October 8, 2021

Ph.D. candidate Michelle Millar Fisher and the cover of her book, Designing Motherhood

Ph.D. candidate Michelle Millar Fisher and the cover of her book, Designing Motherhood

When Art History Ph.D. candidate and design historian Michelle Millar Fisher brought her idea to publishers for a new book about the objects that shape women’s reproductive experiences, they ignored her. Museum curators told her she had great material for an exhibit that would eventually include breast pumps, home pregnancy kits, and Snuglis, but it was not for them. 

But Fisher and her co-author, design historian Amber Winick, persisted, and their new book, Designing Motherhood: Things that Make and Break Our Births, has just been published and coincides with two museum exhibitions featuring more than 80 designs that The Guardian called a “first-of-its kind consideration of the arc of human reproduction through the lens of design.”

Fisher, the Ronald C. and Anita L. Wornick Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, focuses on the intersections of people, power, and the material world. Prior to working in Boston, she held positions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, a job she began while she was still at the Graduate Center and where she co-organized the show Items: Is Fashion Modern?

Born and raised in Scotland, Fisher came to New York to pursue her doctorate at the Graduate Center and is looking ahead to a new research project about craft education, research she will use to complete her dissertation. 

She spoke to the Graduate Center about the political and personal origins of Designing Motherhood and how her experience at the Graduate Center has influenced her research and career. 

The Graduate Center: How did you get the idea for this book and the exhibitions?

Fisher: In 2004, my mentor at MoMA created an exhibition called humble masterpieces and when I got to the museum 10 years later I asked, why wouldn't we have the breast pump in here? It's part of MoMA’s machine art trajectory, these sorts of labor-saving devices, designed often by men, but made for women to do three things at once, if not more. 

The umbrella for my research is around labor and labor histories within material culture. I was particularly interested in this form of hidden labor. Obamacare’s debut in 2010 meant that everybody could get a breast pump, if they wanted to, on their health insurance. There was a boom in the use of that particular design typology, but it was still something that was seen as taboo and beneath consideration in major cultural institutions. 

GC: The idea was ignored by publishers. What happened over the years that brought it to completion? 

Fisher: I think what happened was bloody-minded perseverance. Our argument was always: Birth is actually for everybody because that's how we all got here. Amber and I decided we'll just write and self-publish it. We created an Instagram (@designingmotherhood) where we could send each other images and messages back and forth. 

And then a funny thing happened; #MeToo blew up, and #TimesUp blew up. We always say that our work rests on the shoulders of people who've been agitating in this space long before we have, usually women of color who have been doing this for a very long time. And suddenly publishers started coming back to us and said, “You know, it could be really interesting to have women tell their own stories around the arc of human reproduction.” And we said, “We told you that a couple of years ago, but great. Also, it's not just women. It's everybody.” That's when MIT Press signed on. Before we had institutional buy-in, we partnered with Maternity Care Coalition in Philadelphia and applied for a Pew grant together. That is the long arc from being told a lot of nos.

GC: The idea seems even more compelling now with the anti-abortion legislation in Texas and elsewhere. 

Fisher: Sadly timely. I don’t know that there's ever a moment when these subjects have not been timely and urgent and really necessary to talk about. I come from Scotland where nobody tells people whether they can have an abortion. It's the National Health Service. Coming here was always a wake-up call realizing that health care wasn't free, was institutionally racist, and got worse if you were a person of color, queer, trans, etc. So I think that there is a set of issues that are current just now, but they are part of a much larger systemic set of issues that have always been there because political systems in the U.S. and beyond like to police women's bodies, people's bodies who are on the margins of cisheteronormative, white male experiences.

GC: The book is an incredible collective of experiences and stories. It is also personal for you.

Fisher: I think all of my work is really personal. I'm interested in writing in that way, which is not always acceptable in a purely academic context. It's also personal in another way. When I started at MoMA, no one had children. I knew I wanted to have children. I also knew that I would not have a career if I had children. I come from a single-parent family where my mom left school at 15. She had a career and had kids, but care work for us and for her parents took over her career path. Then she divorced and she never had financial independence again until we started contributing to the family budget. I watched my mom not have the opportunities that I have had. And I wrote about that in the chapter on being childfree, which is my favorite in the book. I was interested in that term, not as something that was so much about choice, but about the ways in which the systems and frameworks around us really foreclose reproductive agency for many people.

GC: How did your experience at the Graduate Center influence your research? 

Fisher: I come from Scotland where it is free to go to school. I'm the first in my family to go past high school. When I went to do graduate work in the U.S., I only applied to the Graduate Center. I felt very strongly about its mission to teach the children of a whole people. I felt strongly about the teaching fellowship that I got. I thought it was really important to be part of that knowledge transfer in graduate work, it was something that was applied as much as it was theoretical.

It gave me a framework through which to look at the ways I could apply my training as an art historian and a design curator to ideas and issues that are of burning importance to have in the public realm.

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing.