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Nursing mom files complaint against airlines

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A clash between a nursing mother and a flight attendant has sparked a discrimination complaint, an airline investigation and a grass-roots protest.

Emily Gillette, her husband, Brad; and their then 22-month-old daughter, River, were removed from an Oct. 13 flight from Burlington, Vt., to New York after a flight attendant asked Gillette to cover up while she was breast-feeding the girl.

Freedom Airlines operated the Delta Airlines flight.

Gillette, 27, filed a complaint against both airlines last week with the Vermont Human Rights Commission alleging that the airlines violated a state law that allows women to breast-feed "in any place of public accommodation." The airlines have until Nov. 27 to respond, Gillette's attorney, Elizabeth Boepple, says.

In a show of support, about 30 mothers and fathers and dozens of children staged a "nurse-in" protest at Burlington International Airport on Wednesday.

"I've always nursed my children when I'm on a plane," says Carolyn Beer, 34, of Burlington. "Their ears hurt with the altitude change, and it's a strange environment for them. The alternative is to let your kid scream."

The Gillettes, of Espanola, N.M., boarded the flight shortly before 10 p.m. They had been in Vermont visiting friends and were headed to New York to see other friends and Emily Gillette's sister.

Gillette took the window seat in the second-to-last row, she says, and her husband took the aisle. She began nursing River, using one hand to hold her shirt closed. "I was not exposed," she says.

The flight attendant approached, tried to hand her a blanket and asked her to cover herself, she recalls. "You're offending me," Gillette quotes the woman as saying.

"I'm not doing anything wrong, and I will not cover up," Gillette says she said in response.

Spokesmen for the airlines declined to discuss specifics of the incident.

The flight attendant walked away, Gillette says, and a few minutes later, a ticket agent boarded and said the flight attendant had ordered them removed.

The airline arranged for a hotel for the family for the night and a flight with a different airline the next morning, but Gillette wasn't satisfied.

"No woman should ever be ashamed of breast-feeding," she says. She wants "both airlines to create policies that protect a woman from being harassed for feeding her child on an airplane."

Delta is working with Freedom on an investigation, Delta spokesman Anthony Black says. "Delta supports a mother's right to breast-feed-slash-bottle-feed her babies on our aircraft," he says.

Freedom spokesman Paul Skellon says breast-feeding on a plane is OK if it's done in a "discreet way."

Forty-three states have some form of legislation protecting a woman's right to breast-feed, according to Mary Lofton, spokeswoman for La Leche League International, a group that encourages breast-feeding.

Lofton says the league has had a growing number of contacts from women who say they were harassed for breast-feeding on planes.

Sharon Panitch, 37, a massage therapist who organized the Burlington nurse-in, says people who object are "hypocritical."

"We just want to take care of our children," Panitch says.

Hemingway reports daily for the Burlington Free Press.

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