An Under-Reported Fact About the H&M Breastfeeding Controversy

Today Rebecca wrote a blog post and ran a poll about the breastfeeding controversy and subsequent protest at Vancouver’s downtown H&M store. I was reading through the comments associated with the blog post. Matt wrote (I added the link):

Also, Manuela Valle, the lady who got all this started here? Is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Women’s Studies and Gender Relations, so I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to think she might have a vested interest in this story becoming as big as possible.

I read several articles about this event (I was trying to catch up), and never read this fact. Doing some Google News searches, I could only find one mainstream media story which specifically referenced her area of study.

This would matter less if she were a quantum physicist, but Ms. Valle’s scholarly interests merit mention. I don’t mean to insinuate any kind of malfeasance on her part, or suggest that she was in the wrong. Nor do I wish to ascribe any particular agenda to her (besides lactivism–what a fun word). I do, however, think her background is relevant to the story.

Did the media (and the blogosphere) botch this one?


  1. I would say that your observation/suggestion that it was a botched story is accurate. Her agenda (and thesis topic) is now pretty clear.

  2. When it happened I do remember the woman’s background/occupation being mentioned in the deeper coverage, it was public knowledge when the protest was being organized.

    The larger question is did the incident happen, and H&M has never denied it. If it didn’t happen then we can say we have an agenda on our hands. These kinds of incidents happen to all sorts of people who would never think of making a stink about it, it just so happens the management of the Vancouver H&M messed with the wrong mother. It’s the same reason a building contractor would not want to rip off a news reporter (or certain well-read bloggers). Some people have a little more firepower when they defend themselves than others.

    When we question the background and professional circumstances of women who are involved in different kind of incidents, this opens a whole can of worms that I hope was buried when we stopped dismissing the mistreatment of women because of what they were wearing, or “they were asking for it”

  3. Well said, Jon.

    I also recall the fact that Valle was a Gender Studies PhD candidate being mentioned in initial media coverage. My colleague and I (doulas, LaLeche League Leader) were joking about that.

    You can’t blame Valle for understanding her rights and knowing how to publicly respond to this issue just because her professional interests lie within the arena of gender discrimination.

    The incident was a catalyst for many women coming out and discussing how they’d recently been discriminated against. So many women who don’t have an academic knowledge of discrimination would’ve chalked H&M’s actions (and the actions of all other public nursing threats) to rudeness or bad luck and not understanding that the incidents were illegal actions. That is reason alone for supporting the advocate response, I think. Because soooo many women aren’t as lucky as Valle to know they even have ammunition.

  4. When I listened to her being interviewed on CBC radio 1 she mentioned herself that she was a PhD candidate in Womens Studies. Every point she made was salient and rationally presented. I agreed with her 100%, but then at the conclusion of the interview she added in passing that she is asking for compensation. And an amount which I consider to be outrageous (though I can’t remember at the moment how much).

    And my rant; she was asked on private property to do what amounts to a personal bodily function in private. Oh my, alert the media, shout from the rooftops. If it’s illegal then my opinion is the law should be changed; and to be clear that it should not be illegal for the custodian of a private space to ask occupants to perform bodily functions in private. Public spaces, have at it. I should have the right to ask you to use a bathroom to nurse if you’re in my home, that isn’t discrimination. I wouldn’t ask you to, but I should have the right to.

    Regardless, the media didn’t botch it. I never heard any media trolling emotion by mentioning she was a PhD candidate in Womens Studies. They only mentioned she was, which is perfectly normal.

  5. This was reported everywhere. All the moms I know were aware of this. But if you look at Manuela’s history, you will see that she has been involved in many lobby issues since she was in her teens. This is not new for her. Also, her PhD topic has to do with the treatment of sexuality in Chile. She is in the faculty of Gender Studies, not just Women’s Studies.

    The reason this took off is that Manuels and her friends are so well connected. Every Women’s Study student, midwife, nurse, lactation consultant, prenatal service provider, postnatal provider, parent-infant group attendee, tot drop-in attendee and so on knew about it. More than 150 of us showed up. Do you know how hard that is when you have kids? That means many more simply couldn’t get there. I know two people who couldn’t get there because they had fussy babies.

    Someone who has a background in Women’s Studies and a PhD-level education is articulate, informed and not likely to back down. That is why this happened.

    Moreover, the other women who have filed human rights charges (BC and Ontario) are not in Women’s Studies. This is not just about Manuela.

    Many of us have fought the breastfeeding fight more quietly, but mostly because we didn’t have the extensive network. I got St. Paul’s Hospital to change its protocol for accommodating breastfeeding day surgery and day procedure patients. Because of that, my friend felt empowered to have them change the procedure for overnight surgery patients. This all takes a huge amount of work. I didn’t go to the media, because I was able to point St Paul’s to my human rights and they complied.

    Breastfeeding has the highest uptake among well educated women. You know why? It’s because you need to be informed, confident, able to grapple with the system and able to read and synthesize information, if you are going to breastfeed. Breastfeeding is in and of itself still a very political act in this country. When my mother was breastfeeding 30+ years ago, it was even more “radical”.

    But this case is mostly about making sure that corporations cannot put limits on human rights. It has to do with gay rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, rights of people of colour, rights of people with disabilities, religious freedom — human rights. It’s not about breastfeeding.

  6. I a little confused, because I can find so few (one, thus far) references to Ms. Valle’s ‘day job’ in the mainstream media. Google News lists over 100 stories including her name.

    Maybe it’s just the print media that ignored this fact?

  7. When I search, I can find it on G&M, Metro,, CBC, etc.

    FWIW, some of the media say 60 women attended and others say 150. This is because some journalists did not realize that the moms with strollers had to go through the bottom floor while the moms without went through the Granville entrance. And many other women stood/sat outside in the mall, rather than right in the store.

  8. Andrea: What search are you doing to generate those results? Maybe it’s just my dodgy search skills.

  9. Uh…can’t remember what I used earlier. I tried stuff like H&M PhD. Don’t use her name, as that is more limiting.

    I believe all the TV reports mentioned the PhD. I deleted all my recordings last night, but I watched the news on 4 or 5 channels.

    News of the nurse in was mostly funnelled through Facebook. (The group is gone now.) But Mothering.commune and the various other sites all mentioned the PhD and Gender Studies thing. In fact, I think this helped more people show up. Everybody felt like she was equipped to speak accurately.

  10. Andrea: I’m still unable to generate any more articles that indicate Ms. Valle’s area of study. Weird.

  11. When I was watching the news in the days leading up to the nurse in it was a story they ran every day, but not once did they mention her area of study. I think once they mentioned that she’s a PhD candidate, but not in what area.

    This was CTV, Global and CBC.

    She’s an articulate lady, to be sure. I saw her speak on the news. It’s just a fact I feel is pretty relevant to the story, not only because it gives her some credibility as an authority on the subject but also because it highlights the potential bias.

    I’m not going to restate my whole ranty comment here, but I would like to reiterate my two main points.

    First, that I think that once the store/chain acknowledge the misstep and apologized it probably should have been over. What else, really, should they have to do after taking ownership? Especially given their state intention of offering her the room, not forcing her into it.

    Second, that while I think it’s great that most people (such as myself) don’t have a problem with breast feeding, it’s BS to push that belief onto someone who obviously does have a problem with it. There are plenty of reasons why someone might be uncomfortable with it, from body image issues to religious ones. With an issue like this you just have to accept that you’re going to have to agree to disagree with some people regardless of how much in the right you might technically be.

    Or, in short, respect is a two way street. If you want people to respect your right to do something you’re gonna have to respect that some people aren’t gonna be happy about it too.

  12. Um…. how dose being a gender studies student make her less reliable exactly? This sounds like it’s heading in the direction of “she must be one of those terrorist feminists trying to force her breasts on the world”.

    To avoid creating more straw men arguments, the article that you post she says her main complaint was the way in which she was handled by the staff, not the mere fact that her breastfeeding was not permitted. It sounds like she wasn’t trying to force her breastfeeding on the world, she was in fact trying to highlight the fact that she was rudely treated in the store and physically forced into a changing room.

  13. Raul: yes, people will take you less seriously and will question your motives when you speak up about the environment, because clearly you are biased.

  14. Interesting observation, Darren. I admit that when I first heard the stories I was not aware of Manuela’s academic or professional interests. I suspected she must be a person of significant courage and connection.

    After reading Manuela’s area of academic interest on the UBC website, I disagree that her area of study gives her any particular bias in this incident. “Disciplining of sexualities by the state” is relevant but not specifically focused on breastfeeding issues. That paragraph describing her study doesn’t mention that she focuses on women’s issues, which given the context of the paragraph, you’d expect it to if she were specializing.

    Did this incident get blown out of proportion because of Manuela’s academic bias? I disagree. I think it became a big deal because a) she’s well-connected and knows how to get the word out via social media; b) there are lots of parents out there who are sick of trying to hide themselves away while they nurse their baby and were willing to join in a group protest because it was safer than speaking up individually; and c) the media loves to cover any story about breasts.

  15. Also, D) it became a way for moms to get down to the H&M store with their kids without having to worry about whether they’d have to surreptitiously nurse their babies, which is a headache and keeps a lot of moms from going out wherever they like. H&M has pretty good baby clothes. I’d have gone if I were in Vancouver, just for the shopping! I wonder what kind of sales figures the H&M store posted that day?

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