Clio Talks: An Interview with Historian Jessica Martucci

Clio Talks: An Interview with Historian Jessica Martucci

This week I had the pleasure of interviewing historian Jessica Martucci at length about her new book, Back to the Breast: Natural Motherhood and Breastfeeding in America. We discussed the Mommy Wars, the politics of pumping, and the importance of playing devil’s advocate with lactivists and skeptics alike. What follows is a snippet of our conversation about La Leche League, a grassroots breastfeeding support and advocacy group that began in 1956 and quickly grew into a nationwide network for breastfeeding peer counseling and activism. In recent decades, La Leche has found itself in conflict with many second-wave feminists over its stance against mothers working, and has often been cast as a major player on the conservative “side” of the Mommy Wars.

Lara: Throughout the book I was intrigued with your treatment of La Leche League. They’re such a powerful piece of this history. They are so important. They have supported so many women, and have also been a difficult ideological thorn in the side of many women over the years. They have succeeded as an organization in a way that I think the founders never pictured. I’m interested in your experience researching them. Where was their archive? What was that like, to go find them and learn more about their history?

Jessica: The La Leche League papers are held at De Paul University in Chicago, which was a boon for my research. I don’t think they had been there for very long at all when I started looking at them. They added stuff several times, so each time I went back I was able to look at even more materials.

I love historical research. I love to get to know who these people were. La Leche League was such a fun group of people to study because, I think, they are so nuanced. For me, they were an interesting challenge to simple stories about the history of women and ideas of feminism. And also to be able to trace some of their ideas and personalities over time, as they go from being really quite radical organizers in the 1950s, to being the voice of traditional conservatism by the 1970s. How they changed as society was changing around them, I thought was such fun to see. And at the same time, you can see them when they were radicals, and they were really doing something that hadn’t been done before. It’s something that really endears them to me.

I’m sure this is a common thing for a lot of researchers — you grow attached to your historical actors. I did develop a fondness for the founders, which in some ways made it difficult to see how they reacted in the 1970s and 1980s, when more feminist issues came into their laps — to see how they responded to that. But I also understood why they were responding the way that they were. They had come to that point from the trenches of having absolutely no discussion about mothers, and what mothers want, and what mothers need. They were really afraid that what they were working to save was being tossed aside, and was in the process of being lost in the political activism of the 1970s. It was a fun and emotional journey, following La Leche League.

First meeting of La Leche League, 1956. (La Leche League)
First meeting of La Leche League, 1956. (La Leche League)

I think the thing that I liked the most about studying them closely in this story was seeing not only the leaders, but getting a sense of the membership — the kind of conversations that the membership and the leaders of the different grassroots groups were having over the years, and how they really were wrestling with these broader cultural and social and political changes in women’s lives.

There’s a whole section in the book where they’re struggling with this tenet of La Leche League leaders, that they had to pledge, when they became leaders of the group, that they believed that a baby needed to be with its mother for the first year — that its need to be close to the mother was as strong a biological need as the need for food or warmth. The membership was fighting about this in the 1970s. There were people who were pushing back against this from within  La Leche League, who had had positive experiences because of their interactions with the League; who believed in breastfeeding; who enjoyed that sort of attachment relationship with their babies; and yet who were, even at that time, becoming uncomfortable with that degree of hegemonic oversight about what it took to be a good mother. It was really interesting for me to see those battles play out within the organization itself. It reminds us again that these issues are never as straightforward as they can appear on the outside. There is no single-minded ideological position even in an organization like La Leche League.

Lara: It also struck me that it’s an example of the ways in which the feminist challenges of the 1970s across many issues hardened a conservative position that people sometimes felt anguished about taking. Women on the “other side” weren’t intending, necessarily, to be conservatives, or to have a political position. They were forced to take some position or other, when what they had been doing was simply the default, which they could work within or work around.

Jessica: You see it in the League internal discussions, you see it in letters that mothers from all over the country are sending to the League. They had been thinking all along — either they weren’t thinking anything about feminism, they were just kind of doing what was working for them — or they were really thinking of themselves as feminists: “this is a female-empowering thing that I can do this, and I’m successful at this, and I’m using these networks of women to help me do it. This feels like feminism!” To define themselves increasingly on the other side of the political spectrum — they didn’t really feel like they belonged there — was hard on women. Even some of the La Leche League founders would repeatedly say, “We are feminists! We’ve been feminists!” But they just didn’t have the same political ideology that a lot of second-wave feminists had. It forced this uncomfortable split along political lines that weren’t necessarily natural. In a lot of ways it alienated women from either side.

Lara: I could see in the book that you had really gotten involved in the historical figures you were researching … I know I find the only way I can do good research is if I’m in genuine sympathy with the person who I’m trying to understand. It does change how you feel about the history that you research. It forces you to be a more sympathetic researcher. I think there’s something to be said for that approach. Maybe that’s something historians bring that’s really special.

Jessica: I agree. I think as a historian, that realization was one of the most exciting and important things I got out of doing this research. It’s one thing to talk about not writing history about winners and losers, good guys and bad guys. But when you’re actually in the sources, you really have to learn to see the world the way that the people you’re studying are seeing it. And when you do that, it changes how you see things. It makes it a lot harder to say there’s a good guy and a bad guy. It makes it a lot harder to say there’s a right way and a wrong way. What I came to, with La Leche League, at the end of all this is, these are people who were doing what they thought was the best thing they could do. Every mother in the story was doing the best thing that she thought she could do.

Lara Freidenfelds is a historian of health, reproduction, and parenting in America. She is the author of The Myth of the Perfect Pregnancy: a History of Miscarriage in America and The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America. Sign up for her newsletter and find links to her op-eds and blog essays at