Mary Ann Kerwin and her cofounders of La Leche League International (LLLI) have been dubbed the “Revolutionaries Who Wore Pearls” because these traditional mid-twentieth-century American housewives carved a new path to healthier lives and women’s empowerment throughout the world. Kerwin’s circle of friends started the group in 1956 to encourage breastfeeding mothers in Chicago, Illinois. In 1958, Kerwin coauthored the best-selling book The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, which challenged the pervasive culture that instructed new mothers to ignore their own bodies and bottle-feed their babies infant formula. Triggering an international movement for women to seize control of their own health choices, the organization now serves mothers and babies in more than 70 countries.
Kerwin moved to Denver in 1960. She founded the Colorado chapter of LLLI and chaired the group’s international board. Juggling life as a mother of eight, Kerwin traveled the United States and the world advocating for infant and maternal health. She earned her law degree in 1986 at the University of Denver at age 54.
Under Kerwin’s leadership, LLLI helped combat efforts to force impoverished women in developing countries to forgo breastfeeding in favor of infant formula, which often was mixed with polluted water. Believing that “never before in the history of the world had a resource as valuable as human milk been so widely discarded,” Kerwin consulted with health experts throughout the world. Today the United Nations views breast milk as one of the most cost-effective tools to combat the health risks of maternal poverty. She and other breastfeeding advocates helped spur an entirely new field of medical professionals: board certified lactation consultants.
As a leader of the Colorado Breastfeeding Coalition, Kerwin helped spearhead critical state legislation that, in 2004 and 2008, guaranteed women the right to nurse babies in public and the workplace. This law provided a model for inclusion of breastfeeding rights in the landmark federal health care legislation The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.