The 7 Founders of Le Leche League International

The year was 1956.   Mothers attending church picnics would sit around at the park breastfeeding their babies.  BF moms were far and few between and the ones that did, gravitated toward each other.  Around the picnic tables, the world’s largest breastfeeding organization was conceived.  Around a kitchen table at Mary Whites home in Franklin Park, Illinois, the largest breastfeeding organization, LLL was born. Their original reason for meeting was to find ways to help neighborhood mothers breastfeed through support and education.  It has since grown to an international organization LLLI whose mission is to help mothers worldwide to breastfeed through mother to mother support.

I would like to introduce you to the 7 Founders of La Leche League International.  Each of these women played a different part in the growth of LLL and each had different roles as the organization grew.  Several were members of the same church, two were sister-in-laws.  What they all had in common was they were moms breastfeeding their babies during a time period where only 20% of mothers were breastfeeding their babies.

They were raising their babies and breastfeeding them in, quite frankly, an environment that was far from breastfeeding friendly.  This was during a time when physicians left and right were openly telling mothers not to breastfeed and were touting that baby formula was better food for their babies.  Physicians were well respected to the point of most people not questioning what they were told by their Doctor. There was the Dr. and then there was the patient and you didn’t question this authority.

I am happy that we now live in the world where we respect our physicians and we also have access to information so that we can be partners in our healthcare. We have learned to trust what our bodies are telling us, to trust in our instincts and to take this information and combine it with what our HCP share with us and come up with a care plan that works best for us.  Life was very different in the 50s healthcare world.

The mothers who started this group had no idea of what it would someday become.  They started out just wanting to help one mother at a time, in their own neighborhood.  Each of these moms played a very important role in LLLI growth and went on to be of service as volunteers and employees  of many different organizations.  They were each change makers who challenged society, changed the culture and taught the world that babies were born to breastfeed.

This was in the early to mid 1950s.  Birth had moved from home to the hospital, unmedicated to heavily medicated.  In the video that I am going to link to, Mary White shared her story of being heavily medicated and waking up and being quite disorientated.  She said that she was just like most moms in those days. For her birth she was given shots, pills, gas, basically knocked them out for the birth and at some point, maybe even hours later came to.  She tells the story of coming out of her haze and a nurse somewhere in the background asking her if she wants to hold her baby.. don’t you want to see him, she said?   Mary tells us that she was still quite woozy and feeling..   She said:  How can a mother possibly breastfeed her baby when she is so out of it she can barely hold her baby or even recognize him.

Now, I am going to stop here for just a moment and literally have a moment of silence.  For all of us to just think about how this must feel to a mom whose first thoughts are after having had a baby is:  I am too drugged to hold my baby and I don’t even recognize him as LLLI foundersbeing mine.  I mean one minute she was pregnant and then at some point after a drug induced haze, she is handed a baby and told this is yours.  Let’s take a moment……

While I knew some information about the early days of La Leche League, how and when they began, how they got their name, where they began, I never really took the time to learn much about the Founders. After reading Mary Whites obituary and watching a short video about the early days of LLLI, I decided to do some further reading.  What a group of Firecrackers these ladies were.  I will never be able to do them justice in this one show. I have decided to highlight some of the qualities that made each one so special.  I have added links to some articles about the 7 Founders so you can get to see their pictures and get to know them better too!

Let’s start with Mary White, who passed away in July of this year 2016 at the age of 93 years old.

She said that her first attempts at breastfeeding was just like that of most mothers in the 1940s – disastrous.  There were strict feeding schedules, bottles of cow’s milk formula to be given after each nursing and no encouragement whatsoever.

With her 2nd baby, her husband, a family physician who was receptive to more natural ways of caring for mothers and babies, was different than most doctors.  With his support, she successfully breastfed her second baby. Mary was the oldest of the founders and she sure was a change maker in her own right.  Her first 3 children were born in the hospital, I believe, there were 8 more children, were all born at home.

Mary’s role with LLL was to keep track of the medical information.  She wrote articles, helped with their newsletter and edited the inserts from local areas.  She was on the Board of LLL for many years. Mary has said in interviews that the 3 main obstacles to successful breastfeeding were Drs., hospitals and social pressures.  Hmmm, that is pretty interesting?  Does anyone listening think this is much different in the year 2016?   I would say that this is still the case.  Thank goodness that now the BF initiation rates are in the 80th percentile.  Rather than the 20th, however, while there are many more mom starting out BF, the one barrier that we have now that was not so prevalent for mom in the 50s, is returning back to work. I would add as a 4th obstacle, returning to work and more importantly returning to work so early postpartum.

Mary’s experience of woman and breastfeeding in the early 1950s is that if they tried, it was like they were almost destined to fail.  They were told not to by their physicians, formula was considered the best food and they had no support.  No wonder our mothers and grandmothers did not even try to breastfeed.

Edwina Hearn Froehlich – born in the Bronx in 1915.  She met her husband when they were both 33, and married 6 months later.  Now she was interesting in that most woman were married in their early 20s and close to finishing having babies by the time she had her first baby at the age of 36. This  was very, very unsual in those days.  Of course, she was told of the dangers of having a first baby at such an advanced age and was told that the breasts of a woman over 30 could never produce milk.  Edwina later said:  Fortunately her “aged” mammary glands produced plenty of milk for each of her 3 sons.  A woman with a sense of humor. I  Love that.  You will see her in one of the videos and it is fun watching her talk about her aging mammary glands!

Edwina, is another lady way ahead of her times.   Her mother had given birth to Edwina and her 2 sisters at home.  She met Dr. Gregory White and asked him about having her baby at home.  He said yes and she went on to have 3 homebirths.  Edwina’s role in the early days of LLL was that of secretary and she spent many hours on the phone with mothers and Health Care Providers worldwide. She and the rest of the founders were surprised at the growth of LLL Physicians were not helpful.  Their expertise was formula feeding and the founding members knew that Breastfeeding is a mothering issue, not a medical one.

Pretty soon what followed was the “Each one, Teach one” philosophy that I adopted quite a few years ago. Mothers who successfully Breastfeed their babies were eager to help other mothers so they became LLL leaders and started groups in their own neighborhoods and this is how the organization grew.

There are times when I am working with moms and dads and even though they have learned a few things and breastfeeding is now going better, they still may not feel like they know much and have low confidence it what they are doing.  I will always tell them the truth.  At this point, you have been through cracked and bleeding nipples or thrush or weight loss or poor latch.  You have spent the last hour learning about normal newborn breastfeeding behavior and the importance of frequency of feeds and efficiency of feeds and now know that you don’t have to drink tons of water or milk to make enough milk for your baby.  You now know to NOT keep your baby only on one side for ALL feedings if they are giving you cues they are still hungry.  At this point, you know a lot more than the pregnant mothers who has never breastfed, you probably know more about breastfeeding then your physician does, particularly if they have never breastfed AND you definitely know enough to be able to tell when a new mom who is breastfeeding needs help.  Pretty soon you will be an expert in breastfeeding your baby.

I empower them to have the confidence to share what they know and use the knowledge they have gained to be able to steer the next breastfeeding mom in the direction of expert help, if the problem cannot be fixed easily and quickly. The reality is, that while you may not be able or expected to help your friend fix their breastfeeding problem, you are way ahead of the game because now you have the knowledge to know if what they are going through is normal or not.

Mary Ann Cahill was born in 1927, met her husband Chuck, married in 1948 and had 9 kids.

She lived in a neighborhood in  Illinois that was just like a lot of other communities.  Young couples going through joys and frustrations of parenting.  They developed a sense of camaraderie to help cope as parents. Again,, this does not seem so different than parents now.  We are all looking to connect with other parents, talk about the joys and struggles of parenting and getting together with other parents helps us be stronger.

Mary Ann said that the main challenge she observed, was women’s attitude toward breastfeeding. Women would ask us:  Why would you want to do that breastfeeding?  They would say:  well, I will try, but I won’t succeed. There was a strong negative societal environment in which women were wanting to breastfeed, but frequently just did not even try.  Mothers were in a quandary, on the one hand feeling an obligation to follow the Drs. orders and not breastfeed  while at the same ttime being impressed by the healthy, happy, totally breastfed babies that were everywhere at LLL meetings.

As one of the  7  Founding members, Mary Ann said these were exhilarating times.  Their phone lines buzzed with calls.  We trusted our instincts and followed our hearts, and very soon we knew we were right. She and the other 7 shared a simple idea to bring gentleness to giving birth and joy to the womanly art of breastfeeding.

Mary Ann was said to have a talent for connecting people.  Her philosophy was – Taking a small step, doing what is doable, rather than spending limited time and energy on theorizing about a grand plan. This was Mary Ann’s philosophy and one of the tactics that helped build the organization. These are great pearls of wisdom for me too!

Betty Wagner Spandikow was born in 1923.

Betty and her husband Robert had 7 children.  Betty’s experience was different than the other founders because unlike many women of her time, she did receive practical information and support for breastfeeding from her own mother.  She met Mary Ann Cahill during her 5th pregnancy.  They both went to the same church and realized they shared similar opinions about childcare and family life. She joined the group and from 1956 to 1963, she and the other women enjoyed the growth of this grassroots organization, meeting in their homes, until it became too large to contain all their books and files and correspondence in their homes.  They took their first official space in 1963.

During this time many innovations launched.  A publications Dept that published periodicals, books, educational materials, a quarterly review of scientific information published for Health Care professionals, an International Conference, A Seminar on BF for PHysicians, a Peer Counselor Program, A Center for BF information, an 800 line, as well as a Captial Campaign to purchase an International Headquarters building in Illinois.

She was Executive Director of LLL and recognized as the leading authority in breastfeeding and another women who was part of this reversal of major societal trend and changed baby feeding practices around the world.  Also of interest while I was reading about LLL, Betty iniiated flex hours and family friendly worklace in the 1960s long before they became popular perks. The hours were 7 -3 so they could be back at home with kids after school.  They closed for a week during the holiday season.  There were also work teams and home offices, which were also ideas far ahead of their times.

Betty preferred to hire women who were mothers, saying that:  Mothers know how to manage their time, how to manage their money and how to work hard.  She proved to be an effective recruiter, had the ability to retain experienced talent which enabled the organization to grow and expand.  Paid staff with over 50 employees at their height and Betty managed a volunteer staff of nearly 12,500 LLLL all over the world.

Viola Brennan Lennon – was born in 1923, married Bill Lennon in 1951 and together they raised 10 children, including twin girls.

Five years later, she was invited to a meeting held at the home of Mary White.  She had no idea that this one meeting would change her life – no idea that this simple neighborhood gathering would blossom into a worldwide organization LLL.

Viola was also very fortunate to have had her mothers positive influence on her philosophy of breastfeeding and mothering. Slowly but surely, this group of 7 was already influencing others in their community and sharing the word of Breastfeeding.

In 1957, the group sponsored an evening with Dr. Grantly Dick-Read who provided further validation in what they were doing as he believed in doing things naturally and said that women were looking for help with breastfeeding.  He provided a quote that would be used by LLL for many years.  You may have seen this repeated in many places… on t-shirts and mugs and posters.  He said:  ” The Newborn has but three demands:  warmth in the arms of its mother, food from her breast, and security in the knowledge of her presence.  Breastfeeding satisfied all three.”

Family First became the unspoken rule for all founders, even as their roles within the organization grew and comsumed more of their time.   Viola was responsible in helping guide the LLLI Board in the formalization of the  policies and procedures for running this growing organization as well as defining the organization philosophy and principles.

In 1984, which is when I had my first baby, finances were difficult and the  future of LLLI was at stake. Acting on the advise of John Howard of the Rockford Institute, she was advised to appeal for help directly from its Leaders and Groups, thus launching the Second founding.

These are some of Viola’s thoughts on the organization, breastfeeding and mothering:  ”  I feel that breastfeeding gives the mother a vision of what a human person is.  Personally, it led me to self-discovery and to a greater appreciation of the full humanity of the babies who were entrusted to me.  Each woman needs to trust her own instincts, her own feelings, and her own sense of what will work for her and with each baby.  “LLLI is also about how to be the best and most effective mother and parent.

Viiola and the other Founders have tirelessly worked for 50 years to hasten the day when every mother can be assured of getting whatever help she may need to succeed in the womanly art of BF.  Women in the 1950s had forgotten the wisdom of previous generations in relation to BF

Mary Ann Kerwin born at home in 1931 and married in 1954. They had 8 children in the next 15 years. Sadly, their third son Joe, died of SIDS in 1959

Her first Breastfeeding experience was not smooth or easy.  She relied heavily on support encouragement from her Dr. Gregory White and his wife Mary.  Grateful for the help she received, Mary Ann was eager to join the group when asked.  She looked forward to helping others less fortunate than herself.  By the way, you may be getting confused at this point.  It is hard to believe that in this group of 7, there was a Mary White, a Mary Ann Kerwin and a Mary Ann Cahill.

Mary Ann joined this group in 1956. She said: , Breastfeeding in the US was a lost or dying art.  I believe that never before in the history of the world had a natural resource as valuable as human milk been so widely discarded. 80 % of US mothers were using infant formula.   The US seemed to be quite  influential and mothers in other countries were following this lead and more began using formula.

Just when I am thinking how great and wonderful these woman were as they were raising large families and still found time to volunteer their time to support other mothers. I than read that, in the early years, all the hundreds of letters they received from woman wanting breastfeeding help, were split between the 7 members who  wrote personal replies.  Mary Ann remembers spending hours responding to letters from woman all over the world while her toddlers played at her feed.

A reminder that this was all happening years before household computers and the internet was available.  This humble group started womanly art of BF bookfrom a small suburb of Chicago, and the organization has spread to every US state, Canada and 67 countries worldwide.    I don’t want to batter myself, however, I am going to remember this the next time I whine about not having enough time to send out a very important email.  Better still, one that can be sent to hundreds of people, all with the push of one button.  NOTE to Lori – Remember the power of 7 women and what they accomplished and stop telling myself “I can’t.

The Womanly art of Breastfeeding was published in the first few years of the organization and is now in its eighth edition.   It remains one of the  most widely recognized and respected breastfeeding books ever published. Her experiences with the founding of LLL led her to a new interest becoming a lawyer.  She served as expert witness in court cases involving BF issues.

Marian Leonard Tompson – born in 1929.  She was known to change doctors for her first three pregnancies until she found the breastfeeding information she was seeking and the help she needed.

A little history will be helpful here too.  Switching Drs was not an easy feat.  First of all, remember the climate was very physician centered.  I am the Dr. and you are the patient.  It was considered quite disrespectful to switch physicians.  There were also not as many physicians as there are now.   Drs were far and few between and it was unheard of to switch doctors.  I respect physicians, however, I also know that their philosophies can be different, their level of care is different and the way we connect with each other is different.  I am not opposed to seeking a second or third opinion.  But, honestly, in those days, the only reason you switched drs is if yours died or moved away or you moved.

Marian had 4 kids under age 6 by 1956.  She read Grantly Dick Read’s book, Childbirth without Fear and she pursuaded her OB to let her have birth without drugs.  She accomplished this,  but was unhappy with how the birth was handled in the hospital.  Dr. Gregory White, remember his wife Mary, was one of the founding members, he attended births at home.  She was attended by Dr. White and had her other children at home.

It was Marian that started the LLL News publication in 1958 as a way of reaching out to women who were isolated and didn’t have any support or didn’t have a LLL group in their area.  It gave them access to the stories of other mothers as well as up to date information and practical recommendations.  Somewhere, packed away, I have a few of these early publications.  They were definitely my lifeline.  Having come from a long line of formula feeders, my sister with her 2 kids, my mother with her 5 kids, my Mother in Law with her 3 kids, and being the first of my friends to have kids, I was pretty isolated in my breastfeeding ways. I remember the stories of other mothers is what kept me going month to month. The early news publication is now what we know of to be New Beginnings.

Marian was a real powerhouse. She started the Breastfeeding Seminar for Physicians to make sure drs were also educated and able to better help their patients with breastfeeding.

I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane as I shared stories about each of the 7 Founders. We owe a lot to them as they have tirelessly worked for 50 years to see the day when every mother can be assured of getting whatever help she may need to succeed in the womanly art of Breastfeeding.

We are still not where I want our world to be with breastfeeding and babies.  I get pretty pissy and pissed off when I hear of mothers feeling embarrassed or pushed out of public places, given a hard time from family and friends for their breastfeeding,  breastfeeding at all, or once they go past a year.  I worked with 2 physicians this week who are both going to have a major problem with their employers about their need to pump once they return from maternity leave…. and they are in the business of maternal health.  Whattt? you say! Yes, this is why I get pissed off as this just should not be.

I will not stop advocating for the breastfeeding family, however, I will work hard to not let my annoyance get in the way of helping to make progress as I  remember how far we have come and how the 7 Founding members of LLLI just carried on, – One at a time.  Each one, Teach one.

Remember to check out the show notes for this Episode # 85, where you will find links to learn more about LLLI and the founding members.