Celebrating 62 years: The Beginnings of La Leche League

Picture of the LLL Founders in 1956Editor’s Note: As a young mother attending La Leche League Group meetings, I always looked forward to the month of October. The Leader of the Group I attended was a mother and grandmother who took the opportunity to step away from the typical Group meeting format and celebrate the birthday of the organization by holding a picnic — even if the autumn weather didn’t always cooperate — perhaps similar to the picnic that brought the seven founders of La Leche League together on that day in October 1956 when the idea for this organization was born.

The first official meeting of La Leche League was held October 17, 1956, at the home of co-founder Mary White. By 1958, the first edition of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding was published in a loose-leaf format. The first issue of LLL News, the bimonthly member publication, was also published in 1958. On the front page of the newsletter, an article detailed the first 18 months of La Leche League. Today, on the New Beginnings blog, we share that article.

La Leche League – The Story of Our Life, or “The First Eighteen Months Are The Hardest.”

La Leche League Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 1, May-June 1958

Our “baby” was born in October 1956, after a short, easy labor and was welcomed at our first meeting by a dozen mothers. How did the idea of a club for nursing mothers come about? How did it all begin? Some of you have been with us from the beginning; others have just started our series of discussions on “mothering through breastfeeding.” Some of you mothers, as well as those of you who are doctors, nurses or health educators, have perhaps never attended a meeting.

It all started at a picnic… (Maybe this is significant in itself.) A couple of us there had little babies which we were nursing. Perhaps the conversation went something like this: “How easy it is to take a nursing baby on a picnic! No bottles, no fuss and bother; isn’t it too bad more mothers can’t nurse their babies?” “How many of our friends have said they envied us the ease with which we fed our babies, and how much we seemed to enjoy it.” “Some of them had tried and failed. Why can’t somebody do something to help them?” And so it began…

Just one year and a half ago La Leche League held its first meeting, in Franklin Park, Illinois. There had been no advance publicity, and the group was made up of the seven founding officers and several of their friends who were expecting babies. Their purpose: to help these mothers, not only to learn the techniques of breastfeeding, but more important, to help them enjoy the resultant close communion with their babies through a realization of the importance of a satisfying mother-child relationship.

Our name – La Leche League – is taken from the title of a Spanish Madonna: “Nuestra Senora de La Leche y Buen Parto”, which means, loosely, Our Lady of Happy Delivery and Plentiful Milk. We are, however, a nonsectarian organization, with no church affiliation.

We were launched. Our “baby” had arrived. The enthusiasm we all felt then has never waned. As our meetings progressed, our library expanded. We were determined to read all we could on breastfeeding; to contact other groups and individuals who could help us.

The founding officers are Mary Ann Cahill, Betty Wagner, Edwina Froehlich, and Mary White, all of Franklin Park; Mary Ann Kerwin of Elmhurst; Viola Lennon of Chicago; and Marian Tompson of Melrose Park. Each of the officers had nursed one or more babies successfully and several had also had previous unsuccessful nursing experiences.

One meeting which drew much enthusiastic comment was the one “For Fathers Only.” This is held for the husbands of members once every five months. It is conducted by Dr. Herbert Ratner, Health Commissioner of Oak Park and nationally known speaker on marriage and the family. Dr. Ratner is one of the two area physicians who have acted as medical advisors for the group and to whom we are deeply indebted for the time they have spent helping us.

After our first series of five meetings, we decided, because of the large number of women attending, to have two separate series each month, with three board members leading each one. At this time letters were sent out to the physicians in the area telling them about the League and its purposes, and inviting them to attend some of the meetings, which some of them did.

Our “extra-curricular” projects included a lecture and film on the birth of a baby by Mrs. Margaret Gamper, R.N., who conducts classes in natural childbirth in Chicago and is the author of the book Relax, Here’s Your Baby. And of course we shall never forget the night we had as guest speaker Dr. Grantly Dick-Read and had to turn away hundreds after admitting 1,250 people, from three states.

In December 1957, an article on breastfeeding by Mary White appeared in Grail, a magazine for families. This prompted response from interested people throughout the country who were referred to the League. Child-Family Digest has since run several items on the League, resulting in more mail. Then, this month, April, Grail devoted a full-length article to La Leche League.

Just three months ago our third group began on the west side of Chicago. Up to and including our present series, more than 150 mothers have come to the meetings. We have answered countless telephone calls from new mothers with breastfeeding problems and hope in the future to be able to give as much help as possible to many more.

Please send your story ideas to Amy at [email protected].

Red heartSupporting Breastfeeding Families–Today, Tomorrow, Always

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