged uneasiness about public breast-feeding found that 28% of men and 41% of women were uncomfortable. That women were more critical of public nursing than men won’t surprise many breast-feeding mothers.

The only time anyone ever said anything to me about breast-feeding in public was at a science museum during storytime. I was, I thought, discreetly nursing my infant daughter while keeping an eye on my two older children when a woman a row behind hissed at me to cover up. “What am I supposed to tell my son?” she demanded. My face burning, I responded, “Tell him that a mother is feeding her child.”

MORE: Facebook and Breast-Feeders Face Off Again Over Nursing Photos

The Milk Truck — which debuts Saturday at the Warhol museum, where moms and their nurslings will get complimentary admission — has already engendered a fair amount of criticism from people who think public breast-feeding is disgusting. Miller has received threatening emails, including one earlier this week suggesting that if she doesn’t agree, she should get a rope and hang herself. “Could you imagine someone getting so mad about breast-feeding?” she says.

But while the truck is all about safeguarding the rights of women who want to breast-feed, what it’s not about is proselytizing. “Our mission is to be pro-breast-feeding, but we’re also not saying everyone needs to breast-feed,” she says. “We are not entering that conversation.”

Rather, the truck’s presence is just a practical way to show support for a mom who’s been shamed for doing something that she’s allowed to do by law: feed her baby.

“I support a woman’s right to stay and breast-feed, but you are so surprised when someone harasses or embarrasses you that your reaction is to stop,” says Miller. “My response is we’ve got a nice van with a boob on top, and we’ve got a bunch of moms who will show up and hang out with you.”

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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