From Emi Pikler’s nappy-changing table to the artificial womb. Feminist design history of giving birth and being born.

25 July 2023 - no responses

Author: Viktoria Popovics


Book review:
Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick:
Designing Motherhood. Things that make and break our Birth, MIT Press, 2021.


Designing Motherhood is a collaborative research project in a variety of forms, based on the personal experiences and professional engagement of two design historians, Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick, which goes far beyond run-of-the-mill feminist perspectives. Designing Motherhood is a taboo-breaking book published by MIT Press, a series of canon-forming exhibitions[1] and not least an Instagram account with a growing number of followers. The encyclopedic project, with contributions from nearly fifty authors not only attempts to renew design history and to correct the canon, but also aims to raise critical awareness of women and mothers, empowering everyone who identifies him/herself as a woman.

The point of departure is a hypothetical claim: why is human reproduction invisible and not critically reflected in visual and material culture? Reproduction affects all humans at least once in a lifetime, but the objects and tools associated with childbearing and birth are usually taboo. Even though birth is a universal experience for all people, regardless of gender, the authors argue that there is a disproportionate lack of scholarly publications on the subject, and that these everyday objects are almost entirely absent from museum collections and exhibitions. “Nowhere in the nearly nine decades during which MoMA has been collecting and displaying design in its most innovative forms have any designs related to human reproduction, pregnancy, or birth from the perspectives of women-identifying or trans people been included.” (19)

Millar Fisher and Winick examine invisible or marginalised objects, which they find fascinating, not only from the perspective of design history but also from a social and (bio)political point of view, such as the development of women’s self-determination over their own bodies and the practice of gynecology based on male dominance.

Although MOTHERHOOD is typographically emphasised, both in the title and on the soft pink cover, motherhood is not discussed exclusively in biological terms (the final glossary article is about adoption). The subtitle, Things that make and break our birth, refers to both those who gave     birth and those who were born, thus articulating the collective experience. Divided into four sections – Reproduction, Pregnancy, Birth and Postpartum, the book comprises more than eighty units, covering a broad spectrum of themes and subjects.

The chapter on REPRODUCTION starts with the entry on the legendary book Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was revolutionary in the 1970s America, written by women for women about, among other things, sexual and reproductive health, taboos about women’s bodies, sexist medical care, and the peculiarities of a chauvinistic health care system. The articles devoted to each object or concept are approached from a historical perspective, offering critical questions, and highlighting recent innovations. Who created the given object, for what purpose, and in the light of whose bodily experience? Whose interests and comfort are served by, for example, the birthing bed and how did the medical examination mirror come about?  The prototype of the Yona Care gynecological examination device, for example, reflects women’s anatomical characteristics, their physical and psychological comfort in its form, material and even colour, and thus offers a critique of the traditional rigid metal examination mirror. A paragraph is dedicated to the contraceptive pill and on the side effects of hormonal drugs, the risks for women and the minimum responsibility of men. A woman-centered approach is taken throughout the book, with women as users and creators at the centre. It is refreshing to read about female scientists and inventors, such as the Ukrainian-born Polina Lishko, who developed the gender-neutral and hormone-free so-called molecular condom.

The language of the publication aims to be accessible and informative. There is a discussion on the menstrual cycle and the latest apps to visualize it and the menstrual cup as an environmentally and budget-friendly alternative to disposable sanitary pads. The topic raises the financial aspects of menstruation (women’s “tax”, menstrual poverty) as well.  Especially thought-provoking is the essay on artificial womb technology, including ethical and psychological investigations on the development of a foetus outside a woman’s uterus.

The section on PREGNANCY draws on examples from visual culture and contemporary art in a broad sense, thus breaking the hierarchical relationship between mass culture and high art. The pregnant body has long been seen primarily in a medical context (medical gaze), and in art history it has been depicted almost exclusively for predominantly religious purposes (the iconography of immaculate conception). Demi Moore’s trend-setting pregnant nude on the cover of Vanity Fair not only marked a breakthrough in visual culture, but also broke social taboos and challenged conservative, patriarchal values in the USA at the time of its appearance (1991).

Millar Fischer and Winick’s research methodology actively draws on storytelling, personal experiences and anecdotes. For example, the article on midwifery is based on an interview with a doula. Oral history helps to reveal details that are often overlooked and can be used to nuance the dry and objective fact-based view of history that most often underpins the male-centered narrative.

One of the most striking objects in the BIRTH section is the cesarean section curtain, which demonstrates how much depends on details to make childbirth not an operation but rather a gentle process. (During a ‘gentle’ caesarean section, the baby emerges from the womb partially autonomously, which the mother can observe through a transparent curtain). Home birth, long the ‘privilege’ of women of colour who have been excluded from hospital care, is emerging as a counterpoint to medicalised childbirth. The birth chapter includes, alongside labour and pain, the subjects of infant death and grief, as the two poles of physical and psychological suffering that can be experienced by humans.

POSTPARTUM is known to be one of the most difficult and emotionally vulnerable periods of motherhood. Objects like postpartum mesh underwear, nursing bra and breast pumps are closely linked to the “fourth semester”. The breast pump, which exists in many versions from manual, electric, portable to hands-free versions, is both a tool of mobility, allowing women to return to the labour market and depriving mothers of the pleasure of feeding their own bodies.   

Alongside concepts, objects and phenomena that are familiar to American society, there are also European features such as the Finnish baby boxes. Thanks to Amber Winick’s widespread research, a Hungarian invention has also been included into the selection, namely the nappy-changing table from the pediatrician Dr. Emi Pikler (1902–1984). According to Pikler’s approach, the changing table allows everyday routine to be transformed into loving care, ritual, play, and the development of a bond between mother and baby.



Designing Motherhood is an exceptional publication on the intersection of design, feminist theory, and motherhood, which contributes to shaping attitudes towards the taboos of reproduction in an innovative way. Alongside traditional design objects, social and political issues are also discussed, such as sterilisation, voluntary childlessness, and birth control (including abortion). The wide selection of themes and images clearly shows that the authors have sought to avoid the trap of ‘white supremacy’ and have incorporated the experiences of women of colour, ethnic minorities and lower-class women as well. There is a pressing need to deconstruct the traditional notion of “white”, “essentialist” motherhood and to raise awareness of diversity, bodily autonomy, and self-determination. In this context, Designing Motherhood, as a book and as a discourse, is an important driving force for future designers, researchers, curators, mothers, and caregivers.


[1] Mütter Museum, Philadelphia (May 2021-May 2022), Center for Architecture and Design in Philadelphia (September 10-November 14, 2021); MassArt Art Museum (MAAM), Boston (from June – December, 2022); Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center in Seattle (from December 2023);  

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