In the early 20th century, the women's suffrage movement organized itself, got out into streets and homes, educated fellow women, and lobbied the president and Congress for the right to vote. Before long, the movement numbered in the millions, and by 1920, women had won the right to vote.
In the 1950s and '60s, members of the Civil Rights movement famously endured all manner of abuses, threats and physical violence to end racial segregation and discrimination. Everyone knows the story of Rosa Parks on that bus, everyone can recite at least part of Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic "I Have A Dream" speech, and the image of Alabama firemen turning their hoses on peaceful protesters is indelibly burned into the memory of Americans.
In the 1960s and '70s, people from all walks of life -- rich, poor, clergy, women, racial minorities, young and old -- turned out in the millions to protest the Vietnam War and the system of conscription that sent thousands of young men to their deaths in a war they didn't want to fight.
In the age of social media, people ... uh, click mouse buttons to protest injustices. They accumulate likes. They humblebrag, invent snappy hashtags, tout their own follower counts, and retweet links they haven't read in the hopes that it'll increase their appeal among strangers.
You don't need to get out of your chair, put yourself on the line or even open your wallet to support a cause. Hit "like" if you love Jesus! Retweet this image with the hashtag #NoIvory if you want to save elephants! Re-post this heartwarming story about the customer who left a $20 tip for his waitress after another diner stiffed her because of her purple hair! Join the ever-popular "I F---ing Love Science!" Facebook group to make sure everyone knows you're a critical thinker, even though you oppose vaccinations, deny global warming and think essential oils can cure cancer.
Julia Prudko, a Russian woman who runs a public relations agency in Moscow, prefers the latter type of activism. Recently, she uploaded a photograph of herself laying on a bed, naked, breastfeeding her son, Fedor. Hands and positioning strategically covered up her private parts, but Prudko's Instagram stunt earned her 2,400 likes and hundreds of comments, according to the Daily Mail.
Prudko says she breastfeeds her son in public: at concerts and even at business meetings.
A look at other photos she's posted to her Instagram -- reprinted by the Daily Mail -- reminds me of the way some friends and friends-of-friends carefully curated their Facebook feeds during the few months I used the service. Every photograph, every smile, every emoji and mood-status engineered to make their lives look perfect, like neo-Bodhisattvas who have achieved nirvana but tossed out that inconvenient part about compassion for others.
To be fair to Prudko, breastfeeding has become a flashpoint among Russians in recent years. It's a traditionalist society, and in a way, breastfeeding pits strains of traditionalism against each other -- the prevailing opinion seems to favor the idea of mothers nourishing their newborn children, but not in public, and certainly not in business meetings, churches or restaurants.
That's surprising, in a country where breastfeeding is much more common than using formula. Katya Lokshina, a former linguist and current member of the International Lactation Consultant Association, says she believes the best way mothers can promote breastfeeding is by carrying on in public, and patiently answering questions from anyone who interacts with a breastfeeding mother.
"Russians are less afraid of feeding in public than their American counterparts," Lokshina said in an interview with the ILCA. "Still, there is much to do in this field."
The question is, do posts like Prudko's get people talking about breastfeeding, societal norms in Russia, and the effort to codify public breastfeeding rights in public? In Prudko's case, the answer seems to be no. Half the comments on her "controversial" post are from men and women admiring her figure; the other half are divided among the lecherous, the outraged and the supportive.
Maybe Prudko is part of the on-the-ground fight. Maybe she's lobbying her local politicians, or patiently answering questions in public while she's breastfeeding her son. It's difficult to judge based on a few photographs. But when it comes to online activism, people should take a minute and ask themselves: "If I post this, will it generate a conversation about the issue, or will it distract from it?"
If it's the latter, maybe it's time to think about a better way to get involved.