Fighting for the right to bare breasts in public

Scanning the roomful of women, Jamie Hooper couldn’t help but snicker.

Seated together were 10 women, most of them middle-aged and two who qualified as senior citizens.

“Ladies,” Hooper teased her fellow plaintiffs that day a month ago, “we don’t need to be taking our tops off.”

Yet they are battling in federal court for the right to do just that, hoping to add to the small list of places where baring the female breast has been decriminalized.

Meet the women who call themselves the Topfree 10, a group as diverse as the ordinances and attitudes governing women’s breasts nationwide. They range from 14 to 74 years old. Some are schoolteachers, some are naturists, and one is a fired NASA engineer convicted of an anthrax hoax.

The forces motivating them to pick this fight with Brevard County, Fla., vary nearly as much as their ages. About the only thing they have in common is the belief that they should have the same rights as men. Even when it comes to shedding their shirts.

And though legal experts say the lawsuit is likely to fail, the women are convinced the sun will someday shine on their cause – if not their bosoms.

“The issue is gender equality,” Hooper’s mother, 74-year-old Marilyn “Smitty” Hooper, a grandmother of five and the lawsuit’s matriarch, said.

Never mind that neither Hooper would take her top off in public even if they were to win in court. Smitty Hooper said she’s too old, and Jamie, a 44-year-old first-grade teacher at Golfview Elementary Magnet School in Rockledge, said she wouldn’t set foot on a beach in anything skimpier than a shirt and pair of shorts.

They just don’t think it’s right that the only legal way to bare their breasts in Florida is for the gratification of somebody else – either a nursing baby or a strip-club crowd.

They also think they can win – even if legal experts don’t – and that public sentiment is on their side.

“I don’t think they’ll find the courts very sympathetic,” Fletcher Baldwin said, a law professor at the University of Florida, who compared the women’s chance in court to that of snowball’s in hell.

“Simply being topless, with all due respect, doesn’t rise to the same level as, say, race discrimination,” he said, chuckling. “There is no compelling need – unless they all want to be longshoremen.”

The suit was filed Sept. 3 and no trial date has been set. In the meantime, the 10 women are trying to raise enough money to pay for a scientific poll asking Florida residents whether non-breastfeeding women should be arrested for being topless in public.

Their attorney, Mark Tietig, said the main thread running through previous cases is that the courts insist the majority of people are opposed to women being topless, but there’s no scientific data to back it up. He is convinced 65 percent to 75 percent of Florida’s residents are in favor of the laws being repealed.

Kay Butchko isn’t one of them. She is an officer in a conservative women’s organization in Brevard and also lives on the beach in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

“We’re talking about my front yard, where my grandchildren come to visit and other children play,” Butchko, 62, said. “We want it to remain a family-oriented community. I think it is very unfair for certain fringe groups to want to change our cultural environment and impact multitudes of people. There’s a difference in men and women and the way they are perceived, and I think we need to accept that as a reality.”