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When Mary White and six other moms from the Chicago suburbs started an organization to encourage breastfeeding in 1956, they had to be careful about naming it.
“They couldn’t say ‘breast,’” said Clare Daly, one of Mrs. White’s daughters. Newspapers, they were sure, wouldn’t publish notices about meetings involving such a crude term. Looking for something more discreet, they settled on La Leche League, derived from the name of a Roman Catholic shrine in Florida (Popcak Note: see commentary below).
To their surprise, the league spread around the world. Now called La Leche League International, it has about 2,000 local groups in more than 70 countries. The league helped create today’s consensus that breastfeeding is far better for babies and mothers than infant formula.
Mrs. White died June 2 at age 93 of complications from a stroke she suffered last September. Her death leaves only two surviving founders of the league—Marian Tompson and Mary Ann Kerwin, Mrs. White’s sister-in-law.
In the 1950s, breastfeeding was widely considered backward and unsanitary. Around 80% of U.S. mothers chose formula instead, according to the league. Views gradually changed as researchers piled up evidence of the health benefits of natural feeding. As of 2012, about 80% of mothers in the U.S. were at least attempting to breastfeed, according to the latest government survey results.
A January report in the medical journal Lancet cited evidence that breastfeeding deters infections and enhances intelligence, while reducing breast cancer risks for mothers, among other benefits. Nestlé SA, once subject to boycotts because it promoted infant formula in poor countries, now says it favors “exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life.”
Mrs. White was born Mary Elizabeth Kerwin on April 3, 1923, and grew up in the Chicago suburbs of Elmhurst and Oak Park as the oldest of eight children. Her father was a financial vice president for the Brach’s candy company; her mother was a homemaker with a philosophy degree from DePaul University.
After earning a drama and speech degree from Rosary College in River Forest, Ill., she married Gregory White, a family-practice physician. Dr. White favored breastfeeding but believed women could be more persuasive than he could in promoting it.
The league traces its roots to a church picnic. Mrs. White and Mrs. Tompson were both breastfeeding. Other mothers said they were using formula but would prefer breastfeeding if they could get more information and help. Mrs. Tompson and Mrs. White decided to start a support group and invited five other moms to Mrs. White’s home to set it up.
“Mary was the first woman I ever saw breastfeed in public,” Mrs. Tompson said. Mrs. White, known for wearing spotless white sweaters and coats despite the exertions of raising 11 children, was self-assured and had the prestige of being a doctor’s wife. “If Mary did it, we figured it was safe,” Mrs. Tompson said.
Though these suburban housewives were defying medical authority, they didn’t flaunt their rebellion. Infants were swaddled in blankets during public feedings. “We would practically smother our babies trying to be discreet,” Mrs. Kerwin recalled.
Ignorance was their biggest obstacle. Most women didn’t know their milk was better for the baby than formula, and many feared they wouldn’t be able to supply enough to sustain the baby.
Doctors could be dismissive. Mrs. Tompson recalled that one told an expectant mother he would let her breastfeed if she “behaved” during childbirth.
Still, times were changing, Mrs. Tompson said: “Women were ready to make the decisions about their life instead of going to an expert.”
At first, the league grew slowly. After Reader’s Digest wrote about it, though, “we got phone calls from all over,” said Mrs. Kerwin, one of the founders.
Mrs. White helped write “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding,” a popular book, and edited other league publications. She often took phone calls at home from women who wanted her advice.
Her family has multiplied prodigiously. Mrs. White is survived by 10 of her 11 children, 61 grandchildren and 109 great grandchildren, said Mrs. Daly, one of her daughters. She kept track of all those birthdays on a calendar. “She was very organized,” Mrs. Daly said.
Mrs. Tompson, 86 years old and still active in the league, said she was pleased to see that some airports now have pods for nursing mothers. “We’re still running into mothers who are getting really bad advice,” she said, “but it’s so much better than it was.”
Has the pendulum swung too far? Mrs. Tompson said she would never shame a woman who chose not to breastfeed. If such women feel guilty, however, there is nothing the league can do about it, she said.
Many people–Catholics in particular–are unaware that La Leche League was founded by 7 devoutly Catholic women and the internationally recognized Catholic physician, Dr. Herbert Ratner. The article mentions that the organization was named for “a Roman Catholic shrine in Florida.” What it doesn’t say is that that shrine is dedication to the Nursing Madonna, La Sonora de La Leche (Our Lady of the Milk). Their love of natural parenting grew as a result of their dedication to both natural family planning and understanding of the importance of the Catholic natural law perspective. Although today’s La Leche League tends to distance itself from its deeply Catholic roots, the original founders saw nursing as a powerful means of communicating the love of God to their children and to the world.
Proponents of attachment parenting, in particular owe a huge debt of gratitude to Mary White and her friends. They have made a huge impact on the world, transforming the face of parenting and infant healthcare. I pray that her soul, along with all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, would rest in peace.