Saturday, November 8, 2008

Edwina Froehlich: Apostle of Breast-Feeding

Edwina Hearn was born in the Bronx borough of New York City in 1915 and moved to Chicago to attend Mundelein College in the late 1930’s. She was both socially conscious and a devout Catholic. She worked with the Catholic Family Movement and was national executive director of the Young Christian Workers, a Catholic lay organization. She married John Froehlich in 1948, at the rather late age, for that time, of thirty-three.

In the 1940's, Edwina witnessed her older sister Pauline go through what were then standard hospital childbirth procedures: plenty of drugs, the use of forceps and no fathers allowed. Her sister also was discouraged from breast-feeding.

Two years later, when she was pregnant with her first son, she was told that she was too old to breast-feed. She scoffed at this and the other conventional wisdoms of the time, gave birth at her Franklin Park home with her husband and an obstetrician attending, and breast-fed all three of her sons. At that time only 18% of American mothers breast-fed; it was considered old-fashioned, a cause of colic, and generally bad for babies.

At a Church picnic, in August of 1956, Marian Tompson and her friend Mary White engaged in a conversation about the joys and difficulties of breast-feeding. The two women decided that, in the face of the existing social opposition to breast-feeding, a community organization (what would nowadays be called a “support group”) should be formed and they immediately approached other women that they knew to be breast-feeding; Mary Ann Cahill, Mary Ann Kerwin, Viola Lennon, Betty Wagner, and Edwina Froehlich then pregnant with her third son. They met in the living room of Mary White’s home and founded what became known as the La Leche League. This name was chosen by the seven Catholic founders of the organization not only to honor of Our Lady of Happy Delivery and Plentiful Milk (“Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto”) but also because the word “breast” could not be used in the newspapers of the time.

The first formal La Leche League meeting was held in Mrs. Froehlich’s home in October, 1956. For the first several years, the league operated out of Mrs. Froehlich’s home in Franklin Park, Ill. She’d care for her children and do chores while walking around the house with a phone receiver tucked between her shoulder and ear, counseling women from around the country. A second line was installed in her home for just that purpose.

Mrs. Froehlich was the league’s executive secretary from 1956 to 1983 and remained engaged with the organization through the end of her life as a member of the founders advisory council. Today the La Leche League International counsels nearly 300,000 women a month in more than 20 countries.

In 1958 several of the founders, including Mrs. Froehlich, put together a loose-leaf binder of what they thought they knew about breast-feeding. They called it “The Womanly Art of Breast-feeding.” The first printed edition appeared in 1963 and now more than two million copies are in print.

This last June 8 Edwina Froehlich died at the age of 93 two weeks after suffering a stroke of apoplexy.

Mrs. Froehlich was the very model of what I consider to be good Catholic social activism. She saw a social need and organized her friends to meet that need. She embodied the Catholic virtues of charity, subsidiarity, and generosity. In 2058 I shall, if I am still alive, be 98 years old. I wish to travel to Rome in that year, where I am certain I shall hear Edwina Froehlich confirmed as a saint.

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