The humble breast pump, long used behind closed doors, is finally getting its moment in the sun.
In 2015, Michelle Millar Fisher, then a curatorial assistant at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, proposed the 1956 Egnell SMB Breast Pump be acquired for the museum’s design collection. One of the first breast-pump designs derived from observing humans instead of bovine subjects, it seemed to her to be a prime candidate, following the path of other labor-saving devices aimed at women for the home. “Why couldn’t it be there, alongside the KitchenAid and Hoover and other things dreamed up in the mid-20th century that are now enshrined in design collections?” She was gently rebuffed, but she and fellow design historian Amber Winick continued on their own to pursue a larger project about reproduction and design. Post #MeToo, they found a publisher.
And birthed an exhibition. Today, at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, the Egnell SMB Breast Pump, a weighty metal contraption the size of a toaster, shines triumphantly alongside a delicate 19th-century glass pump and the sleek minimalist in-bra, cordless Willow. Like many objects in their exhibition, Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break Our Births, these quotidian objects point to larger structural conversations.
“Arguably the most ubiquitous design object governing parenthood in the United States today,” the breast pump “is a contested object, for some representing freedom of choice and for others manifesting the unrelenting pressure to breastfeed at all costs,” Winick and Millar Fisher write in their forthcoming book. “By its very existence the pump exposes the lack of a far more holistic design for family leave.”
Although the experience of human reproduction touches all of us at least once in our lives, its effects remain taboo, under-researched and excluded from exhibitions and publications covering architecture and design history and practice. In these spheres, maternity is treated furtively or as unimportant, even as it defines the everyday experiences of many – some 6 million Americans are pregnant at any given time.
Such treatment of something so fundamental to humanity galvanized design historians Winick and Millar Fisher to develop Designing Motherhood, a first-of-its-kind exploration of the arc of human reproduction through the lens of design. Their endeavor encompasses a book, a series of exhibitions and public programs in Philadelphia, and a design curriculum taught at the University of Pennsylvania.
Their book highlights some 100 designs – which the authors call “iconic, profound, archaic, titillating, emotionally charged, or just plain odd” – that have defined the relationships between people, reproductive experiences and babies over the last century. They include pregnancy pillows, clear C-section curtains, Finnish baby boxes, the tie-waist skirt that normalized mid-century American public pregnancy, the 1982 Planned Parenthood booklet Table Manners: A Guide to the Pelvic Examination for Disabled Women and Health Care Providers, the work of doctors Spock and Kegel, gender-reveal cakes, and Mamava lactation pods. Winick and Millar Fisher deem their project “a public reckoning with the designs that, for better or worse, shape experiences for all of us”.
A selection of items is now highlighted in an exhibition at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, buttressed with objects from the medical history museum’s reproductive health collection. Millar Fisher and Winick labored for years to get such a project greenlit at a major cultural institution. “People’s reactions ranged from, like, ‘ick’ and ‘ew’ to ‘women’s issue’, but the overarching misconception is that it just doesn’t matter,” Millar Fisher said. “It begs the question, who decides what matters? I have yet to meet a museum director who has ever used a menstrual cup or tampon or breast pump. Those are not the experiences of most people who are in positions of power.”
The project takes an expansive view of design, including the development of policy, which is a specialty of the Maternity Care Coalition, a key partner whose 40-year expertise in serving low-income communities in south-eastern Pennsylvania with culturally appropriate care was vital to Designing Motherhood. “People on the street might not understand why design is important – it sounds like fancy-people stuff,” says MCC staffer Zoë Greggs, who is also a curatorial assistant on the project. “Designing Motherhood has done a really good job of not gatekeeping knowledge. To center it in the human experience is such a rare, beautiful way of operating.”
“To be really blunt, no one needs two more white women to tell stories of reproductive justice, especially when that field began with the work of women of color,” adds Millar Fisher. “We always say that we’re riding on the coattails of MCC because they’ve been doing this work since before we were born.”
But it’s only in recent years that the topic of motherhood has become “almost fashionable”, says Millar Fisher, citing the 2019 launch of the New York Times’s parenting section, books like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and last month’s news about plummeting US birth rates. “These conversations have always been there but have coalesced in public outlets over the last couple of years.”
And the ongoing pandemic has thrown these issues in high relief. “The reports of women not going back into the workforce and the questions of parental labor during lockdown – all of those things are embedded in the project,” points out Juliana Rowen Barton, an architecture and design historian and curator who also helped organize Designing Motherhood. “The past year has raised the stakes because we’re realizing that things have to change – and we want our project to be a part of changing that conversation.”
In the exhibition, that means providing an emphasis on midwifery as a counterpoint to the Mütter’s robust collection of obstetrical tools. Winick points to the 1953 educational film All My Babies, in which the documentary legend George C Stoney follows a well-respected Georgia midwife named Mary Francis Hill Coley for four months as she prepares for the home deliveries of babies among Black rural families. “It’s told at this moment when there’s this great shift happening – birth was moving from the bedroom to the hospital room,” Winick says. At the turn of the 20th century, almost everyone in the US gave birth at home, and midwives lived in the same community as pregnant people. (Black women were often denied admittance to hospitals, making midwife-attended home birth the only viable option for Black families.) But by 1950, the majority of births took place in hospitals; today that’s where 99% of birth happens.
The film foreshadows the demise of Black midwifery, recording the tension between black midwives interacting with white doctors and nurses at the county clinic. “The black midwives who had really been in charge of care in the south were now positioned in more white obstetrical spaces and having to ‘learn’ from these white doctors and nurses,” Winick notes.
Barton continues to frequently observe in the news evolving associations of motherhood and reproduction, from last year’s allegations of forced sterilization at immigration detention centers to George Floyd’s final anguished calls for his mother. “It’s not forced for us to find ways to illustrate how deeply intertwined these themes are in every single element of our life. Progress is not the fact that this show happened – progress is these conversations continuing to happen.”