Nantucket voters at their annual town meeting earlier this month voted in favor of topless bathing. While this might seem at first to be a small issue on a small island, it raises very big questions about gender discrimination and equal rights.
To bare or not to bare became an issue on the island after a resident gathered enough citizens’ signatures to have the matter added to the town meeting agenda. Dorothy Stover, a sex educator who organized the petition, told The Cape Cod Times, “This past summer, I was at the beach and I wanted to lay out topless . . . and I thought, ‘why can’t I do that?’ “ Speaking to another media outlet, she noted, “We have the exact same makeup — men have mammary glands and nipples. . . . It blew my mind that we’re still in this space.” It was, she said, a question of equity.
Support for the change was far from universal; it passed on May 3 by a vote of 327 to 242. The matter now is in the hands of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who at the moment could not take off her top on Nantucket, while the governor, His Excellency Charlie Baker, could, if he so pleased. And that is simply not fair.
Our own State of New York specifies that a woman exposing the “portion of the breast which is below the top of the areola” could be charged with public lewdness, a class-B misdemeanor, unless for art or entertainment’s sake. Breastfeeding being the other exception. The Empire State situation got murky after a judge ruled in 1992 that the law barring topless nudity was both discriminatory and unjustified. However, it remains on the books. East Hampton Village’s ordinances include the same gender-based ban, though both men and women must keep their tops — and bottoms, thank goodness — on while on a public street. East Hampton Town law does not address going topless.
Enforcement of rules against uncovered female chests is mostly at the local level, and, as far as we can tell, rarely an issue here. But actively applied or not, the bans are clearly an insult to women and should be repealed. Anywhere a man can go topless, a woman should be able to as well. New York has no business denying a right to one gender while allowing it to another.