Estimated reading time: 2 minutes
Diana West, Diane Wiessinger, and Barbara Higham
Photo: Mary Ann Cahill
Today’s mothers have lost a friend many of us never knew we had. Mary Ann Cahill, who passed away on October 26, 2014, was one of the Founders of La Leche League, a special woman among seven special women.
Mary Ann was born in 1927. At 21, she married Chuck Cahill after attending college in Chicago. They settled in Franklin Park, Illinois, USA, where she and Chuck raised a family of nine children. She described her years of parenting many little (and big) ones as a wonderfully exciting time of “people building.” Mary Ann was an active member of her church.
In the 1950s, Mary Ann heard Dr. Gregory White say, “A baby’s wants are a baby’s needs.” She realized that his simple statement cut through the contemporary advice to keep babies at arm’s length and confirmed what she knew in her heart to be right—that maternal instinct, not modern medicine, was the true expert on birthing and feeding babies.
“I treasured the stories my mother had told me of having given birth to my brothers and me without anesthesia and how she felt an outpouring of love when her newborn was placed in her arms. It was only years later that I realized the importance of women passing on these good memories from one generation to the next.” (The Revolutionaries Wore Pearls, 2007).
Softly spoken but determined, Mary Ann joined forces with six like-minded mothers, Marian Tompson, Mary White (Dr. Gregory White’s wife), Edwina Froehlich, Viola Lennon, Betty Wagner, and Mary Ann Kerwin. These were kindred spirits who put their trust in Mother Nature, with the support of like-minded doctors. They may have worn pearls, but they were considered radical and anti-establishment in their day. Their efforts to help other breastfeeding mothers soon led them to forming La Leche League in 1956: “This is exactly what I needed with my first babies,” Mary Ann Cahill told us. “Let’s get together and help mothers so they won’t have the problems that I did!”
As the group began holding meetings and corresponding by mail with mothers seeking breastfeeding help, Mary Ann Cahill became known among them as “our unequalled writer.” She was the primary author of the first published version of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding in 1958, helped create other La Leche League publications, and acted as their first librarian of books and periodicals.
In 1983, Mary Ann wrote The Heart Has Its Own Reasons, a warm and supportive guide for mothers who chose to stay at home with their young children. She served La Leche League in the essential positions of Editor, Director of the Leader Applicant Department, Acting Executive Director, and member of the Funding Development Team. In 2001, she shared the seven Founders’ memories of La Leche League’s beginnings in Seven Voices, One Dream. As the author of the first Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, she brought her writing full circle in 2010 by writing the preface to the eighth and most recent edition.
Mary Ann understood breastfeeding as an act of great consequence not only to the mother herself, her child and her family, but to all of society and the world at large. All of us who have been helped in some way by La Leche League International have received that help in part because of Mary Ann Cahill. In a sense, our own breastfed babies – and theirs to come – are part of this wonderful mother’s legacy. Thank you, Mary Ann. We will miss you.