No one was offended by my sudden act of desperation. The T-shirt had become a cotton and nylon prison. It had to come off. 

My shirt, soaked with sweat, clung to my chest last week as I muddled through a plumbing job at a friend's house. Without a thought, I ripped off the drenched cotton and went back to fusing PVC to coupling.

The outside spigot had sheared off, presumably under someone's body weight. Somehow, the valve that fed a nearby toilet had also cracked.

Tear apart a wall. Replace the necessary pipes, valves and couplings. Reassemble. Simple enough.

But late July's oppressive heat and humidity has a way of making a trial out of an otherwise straight-forward repair.

Just that mindless act of uncloaking made all the difference. My spirits were lifted as that shirt, bonded to my chest, gave way to the mild, liberating evening breeze against my skin. 

That's not the case for women. Centuries as political and economic capital for aspirational men made the public display of the female form taboo. Purity became the hammer of oppression. At a practical level, virgins were more valuable bargaining chips.

The mid-20th century's sexual revolution broke down some of those barriers. Swimming robes became bikinis. Birth control gave a woman a never-before-seen level of economic self-determination. 

But make no mistake, society's damaging control over a woman's body, couched in historic male ownership, persists. At least 23 states still refuse to protect married women from sexually abusive husbands. Ohio law, for example, says a man can legally drug his wife and have sex with her.

We judge women by their clothing and appearance. We chastise their sexuality. A blend of governmental slut-shaming and paternalism has shuttered a downtown Carbondale bikini bar, which for decades ran without issue as a drag club. A woman sunbathing topless is still subject to public lewdness charges throughout the country. 

Some even sneer as women feed their children in public. 

Illinois took a small step forward Monday, when Gov. Bruce Rauner signed legislation mandating the state's commercial airports to supply breastfeeding rooms for suckling mothers. The legislation requires O'Hare and Midway International to supply "lactation rooms" by 2017. Smaller airports will have to install them whenever they overhaul a terminal.  It's only right to supply privacy for a breastfeeding mother if she desires it. But why is it necessary in the first place?

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Last week, at least 13,000 lactating mothers nationwide participated in The Big Latch On, an organized public breastfeeding event intended to attack the stigma of public suckling. They sat in public parks in West Frankfort, Champaign and Belleville touting the many benefits for both mother and child. The Franklin-Williamson Bi-County Health Department sponsored the local version, in what organizers say is an effort to "normalize breastfeeding."

The battle to keep women covered, at a legal level, has focused solely on the response of the male observer, argued Duke University law professor Reena Glazer. 

"This statutory double standard embodies the inequality between men and women in society," Glazer wrote in 1993. "Men are free to expose their chests in virtually any surroundings they choose with no consideration of the impact on possible viewers."

Her argument still stands today. 

No social faux pas were committed when I stripped off that drenched T-shirt in mixed company and went about my work. That wouldn't have been the case had a woman done the same.

Society's modesty-mandate for women is a powerful, outdated cultural statement, a deep-seated reminder that it's still a man's world.

And we expect women to act accordingly.

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Jon Alexander is opinion page editor at The Southern. He can be reached at jonathan.alexander@the southern.com.


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