Nursing mother leaves GOP panel

Committee members say Shore activist's plea is `red herring'

April 15, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

QUEENSTOWN -- Amy Leaberry, a Republican Party activist, was the leading vote-getter among 14 candidates two years ago for a seat on the seven-member GOP state central committee in Queen Anne's County. She's also a 33-year-old stay-at-home mom who has three children younger than age 4, the youngest of whom, 3-month-old Thomas, is nursing.

All of which, Leaberry figures, ought to have worked out just fine in a party that bills itself as "pro-family."

Instead, Leaberry has resigned her post with a flurry of news releases and recriminations charging fellow central committee members with "breastfeeding discrimination."

"This just sends a terrible message to working people, working parents," Leaberry says. "We're not a party of family values if we actively discourage family-oriented people from participating. They might as well hang out a sign saying mothers and infants aren't welcome."

Leaberry says she was told by one committee member at a March 31 meeting that her children were a nuisance. Another, she says, suggested that Leaberry pump breast milk and feed her baby with a bottle or resign.

Stung by the public criticism, committee members -- who usually work in obscurity without pay, recommending candidates for political appointments or vacancies -- say the flap is nonsense, a controversy timed to head off a resolution to remove Leaberry for poor attendance.

The breastfeeding issue is a red herring, says central committee Chairman Sharon Maenner Carrick, 46.

"She's one of those people who wants press coverage; it's that simple," Carrick says. "She made the decision to resign, and we're going to let it die its own death."

Meeting time changed

Leaberry, elected to a four-year term in September, says her problems began when members decided to switch monthly meetings from 7: 30 p.m. to 5: 30 p.m., making it impossible for her husband, Derek, to make it home from the Washington printing company he owns in time to take care of the children during the meeting.

"I think what we have here is maybe an age gap," Leaberry says. "I can count on one hand the number of people under 40 who are active in the Republican Party in our area. This is an example of how little sensitivity there is."

Carrick says committee members decided April 4 to seek Leaberry's resignation because she had missed three of seven meetings during the previous 12 months. No one, she says, objects to nursing mothers or parents with small children if mothers are discreet and children are quiet and well-behaved.

Meeting times were changed to 5: 30 p.m. to accommodate members who work. Besides, Carrick says, Leaberry brought her children to 7: 30 meetings "Of course we don't object to kids, but there were other occasions where her older two [Jack, 3 1/2, and Hannah, 2] have been disruptive," Carrick says. "I don't have a problem with breastfeeding, in public or otherwise, but uncovered in a meeting is inappropriate."

Advocates not surprised

Advocates for nursing mothers say the episode sounds all too typical, despite laws in 19 states that protect the rights of nursing mothers and growing acceptance of the health and emotional benefits of breastfeeding.

"There's nothing in Maryland law to prevent this kind of thing," says Barbara Heiser, a registered nurse from Ellicott City who has worked for years with the National Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy. "Frankly, I urged Amy to go public with this. Too often, we never hear about it because women are embarrassed. Maybe this will prompt something in the General Assembly next year."

As for the politics of breastfeeding, Leaberry says she's surprised at the lack of support she has received from Republican leaders.

Insiders see another side

Paul Ellington, executive director of the state GOP, says party insiders believe the controversy isn't about breastfeeding.

"It has nothing to do with motherhood," Ellington says. "Amy is a very conservative person, and the other members are more interested in outreach and broadening the party."

Leaberry, an aquatic biologist who used to work for the Environmental Protection Agency, shrugs off suggestions that she plans to use the issue to build a campaign for a seat on the Queen Anne's Board of County Commissioners. Twenty years from now, maybe, but not now, she says.

"I've got three little children. No matter what the rumors are, I'm not running for anything," Leaberry says. "I resigned because I thought under the circumstances, I couldn't be effective for working families. But nursing moms should not give up because of societal pressures."

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