In The China Syndrome, Jane Fonda’s character, Kimberly Wells, is sick and tired of getting stupid assignments like covering the birthday parties of animals at the local zoo, but those are the only assignments she can get because she is a woman. Yet even Kimberly would be shocked by Debra Pickett’s assignment from the Chicago Sun-Times: Her editor told her to breast-feed her son in public places and write about it.
Pickett said she didn’t take the assignment seriously, and that she seen other assignments that began with “an outrageous premise” get negotiated into something workable. But this time, the situation was different for Pickett, who was close to returning to her job after taking a maternity leave. She tried to contact the managing editor, with whom she expected to negotiate the story, but she could not. Pickett says she felt the “ground had shifted” under her feet while she was gone, and her inability to reach the managing editor didn’t help.
Pickett had written about her family in her column, and says that “that was fine, a lot of fun, but it’s not necessarily who you want to be your entire life.” She wanted to write about Africa and the AIDS problem, but says the newspaper staff kept pushing back into her husband-and-child niche. “The Sun-Times,” Pickett says, “has a great staff writing about politics; an assignment to go forth and breast-feed is a pretty blunt way of being told your services won’t be required for that coverage.”
Kimberly Wells had her epiphany in 1979. Funny how little things have changed, despite what I hear from younger feminists.