Consider the menstrual cup.
A repository for bodily fluid, it was first patented in 1867, a half-century before the commercial tampon arrived, and even a decade before the pad. A rubber model appeared in the 1930s, but its prevalence was curtailed by World War II, when rubber was in short supply. Enter the disposable tampon, which has dominated since.
Now a team of design curators, health care practitioners and advocates want you to reconsider the menstrual cup, remove it from the still pink-hued feminine hygiene aisle, and look at it as an object, not of private utility, but of beauty. It sure beats a wad of cotton.
Designs vary, but in its most common iteration, it is bell-shaped and elegant, flexible, durable and washable. Its history is tied to fashion: the first commercial cup was devised by Leona W. Chalmers, a onetime Broadway star who created it because she wanted to wear her costumes of white silk without fear. Chalmers was ceaseless in championing her version for “modern women,” and, it seemed, she was far ahead of her time: the cup has recently proliferated, with sales gaining momentum. Tampax introduced its own version in 2018.
“What makes it so beautiful also, it’s affordable, it’s environmentally conscious — it’s just one object that one needs, rather than a lifetime of buying pads and tampons to discard,” said Amber Winick, a design historian. Winick and Michelle Millar Fisher, a curator of contemporary decorative arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, believe that the menstrual cup is museum-worthy, along with the breast pump, the speculum and the IUD — devices that normally are not valued for their aesthetics and are often culturally invisible.
Their provocative new book and exhibition series, “Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break Our Births,” makes the case that there is a whole world of objects pertaining to women, mothers and pregnant people that have been overlooked from the perspective of form and function, and unstudied in terms of how their designs came to be.
“Why,” the organizers write, have these artifacts “remained so hidden, even as they define the everyday existence of so many?”
It is, in part, a problem of perspective and access, Millar Fisher added in an interview. “These objects are often used by people who have not had the power to write history, make decisions or frame material culture,” she said. “They have just not been part of the conversation, out loud, until recently.”
“Designing Motherhood” begins with a small exhibition, which opened in Philadelphia in May at the Mütter Museum, a medical museum known for its collection of anatomical oddities. A larger exhibition is to open in September at the Center for Architecture and Design in Philadelphia. The pandemic meant the two exhibitions no longer ran concurrently, as originally planned, but the idea was always to blend audiences from science, medicine and design, organizers said. The duo worked with Juliana Rowen Barton, a curator and historian focused on the intersection of gender, race and design, and partnered with Maternity Care Coalition, a community nonprofit in Philadelphia that primarily helps low-income families, as they developed their project.
Its cornerstone is a book, due in September from M.I.T. Press. In sections devoted to reproduction, pregnancy, birth and postpartum life, it winds through social and medical history, highlighting innovations, like a sleek new concept for the speculum, and inventions of necessity, like the Del-Em, a 1971 “menstruation extraction” device, still adapted for abortions today. Both are on view at the Mütter Museum.
The authors also take on changing ideologies: one midwife they feature has done away with medical stirrups in her practice, for example, using guidance on how to examine people who are in wheelchairs or otherwise differently mobile. As it turns out, the gynecologist’s stirrup — used for the convenience of doctors, but for ages a shorthand for the discomfort of women on the exam table — need not be the standard.
The female form is almost certainly one of the most visualized parts of art, and among the most represented in collections. Yet “museums neglecting designed objects that address the needs of women's bodies is not an accident,” Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, curator of contemporary design at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, said in an email. “Rather, it’s symptomatic of an historically male dominated curatorial and industrial design field; of a culture that prioritizes fantasy over biology; that privatizes birth; that commodifies women's bodies. Design museums are in a unique position to illuminate social and historical inequities and advancements through product innovation, but still hesitate.”
Ruth Schwartz Cowan, a historian and the author of “More Work for Mother: The Ironies Of Household Technology From the Open Hearth to the Microwave,” said that, while museums have come a long way from narrowly defining “women’s interests,” it is still rare to have items related to women’s bodies put on a pedestal. “There’s very little about sex and very little about reproduction — nobody wants to get involved in interpreting that stuff for the public, it’s just too hairy, and so they don’t do it,” she said. “‘Designing Motherhood,’” she said, “is a pathbreaking effort.”
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Amid the body parts preserved in formaldehyde at the goth-y Mütter, the “Designing Motherhood” exhibition, which will remain on view for a year, stands out as bright and nearly hopeful, at least at first glance. There’s a chrome-plated breast pump and baby bottle, by the Philadelphia artist Aimee Gilmore, who wrote that after she gave birth, she considered them like trophies, “monuments to motherhood.”
Then there’s the gruesomely surgical — a reproduction of a Roman-era speculum that looks fit for torture — and the cutting-edge, like the 3-D-printed models of perineal tears (fabricated, for the kick of it, in hot pink). A case full of pessaries, to treat pelvic organ prolapse, answers the question of whether items that mend bodily trauma can also be beautiful. In rings and loops of brass, wood and steel, they may seem painful to put in, but they also look like modernist accessories that wouldn’t be out of place at the MoMA design store. (The modern exhibition design is by Helen Cahng of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.)
The subject matter draws visitors into personal revelations almost instantly. Here come the birth stories, the agonies endured in eras when women’s health was even more sidelined than it is today.
Taking in the giant forceps, or the 18th-century pewter nipple shield that’s laced with lead, is squirm inducing. Reproductive design should be guided by safety, comfort and privacy, alongside efficacy — yet the Mütter display raises immediate questions about whose needs were prioritized. “The designed object can be about that conversation, but who gets to access it has always been asymmetrical — who in this country gets to feel safe, who gets to have comfort, who gets to have privacy?” Millar Fisher said.
Even something as basic as a baby carrier highlights the ways in which our built environment is not meant for parents and children, Winick said. “It’s a design that, in other ways, helps us with the lack of design in other places, like subway stairs, that are so unfriendly to mothers,” she said.
Only by examining the secret lives of these objects, the curators argue, can we unpack the systems that produced them, and address the inequities within. Gabriella A. Nelson, the associate director of policy at Maternity Care Coalition, whose background is in city planning, said the project helped her see new connections between objects and their environments. Then, “my design thinking immediately goes to design of policy,” she said.
Karen Pollack, executive vice president of programs and operations at the coalition, said the exhibition allowed her staff and clients — predominantly people of color — to see themselves, and their experiences, “reflected in the world of art and design.” It was a rare opportunity, she said. “Even when design is done for women, design is done for white women.”
The hope is to change “what we hold to be of cultural worth and preservation in perpetuity, which is what museums are meant to do,” Millar Fisher said. “I really wish there weren’t so many Fabergé eggs on display, and I wish there were more breast pumps.”
She lobbied, unsuccessfully, to get one of the original, hospital-grade, portable breast pumps — a chromed, curvilinear model from the ’50s, with Swedish engineering and American notions of labor-saving — accepted into exhibitions at institutions like the Museum of Modern Art or the Philadelphia Museum of Art, when she worked there. Her department, decorative arts, meant “luxury items,” she was told.
Toasters, toothbrushes, children’s toys — all sorts of household items have earned a place in museum collections, but the breast pump, which inspires impassioned monologues from anyone who has ever used one, cataloging its (many) design flaws and features, was spurned.
Millar Fisher eventually succeeded in having a breast pump displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago. But those initial no’s — mystifying and infuriating to her, especially from people who “had never lactated,” as she put it — fueled the work on “Designing Motherhood,” which she and Winick began conceptualizing in 2017, after meeting at a baby shower. (Winick has children; Millar Fisher and Barton, their co-curator, do not. They made sure their work grappled with the choices and cultural and medical history of being child-free.)
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The project comes at a moment when the material needs of women and mothers are being recognized more, driven in part by the booming personal care marketplace and young, body-positive consumers, said Cunningham Cameron, of the Cooper Hewitt. A research-backed movement for culturally specific maternal care is growing (Erica Chidi, a doula and a founder of the reproductive wellness site Loom, wrote a prologue for the “Designing Motherhood” book).
Parents whose bodily needs are different are also getting more attention. A designer in Sweden developed a prototype for an adaptive stroller for wheelchair users. A society for the blind in England posted the research and specs behind its tactile pregnancy test, to speed its manufacture.
In response to the pandemic and recent social and political upheavals, museums including the Cooper Hewitt developed rapid collecting initiatives, to capture how design is responding to contemporary issues. “I think we will see more museums acquiring graphic and product designs that speak to women’s health — in part because of activist projects like ‘Designing Motherhood’” that share context through social platforms, Cunningham Cameron said.
And the entry of more women into fields like biomedical engineering, said Cowan, the science historian, has led to innovation in areas that were previously stagnant. The M.I.T. Media Lab held hackathons to improve the breast pump (“Make the Breast Pump Not Suck”), in 2014 and 2018, when there was also a policy summit around paid leave. (Because organizers realized that what was needed, as much as the redesign of a machine, was the overhaul of a system that forces parents of infants back to work.)
One piece of reproduction-oriented design that has only recently begun to get its due (and is featured in the book) is the home pregnancy test. It was created in 1967 by Meg Crane, a graphic designer, who was then employed at a New Jersey pharmaceutical company, working on packaging for its makeup division. An encounter with a row of test tubes in the lab — pregnancy tests being done for doctors’ offices — and the gumption to believe that women should control that information themselves sent her home to sketch a new model. Her bosses at first refused to entertain her idea, then pitched it themselves, excluding her.
But when she heard they were moving forward with prototypes, so did she. That December, she abandoned a holiday party in her West Village neighborhood, high-tailing it to her studio in a printer’s shop on Houston Street. “I went there and sat all night, on New Year’s Eve, just to get the final one worked out,” she said of her model, which was made from a clear paper-clip box, an eyedropper, and a slanted mirror that reflected the results.
Though Crane said she thought more about function than form, the transparency of her design was part of what made it stand out, especially among the options created by men, full of poofs and frippery. She got the patent but was persuaded to sell the rights to her creation, called the Predictor, for $1, which the company never even paid, she said. It took a decade to get it to market in the United States, becoming one of the first medical diagnostics broadly available for home use. The Smithsonian bought one of her prototypes in 2015.
Until then, the details of Crane’s invention were not widely known. She didn’t claim credit earlier, she said, partly because she felt that no one would believe a graphic designer was responsible for this medical device.
Now, though, design is front and center in the evolution of the pregnancy test. The latest iteration, called Lia, is the brainchild of a pair of women who met in a graduate program for product design at the University of Pennsylvania. Lia is the first entirely biodegradable (flushable) nonplastic pregnancy test. It was inspired, said Bethany Edwards, one of the creators, “by the idea of temporality.” Pregnancy tests are only used for a few minutes, but their materials last forever. “Your mother’s plastic pregnancy test is probably still in a landfill somewhere,” she said.
Lia, which will be on view at the Center for Architecture and Design, is made of paper, and, unlike the plastic wands that have owned the market since the ’80s, has an hourglass shape and a soft, ribbed edge. It is intentionally pretty, instead of just utilitarian.
Taking designs for mothers seriously depends in part upon their agency and visibility in public life. Some of the most eye-boggling images in the “Designing Motherhood” book are 19th-century tintypes known as “hidden mother” photos. For these pictures of children, the photographers had their family members hide, awkwardly, under fabric while they held the kids: a mound of dark cloth where a lap should be.
In the 21st century, invisible mothers are still an issue — so much so that hashtags have sprung up, thanks to mothers who realized they had reams of images of kids and co-parents in their feeds, but none of themselves. Now there’s #MomStaysInThePicture and #ProofOfMom — because, they say, whatever our state, we deserve to be seen.
Surfacing is a column that explores the intersection of art and life, produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben, Tala Safie and Josephine Sedgwick.
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