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A Breast Pump Designed for Your Boss
Who captures the benefit of tools ostensibly designed for women?
I have a new piece for Comment, titled simply “Designing Women,” about the tools women rely on to navigate a world that doesn’t welcome us as we are. I drew on the book Designing Motherhood for this piece, particularly discussion of breast pump designs.
I’m not against breast pumps, but, as I argue in the article, I’m suspicious that they are often designed for the convenience of neither mother nor baby, but employer. I don’t think women capture enough of the surplus pumps ostensibly produce.
It is easier for an employer to point to all these seeming efficiencies and offer the mother less: pump later, pump less often, pump in a dark storage closet or hidden in your car or the toilet. In a survey of mothers working outside the home (sponsored in 2020 by companies that sell breast pumps, lactation pods, and milk-bank services), a quarter of women said that they didn’t have a dedicated space to pump at work.
If the baby were at work, it would be obvious that the child’s hunger cannot be put off forever. Alone with a pump, the mother suffers from unjust demands silently, as her breasts engorge and plugged ducts fester into mastitis. If the baby were visible, it would be obvious you can’t lock a vulnerable person in a closet. But the mother, no less valuable, is more easily mistreated.
The fierce need of the baby makes a stronger claim than a grown-up can. The baby doesn’t know or respect the boss’s exploitative demands—its cry is parrhesia: prophetic speech and a call to repentance. The baby’s voice may be unwelcome, but no just society can be built on untruth.
This essay is a sister piece to my “Spaces for Every Body” for Plough, which drew on two books on assistive design for and by people with disabilities. As I wrote in that essay, there was often a tension between whether tools were designed to expand access or decrease visibility. Users of the Swany Bag, a mobility aid disguised as a rolling suitcase, asked for new features like a wheel brake, but also asked for more help hiding.
Some of the feedback was less about users’ struggles with the bag and more about their struggles with the society they moved through. “Swany’s user feedback also alluded to perceptions of disability and fears of marginalization,” Guffey writes. “Too often, customers wrote, ‘in a quiet residential area, the sound of the casters is loud.’” The already quiet wheels were dampened into near-silence. But, as Guffey points out, it was implausible that the low rattle of a wheel was truly disruptive: what users feared was that their presence was. They wanted a bag that would let them pass through, invisible and unremarked.
I wouldn’t fault anyone for making these requests or for relying on a tool to make their need invisible. We live in a world that is hostile to need and disability.
But the world I am working for isn’t one where all need is easily hidden or secretly dealt with. It’s a world where we cultivate friction in the right places. As Alan Jacobs writes, friction is how we cultivate attentiveness.
I like the Wittgenstein quote Jacobs highlights in the link above:
We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!