Arnold and Sheila Aronson Gallery, Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, Parsons The New School for Design, New York, NY. in 1917 and in 2018 at Muca Roma Mexico City.
Gender is not something that one is, it is something one does, an act... a “doing” rather than a “being.” ― Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, 1990
If, according to Judith Butler’s seminal 1990 text, gender is a construction, then design—product, industrial, fashion, and graphic design in particular—has always been central to its making. I Will What I Want: Women, Design, and Empowerment explores the complex and sometimes-contradictory role that design has played in the pursuit of gender expression and equality for those who have uteruses, menstruate, and/or identify as women, from the mid twentieth century, through second wave feminism, to present non-binary intersections.
The exhibition includes a condensed constellation of objects, interfaces, and clothing that have sought to enable those who have uteruses, menstruate, or embrace womanhood as independent and creative subjects in a material world largely designed by and for men but consumed by those who identify as women (who still make up the minority of industrial designers but who influence the majority of domestic purchases). Some designs are very well known and others less so. Many are usually hidden from view, their material and social histories rarely contemplated in depth by designers and the public.
From the contraceptive pill to the breast pump, there is a long history of industrially manufactured objects that have attempted to positively shape human experiences, offering control over fertility, ovulation, and menstruation, facilitating school and work participation, and proclaiming self-defined gender expression. However, design’s relationship with the individual and with societies is rarely uncomplicated. With the introduction of the contraceptive pill came the rise of laws designed to constrict reproductive rights for people with uteruses; for every breast pump that facilitate new parents’ choices about work and nutrition there exists a poorly designed familial leave policy; and so many designs “for her,” even for very young girls, come with the baggage of implicit and explicit expectations about class, race, gender performance, labor, and sexuality.