Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
Diana West, Teresa Pitman, and Diane Wiessinger
Mary White was the mother of 11 children, the wife of a busy family doctor, Dr. Gregory White (who passed away in 2003), and a devoted member of her church. Despite all those responsibilities, Mary saw the need for support for breastfeeding mothers, and joined her friend Marian Tompson and five other local women in founding La Leche League International. She has not only nurtured her large family—now including 61 grandchildren and 108 great-grandchildren—but provided insights into mothering and breastfeeding that have helped and encouraged mothers all around the world.
Mary was born on April 3, 1923, to Edward M. Kerwin and Marie LeTourneux Kerwin in Oak Park, Illinois, and passed away on June 2, 2016. She married Greg the week after she graduated from college in 1944.
It’s hard for parents today to appreciate what it was like for American women who wanted to breastfeed in the 1940s and ‘50s. Medical professionals, family, and friends often recommended against it and less than one-third of new mothers even attempted it. Those who did usually stopped soon after they began, when the strict schedules that were recommended caused their milk production to dwindle and because breastfeeding in public was frowned upon. This was the environment in which Mary struggled to breastfeed her first baby in the 1940s. Fortunately, Greg’s friend and mentor, Dr. Herbert Ratner, provided breastfeeding support and encouragement with the next few babies, and after the third one, all the rest were born at home, making it easier for them to get off to a good start. That’s also why the new group that the seven Founders started was so quickly popular—the need was there.
The name for the new organization actually came from Mary’s husband. He suggested La Leche League after a Spanish shrine to the Madonna with the inscription “Nuestra Senora de la Leche y un Buen Parto” (meaning “Our Lady of Happy Delivery and Plentiful Milk”). The bonus: the name didn’t contain the word “breast” which was considered unacceptable in newspaper classified advertisements at the time.
Mary and Greg’s friend, Dr. Herbert Ratner, also helped the Founders in developing the LLL philosophy. He urged them to think beyond the medical studies and statistics on the importance of breastfeeding and to recognize that it is also a relationship. As Founder Mary Ann Cahill later wrote about that discussion, they realized that breastfeeding also included:
“The quick, strong, love-ties so natural between a nursing mother and her baby. The mother’s sure understanding of her baby’s needs and her joy and confidence in herself to satisfy them. The happy dividends from this good relationship as the baby grows up. A theme first sensed, gradually understood and absorbed, finally realized by a mother as she nurses her own baby. A goal for La Leche League, the Board members unanimously concluded. Help mothers successfully breastfeed their babies and so successfully mother them.”
Mary’s first responsibility in the organization was to share medical information related to breastfeeding. She wrote articles for the newsletter that they sent out and edited the inserts from local areas. Mary was on the Board of Directors of LLLI for many years, and spoke at conferences for many years as well. At one conference session, she talked about the fact that when she was a young mother, her home was rather untidy. But she said she didn’t worry too much about it —after all, she had 11 children! What could you expect? Then her children grew up and moved out, and she looked around and saw the house was still rather untidy. “I realized that it was me!” she told the audience, laughing. She often reminded us that “people are more important than things.”
There is a warmly funny story that Mary related included in The LLLove Story how, after a home birth, when her boys came in, “I was waiting back in the rocking chair again, proudly holding the new little sister. But the boys had been promised a birthday party for the baby, so with scarcely a glance at her, they headed for the kitchen—’Where’s the cake?’”
Mary White’s contributions to LLLI helped it become an organization that has inspired parents around the world. We hope it is a comfort to her family to know that she has left this powerful legacy, and that she will be missed by all of us in LLLI.