If you read between the lines of the story of La Leche League (LLL) you will find seven women who were radical in their articulation of women’s rights at a time when the word breastfeeding was considered too explicit to be used in the name of their organization or even uttered by a news commentator. The Founding Mothers of LLL are feminists in the truest sense of the word because they recognized long before anyone else did that breastfeeding is a political act.
Marian Tompson was the president of La Leche League from 1957 to 1981 and thus its spokesperson during the period of its most rapid growth. During a LLL growth spurt in 1973, for example, one new LLL group was forming and three new Leaders were accredited somewhere in the world every day.
Tompson knew from her own experience that the support of her doctor is essential to a breastfeeding mother and conceptualized the first LLL Breastfeeding Seminar for Physicians, held in 1973. There was no other place at the time for physicians to get information about breastfeeding. The seminars were held annually for 35 years.
In 1979, she was part of the joint WHO/UNICEF meetings on Infant and Young Child Feeding in Geneva, Switzerland to draft the WHO Code for the Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes. Over the years, Tompson has spoken about breastfeeding in 30 countries.
By the late seventies and eighties, Tompson found herself writing legal briefs and testifying in court in relationship to custody, nursing in public, work-related issues, and jury duty. She became an amicus curiae and provided articles and letters from professionals to judges to help them in deciding breastfeeding cases. During this time, Tompson also represented LLL frequently on television. She was a regular on the Phil Donohue Show, and interviewed by Barbara Walters on Not For Women Only.
In 1981, the position of president of LLL ended, but Tompson continued to represent LLL. At this time, she also served as the Executive Director of the Alternative Birth Crisis Coalition (ABCC), an organization that provided legal counsel and expert assistance to prosecuted alternative birth practitioners. It was a time when these practitioners were not only socially ostracized but also legally attacked. She is an advocate for choice in childbirth having had several of her seven children at home.
Tompson has been instrumental in changing public policy related to breastfeeding by focusing on the support or lack of support for that policy in the scientific research. So, in 1997, when Tompson saw a WHO draft proposal recommending that HIV positive mothers not breastfeed, she went looking for the research. She was dismayed to find that the research was inconclusive and that there were disagreements among mainstream scientists about what the studies proved.
As Tompson accounts in her memoir, Passionate Journey: My Unexpected Life, “I once again found myself going down a road I hardly knew existed, let alone one that I could image traveling on.” In an attempt to carefully examine and validate the assumptions about HIV/AIDS and breastfeeding, Tompson began bringing together physicians and others of differing viewpoints to discuss the issue, first in seminars at LLL conferences and then through AnotherLook, a private chat with participants from all over the world.
Tompson’s involvement in the conversation about HIV and breastfeeding was instrumental in encouraging that studies differentiate between exclusive breastfeeding and mixed feeding (both breastfeeding and formula). When such studies were done, exclusive breastfeeding carried a significantly lower risk of HIV transmission than mixed feeding and a similar risk to no breastfeeding. Tompson’s advocacy resulted in the 2010 WHO recommendation that all HIV-positive mothers exclusively breastfed for at least 6 months.
Marian Tompson has been an advocate for women and children for 55 years. She has helped to change childbirth practices, hospital procedures, infant nutrition standards, and cultural norms. My life and yours have been changed because of her. Much of the public awareness of and advocacy for breastfeeding that we take for granted today was first imagined by this woman. I admired her as a young LLL Leader and have had the privilege to meet her over the years and call her friend. She has provided me a model of family life and loving countenance that inspire me to this day. Thank you, Marian.