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The Revolutionaries Wore Pearls

Kaye Lowman
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 24 No. 4, July-August 2007, pp. 148-153

How seven women challenged society, changed the culture, and taught the world that babies were born to be breastfed.

It was 1956, and it was a wonderful time to be alive. World War II was over. Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House. Jonas Salk had found a cure for polio. Rock 'n' roll music was playing from every radio. The economy was strong and millions of people found themselves living the American dream in a new home in suburbia.

It was an age of science and medicine, and by 1956 the way mothers had birthed and nourished their babies since time immemorial was virtually obliterated by the era of birth as a medical event and infant feeding as the beneficiary of the latest advances in artificial formula.

The changes were dramatic and pervasive. Many a mother's heart ached as society in general and the medical profession in particular insisted that her milk was not likely to be adequate; that she shouldn't respond to her baby's cries because it would "spoil" him; that a rigid four-hour feeding schedule must be observed; and that she should consult the doctor about all aspects of her baby's care and feeding.

That seven young mothers who gathered in the blue collar Chicago suburb of Franklin Park, Illinois, succeeded in putting science back in the laboratory and babies back at their mother's breast would seem unbelievable -- if it weren't true. That they won the battle for the baby and empowered millions of mothers across the country and around the world is equally unbelievable, but equally true.

It was an unexpected, uncharted, and unplanned revolution, but a revolution nonetheless. It required risks. It demanded courage. It called for a single-minded determination to wrestle the baby out from under the authority of the "experts" and back into the arms of its mother.

The leaders of this revolution included an unlikely mix of seven women: Marian Tompson, Edwina Froehlich, Mary White, Betty Wagner, Mary Ann Cahill, Mary Ann Kerwin, and Viola Lennon.

They cooked and cleaned, ironed their husband's shirts, hung the bed sheets on a clothesline to dry, prepared most meals from scratch, wore pearl necklaces and white gloves, volunteered in their churches, schools, and communities, and between them raised a total of 56 children. Not a typical description of revolutionaries. But they were anything but a typical group of women.

Yes, they shared many characteristics of 1950s era wives and mothers. But they were distinctly different in a number of ways. Although the 1940s and 50s were a time when doctors insisted that babies be on a strict feeding schedule and a mother's biggest worry was spoiling her infant if she picked him up when he cried, the Founders ignored the dictates of the day and followed their own instincts.

And although doctors at that time routinely told women that they didn't have enough milk to nourish their babies, or that their milk wasn't good enough, the La Leche League Founders had a boldly different mindset. "We kept coming back to the idea that nature hadn't left women high and dry -- nature had provided them with food for their babies," Mary Ann Cahill said.

The benefits of mother's milk had not been studied much at that time, and what little research existed was largely ignored. Many doctors still felt sure that cow's milk formula was better than what nature had provided. There was no proof in either direction, but the Founders were confident that just as the mother's womb was the perfect environment for her baby before birth, her milk was the perfect nourishment for him after birth.

A Picnic in the Park

Even those with only a passing knowledge of La Leche League have heard of the now-famous picnic at Wilder Park in Elmhurst, Illinois, USA.

It was July 1956 and Mary White and Marian Tompson were attending a summer picnic. Mary and Marian each had breastfeeding babies at the time. During the course of the afternoon, other mothers noticed how easy it was for Marian and Mary to care for their babies, with no bottles to warm or formula to keep cool. One woman after another came up to them using somewhat different words to tell the same story. "I had so wanted to nurse my baby but...My doctor told me I didn't have enough milk...My mother-in-law said the baby must not be getting enough because he wanted to nurse so often...My baby lost interest after I started supplementing with formula...I tried to breastfeed, but I just couldn't."

Both Mary and Marian had experienced some of the same frustrations and disappointments when trying to nurse their earlier babies. Ultimately, both of them learned what was needed to assure success, and what was guaranteed to produce failure: misinformation, pressure from relatives, the absence of emotional support, and feeling alone and unsure. Nursing a baby in the 1950s could be a lonesome and often impossible journey.

It wasn't the first time Mary and Marian had heard such stories. And Marian, who was something of a soft-spoken activist, had actually been giving some thought during the preceding months to finding a way to help other mothers who wanted to breastfeed. She knew if those mothers had had the right information soon enough, if they had been able to talk to an experienced nursing mother, that they could have nursed their babies. But it wasn't until the afternoon of the picnic that she and Mary hit on the idea of calling a few of their friends who were also successfully nursing their babies and organizing meetings to share their pool of knowledge with their pregnant friends and neighbors.

Marian was delighted to at last have a plan to do something to help other women. One by one each of the seven said yes to the idea of forming a club for breastfeeding mothers. And one by one, without knowing it, each became an integral part of the foundation of an organization that would one day be recognized as the world's leading authority on breastfeeding.

The first official meeting was held on an October evening in 1956 at Mary White's house in Franklin Park. Since Mary was kept busy answering the door and seeing to the needs of her six children, it fell to Marian to lead the first meeting. No one could have foreseen that it would one day be considered a historic evening. But the seven Founders and five of their pregnant friends who attended that meeting recognized from the start that they had found much more than each other that night. They had discovered the importance of mutual support, the power of camaraderie, and the "formula" that would propel La Leche League into its place in history -- gathering accurate information and sharing it in an environment of warmth and acceptance.

When that first "mothers' club" meeting was held, there was no name, little structure, and no clear plan for the group. But as interest in the group grew, the importance of finding a name moved to the top of the list.

It was quite a challenge to find a name for the group that was neither too cute nor too descriptive. It was Mary's husband, Dr. Gregory White, a guiding force in the organization even before it began, who suggested the name of La Leche League in early 1957. He was in the habit of giving a medal of a breastfeeding Madonna from a Spanish shrine to his pregnant patients. The shrine is named for "Nuestra Señora de la Leche y un Buen Parto," which translates into Our Lady of Happy Delivery and Plentiful Milk. Because the word "breast" was taboo in the culture of the day and could not be used in any kind of publicity, the Founders agreed that the name La Leche League was "just what the doctor ordered."

Word spread quickly about the organization and its Founders who had information and answers to breastfeeding questions that no one else seemed to have. Thirty or 40 women, most of them strangers, were crowding into the meetings every month. The group was rapidly outgrowing its hostess' homes. By early 1957 it became necessary to split into two groups to accommodate the crowds.

Friends told friends about La Leche League, and their friends told their friends, and the word spread. Soon a never-ending stream of mail and frantic phone calls from women in other areas of the state, then from neighboring states, and before long from scattered states across the country, began to arrive in Franklin Park.

No matter how many letters poured in, the Founders answered every one personally, often while the baby napped, or the toddlers played in the sand box, or after the home-work was finished and all of the children had been tucked into bed for the night. They were amazed at the hundreds of women who were looking to them for the information that couldn't be found anywhere else.

Taking Control of Childbirth

Most women of the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s accepted, or at least went along with, the new thinking in childbirth and infant feeding practices. The pressure to bow to the experts with their medical degrees and scientific training was enormous. But seven women in a quiet suburb near Chicago, Illinois, refused to go along.

The Founders did not, would not, step aside and let "experts" and "professionals" tell them what was right for their babies and their bodies. Hard lessons learned through trial and error with their older children had given them quite an education. They knew what was right -- and it was a far cry from what the experts were saying.

For nearly 30 years before La Leche League came into existence, babies had been separated from their anesthetized mothers after birth. Mothers often had to wait 24 hours to see their babies for the first time. Having given birth to 25 children between them by 1956, La Leche League's Founders were certain that the norms of the day were not in either the mother or the baby's best interests.

"We knew it was against everything in nature for mothers to be separated from their babies," Betty Wagner Spandikow said. "We knew that mothers needed to be awake and aware, without drugs or medication, so they could breastfeed as soon as possible after birth. It took years of research for the medical community to accept this truth that was so obvious to us."

"There were more and more women coming to their doctors wanting to breastfeed," Mary Ann Cahill said. "The doctors had to pay attention. This was their clientele."

Marian Tompson explained further: "The problems were never in the women or their milk," she said, "but rather in the social pressures in a bottle-feeding society and the negative influence of a health system unfamiliar with breastfeeding. And we proved that the most effective helpers are other experienced breastfeeding mothers."

Spreading the Message

The overwhelming number of women in their immediate area who were looking for answers to their breastfeeding questions caused the Founders to expand their one original group into four within the first year. Soon women in other communities, states, and countries began asking to form their own groups, and so a system was put in place to organize groups and educate the volunteer Leaders with the information they needed to help mothers in their own areas.

The numbers tell the story. By the fifth year of its existence, there were 43 La Leche League groups holding meetings every month. Five years later, in 1966, that number had grown to 430, and in 1971, La Leche League's 15th year, the number of groups had tripled to 1,260. By 1973, the organization was adding three Leaders a day and one group to its rosters every week. In 1976, when La Leche League celebrated its 20th anniversary, there were more than 3,000 groups in the United States and in countries from Austria to New Zealand. By 1976, the number of mothers La Leche League had helped to nurse their babies could be conservatively estimated to be in the millions.

It was the Founders' book, THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING, that was instrumental in putting accurate and helpful breastfeeding information in eager hands across the country and eventually around the world. The original version was sent out bound in loose-leaf colorful folders purchased from Mr. Elmo's Ben Franklin Store in Franklin Park. In three years, 17,000 loose-leaf booklets were sold. We can only imagine the number of mother-hours that went into assembling and mailing all those copies!

As word about the organization spread, and the need for information increased, the Founders realized they needed a "real" book. The experiences of the thousands of women who by that time were breastfeeding mothers had added enormously to the Founders' store of knowledge, and they felt strongly that they wanted to make all of the information they had gathered available to women who could be helped by it. So with babes on hips and husbands helping with the older children, they went to work. Each of the Founders agreed to work on specific chapters; the others would read it and rewrite sections and add things. Drs. Gregory White and Herbert Ratner reviewed each chapter for medical accuracy.

The first revision, which took three years to complete, was finished in 1961. As reported in "Memos from Marian" in the LLL News that year, "To date the manuscript has been twice rewritten and re-typed completely during time spared from the love and care of seven husbands and 40 children."

The second edition of THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING was far more comprehensive than the first publication -- and proved to be quite an undertaking. As with the earlier edition, all seven of the Founders contributed, wrote and rewrote chapters, and didn't consider any section completed until all were satisfied.

"It seems amazing," Betty recalled, "but we didn't ever fight. Over the writing of the book...I don't remember anyone ever being angry. It was the strongest mind that won. Everyone said that seven people couldn't write a book. But they can, and we did."

The 166-page book with its dark blue cover was completed in 1963, four years and 10 babies from the day it was started, with an initial printing of 10,000 copies. "We autographed each other's books and drank a glass of champagne to celebrate the occasion," Betty said. They never imagined that over the next 45 years, The Womanly Art would be revised five more times, translated into multiple languages, and sell more than 2.5 million copies.

The enormous increase in requests for information from around the world came as a result of a chapter taken from Karen Pryor's 1963 breastfeeding book, Nursing Your Baby, that appeared in the May 1963 issue of Reader's Digest, a magazine with a worldwide circulation that is translated into many different languages. That chapter, titled "They Teach the Joys of Breastfeeding," told the story of La Leche League's founding and the wealth of breastfeeding information available from the organization. Coincidentally, May 1963 was also the month that the newest edition of THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING rolled off the presses. Thanks to the publicity generated from the Readers' Digest article, all 10,000 copies were sold in less than two months.

And although it began as an unassuming grass roots movement, it wasn't long before the organization and its message caught the attention of the media. At first it was small features in local newspapers. But within only a few years, larger features in major metropolitan newspapers, and eventually in national publications including Time and Newsweek, began to appear. Though it was many years before breastfeeding became mainstream, the organization's message caught the attention of the media early on.

The continuing stream of newspaper and magazine articles spread awareness of the unique benefits of mother's milk through the 1960s. But it was a still-quoted speech by a glamorous and gracious Princess from far away Monaco that splashed the importance of breastfeeding on front pages of newspapers across the country in 1971.

Princess Grace was widely respected as a devoted mother, and it was well known that she had nursed all three of her children. And so as brainstorming got underway for the 1971 Conference in Chicago, someone suggested asking Princess Grace to be the banquet speaker, and she accepted.

On the night of the banquet, Princess Grace's warmth and charm seemed to radiate throughout the hotel. She gave a beautiful speech, honoring the women there for their decision to breastfeed their babies. She made her personal commitment abundantly clear with the line from her speech that is still quoted nearly 40 years later:

"I have many duties and obligations of State along with my husband; but my family comes first....When they first needed me, and I them, there were no compromises; State had to wait upon mother.

"I had never considered anything but breastfeeding when I had children. And when these children came, two girls and a boy, I breastfed them as I always intended to do, simply as something which was to me wholly normal and right. I had never thought about it as anything extraordinary for me to be doing -- neither as a working woman, which I had been in a so-called glamorous profession, nor as the wife of a ruling Prince."

It would be hard to overestimate the recognition Princess Grace brought to La Leche League and the huge effect she had on the acceptance of breastfeeding in the United States. "She made a real contribution to giving status and recognition to breastfeeding in this country," Edwina said.

The blaze of national publicity surrounding Princess Grace's appearance at the Conference brought breastfeeding and La Leche League into the mainstream as never before. Perhaps it is an experience Marian had several years after Princess Grace's banquet speech that best tells the story of her influence.

"My husband and I stopped at a little farm in the middle of nowhere in southern Illinois to visit relatives of a friend," Marian recalled. "Seated in the living room in a rocker in front of a fireplace was a little old lady. When my friend introduced me to her as the President of La Leche League, she said, 'Oh, La Leche League! That's Princess Grace's organization!'"

Strike Up the Band!

Long, long ago, back in the 1950s, there were seven young mothers who, despite what doctors said, what scientists claimed, and what society embraced, never wavered from their belief that nature had provided every new mother with the perfect food for her baby.

They were called radical. They were called throwbacks. One was accused of endangering her baby's health. Another was told she was nursing only "to prove a point" or "to feel like a woman." Several had disapproving friends and relatives who felt that modern formula out of a bottle was far preferable to being tied down by old-fashioned breastfeeding. They and the small band of other pioneering mothers like them were largely alone in their beliefs. But they followed their hearts and their instincts. And they stood firm.

And then, gradually over the ensuing decades, an amazing thing happened. Much of what the La Leche League Founders had said from the beginning received the endorsement of the medical profession.

A joint statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Paediatric Society in 1979 gave support to breastfeeding for the first time in decades. The World Health Organization also issued a public statement in support of breastfeeding in 1979. But it took even longer before the health professional organizations agreed on the value of exclusive breastfeeding. It wasn't until 1997 that the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with a statement declaring human milk to be the only food necessary for a healthy baby for six full months. In 2001, the World Health Organization joined in by supporting the ideal of exclusive breastfeeding for six months, something the LLL Founders recommended in 1956.

When the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its 1997 statement in support of breastfeeding in 2003, the wording was stronger than ever before. Their official policy statement not only declares human milk to be the preferred food for all newborns and recommends exclusive breastfeeding with no supplements for the first six months of life, but it also includes specific guidelines for physicians to follow in assisting mothers to breastfeed effectively. Instead of separating mother and baby after birth, the AAP now recommends:

"Healthy infants should be placed and remain in direct skin-to-skin contact with their mothers immediately after delivery until the first feeding is accomplished.

"The alert, healthy newborn infant is capable of latching on to a breast without specific assistance within the first hour after birth....Except under unusual circumstances, the newborn infant should remain with the mother throughout the recovery period."

Empowering Women, Changing the World

Perhaps one of La Leche League's most enduring legacies will be the ripples it sent out into the world that became tidal waves of change, a rainbow of new causes and organizations that have touched every imaginable aspect of birth, parenting, nutrition, and education.

Although La Leche League could have broadened its scope to include any number of worthwhile causes, the Founders decided early on that the purpose of the organization needed to stay narrow and focused. To do otherwise could dilute the message and distract from what La Leche League has always been about -- the importance of providing every woman with the knowledge she needs to nourish and nurture her baby with her own milk.

But even though La Leche League remained focused on its original purpose, it has had a profound influence on other issues and causes. La Leche League inspired other women to believe they could make a difference, giving them the confidence and courage to turn their passion into action, action that blazed new trails that bettered the lives of mothers and babies, children and families.

And all over the world, La Leche League Leaders are also taking on the challenge of changing the world, one mother and baby at a time. Imagine volunteering your time and altering the course of history in 24 hours. As a humble mortal, it seems much too grandiose, like the plot of an action adventure film. As impossible as it may seem, La Leche League Leaders do it every day. A "typical" day for Leaders might include counseling new mothers, meeting with pediatricians at a local clinic, or even briefing researchers for a United Nations' conference!

Every day hundreds of voices and one dream are echoing the chorus of seven voices and one dream that was started by the LLL Founders 50 years ago. Every day these voices make the world a better place -- one mother and one baby at a time

The More Things Change...

So much has changed. So much is still to be done.

Fifty years ago, physicians, neighbors, mothers-in-law, and complete strangers wondered aloud why anyone would want to be tied down to a nursing baby when formula was such a readily available option.

Fifty years ago, the rare mother who succeeded in breastfeeding her baby was often relegated to a back bedroom when feeding time came and friends or relatives were in the house.

Fifty years ago, no one could imagine the day when breastfeeding would at last be seen for what it is -- the preferred method of infant feeding, perfectly suited to the growing baby's nutritional and emotional needs.

My, how the world has, how much has not changed at all.

While the media and medical profession persuaded many mothers 50 years ago that the new scientifically based formula was the best possible food for their babies, today nearly everyone including the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker, knows that breast milk is the perfect infant food, available to every newborn as his birthright. Yet when Hurricane Katrina struck the Mississippi Gulf Coast in August of 2005, mothers of young infants who were suddenly without access to water, electricity, and basic sanitation, let along the corner drug store, panicked because they had no way to feed their infants. One mother with a days-old newborn was seen on television pleading that she had nothing to feed her baby when her own body was capable of doing so.

And, among the women who plan on breastfeeding, they sometimes have their plans derailed when problems arise. Sore nipples, a crying baby, fear that the bluish-colored milk "isn't rich enough," trouble getting the baby to latch on properly, the need for frequent feedings, which leads to doubts about whether the baby is getting enough, can derail a new mother. All too many women find out far too late in the game that knowing how to breastfeed a baby doesn't come nearly as naturally as they had thought.

Because there is such widespread acceptance of the value of breastfeeding, expectant mothers just assume they will nurse their babies and have no difficulty doing it. That's much like assuming that because there is an airplane on the tarmac, you'll know how to fly it. As Edwina reminds us, "Breastfeeding in a bottle-feeding society is not natural at all."

Social changes can be painstakingly slow, but they don't happen at all without a catalyst. What better catalyst, no matter where we live or what kind of handcuffs our particular society has put on the nursing couple, than a commitment to creating a climate where protecting the needs of the nursing mother and her child are given the priority they deserve.

For all that has changed in the last 50 years, one thing has remained constant: the need for mother-to-mother support is, as it always has been, the bedrock upon which a happy, confident nursing experience is built. Books are helpful, the Internet is accessible, research is conclusive, pamphlets and flyers and public service announcements help get the word out. But what enables a woman to joyfully provide her baby with the perfect nourishment from her own body is having another woman who has had the same experience travel along the path with her.

That's what seven young nursing mothers -- Mary Ann Cahill, Edwina Froehlich, Mary Ann Kerwin, Viola Lennon, Betty Wagner Spandikow, Marian Tompson, and Mary White -- understood when they founded La Leche League in 1956.

And for all that has changed, that has remained the same.

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