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Obituaries / Edwina Froehlich, 1915 - 2008

Activist helped launch La Leche League

June 19, 2008|Trevor Jensen | Chicago Tribune

Edwina Froehlich, one of seven Chicago women who started La Leche League in 1956 to support others interested in breast-feeding, died June 8 at a hospital in Arlington Heights, Ill., of complications from a stroke suffered two weeks earlier. She was 93.

In October 1956, Froehlich was pregnant with her third son when she joined six women from suburban Chicago in the living room of Mary White's home to talk about breast-feeding.

"We were looking for women who had breast-fed so they could share their experience," said Marian Tompson, a co-founder and La Leche League's president for 24 years.

At the time, many doctors were promoting infant formula as superior to mother's milk. Froehlich, who breast-fed all three of her children, didn't think women were getting straight information from their doctors.

"We all felt a mother should listen to her body, her nature," Froehlich said in a 1996 interview with the Chicago Tribune. "We could see clearly that if you trusted your inner self, you could do something amazing."

Newspapers then would not publish articles or meeting notices that included the word "breast," so the group used the Spanish word for milk, leche, for its name.

For the first several years, the league operated out of 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, her son Peter said.

"She had all these domestic qualities. But she had an unwavering commitment to help women take care of what she thought was their natural right," her son said.

La Leche League founders were initially seen as old-fashioned yet radical, Tompson said.

"We were considered retro," Tompson said. "Some people felt we were sacrificing our babies' lives to prove a point. It bounced off her because she knew what she was doing."

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. La Leche League International says it counsels nearly 300,000 women a month and operates in more than 20 countries.

Froehlich was born Edwina Hearn in the Bronx borough of New York City in 1915 and moved to Chicago to attend Mundelein College.

A devout Catholic, she worked with the Catholic Family Movement and was national executive director of the Young Christian Workers before marrying John Froehlich in 1948.

In the 1940s, Edwina Froehlich 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, said another son, Illinois state Rep. Paul Froehlich. Her sister also was discouraged from breast-feeding.

"That experience led Mom to seek a better way," Paul Froehlich said.

She had three boys delivered at home, with a doctor's help and her husband on hand.

In her later years, she regularly invited friends to her home in Inverness, Ill., to engage in the Japanese art of reiki, a stress-reduction technique that involves laying on of hands and promotion of "life force energy," and she practiced tai chi twice a week.

In addition to sons Peter and Paul, Froehlich is survived by another son, David; her sister Pauline; and nine grandchildren. Her husband died in 1997.

She donated her body for study at the University of Illinois.

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