Menstrual Advocacy Movement Gains Traction

photo by Caroline Boschetto

Menstruation. A taboo that once was only spoken of in whispers now has activists hounding legislators and shouting through the internet for reform — and the nation is beginning to listen.

National Public Radio called 2015 “The Year of the Period.” But according to Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a lawyer, writer, and national menstrual advocate, “2016 has kind of blown 2015 out of the water” in terms of policy results.

This movement that first gained mainstream attention in 2015 aims to dispel the stigma surrounding menstruation and advocate for increased access to feminine hygiene products.

“Half the population menstruates and it is almost inconceivable that the issues that are real to so many of us have been brushed under the rug for generations,” Weiss-Wolf said. “At its most basic level, it’s a question of dignity and respect for people who menstruate.”

Forms of activism have included social media movements, viral art projects, and acts of protest, including one woman’s decision to run the London Marathon on her period without using any menstrual products.

Chris Bobel, associate professor of women’s studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and author of “New Blood: Third-wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation,” spoke in October at an anti-period shaming event hosted by Northeastern University. The event was put on by feminine empowerment organization Strong Women Strong Girls and NU’s Social Justice Resource Center.

“We’re just not socialized to think about [menstruation],” Bobel said. “The attention to it is new so that means something is happening.”

In 2016, activists and legislators made progress in increasing access to menstrual products, particularly through their work in stopping states from taxing pads and tampons like luxury goods.

In 2016, 15 of the 40 states where this “tampon tax,” as activists call it, existed introduced legislation to eliminate the tax. The bills passed in Connecticut, Illinois, and New York with bipartisan support.

“There’s nothing else in our government that’s bipartisan right now,” Weiss-Wolf, the creator of a national petition to abolish the tax, said. “I would call this textbook success that other campaigns should be learning from.”

According to her, making menstrual products more accessible is a matter of equity and representation.

“I don’t think there’s been a nefarious campaign to keep menstruation out of the policy-making world,” Weiss-Wolf said. “But I mostly do see it as a matter of overlooking something that’s otherwise been shoved into the margin.”

Weiss-Wolf said that when she started menstrual activism two years ago she chose to concentrate on the tampon tax because she believed it was the issue that could gain the most mainstream support.

“In some ways it’s the least controversial,” she said. “It doesn’t go directly to the heart of the problem of the poorest, most vulnerable people in this country, but almost for that reason it makes it a little bit more palatable.”

Canadian, Australian, and some European governments have worked recently on abolishing taxes on menstrual products in their countries as well.

According to Weiss-Wolf, the fight to eliminate the tax in the U.S. is different than in other countries because in the U.S., taxes are levied on a state by state basis. Nevertheless, she said she has intentionally chosen to engage in activism on the national level.

“I thought it better to do a national petition and a national campaign, thinking that if we could ratchet up the dialogue at that level, more states would feel compelled or pressured to take action,” she said.

Another recent success in the world of menstrual advocacy included President Obama’s comment in a January 2016 interview with YouTube stars, in which he said he does not see the reasoning behind the tampon tax. Additionally, the American Medical Association issued a statement this past June urging states to eliminate the tax.

University students have taken on the issue of menstrual product access as well by starting initiatives to stock campus bathrooms with free pads and tampons.

Molly Naylor-Komyatte, a second-year public policy major and student government chief of staff at Brown University, helped start one of these programs on her campus during the fall 2016 semester through Brown’s student government.

“We knew there were conversations happening about this issue, but we really wanted to help push that conversation forward by doing something a little more concrete,” Naylor-Komyatte said.

Brown’s student government now stocks approximately 50 non-residential bathrooms with menstrual products weekly. These include women’s, men’s, and gender neutral bathrooms to accommodate transgender and non-binary individuals who menstruate.

“We wanted to make sure that everyone could have access to these products that we provide while also using the bathroom in which they feel most comfortable,” Naylor-Komyatte said. “We hope that that aspect of the project will help make the conversations about menstruation a bit more inclusive.”

Trea Lavery, a second-year journalism major and Feminist Student Organization blog coordinator at NU, has been working through FSO to start a project modeled after Brown’s to stock NU bathrooms with menstrual products.

“Tampons and pads are really expensive and I think that people who don’t have periods don’t realize how important they are,” Lavery said. “It’s like toilet paper. You need to have toilet paper but people don’t call toilet paper a luxury.”

FSO’s initiative will focus primarily on stocking bathrooms in highly trafficked buildings such as Snell Library, The Curry Student Center, Ryder Hall, and Shillman Hall, according to Lavery.

“We’re still figuring out what it will take from [FSO] and what it will take cost-wise and labor-wise to put it in place,” she said.

Weiss-Wolf said that she is concerned about what the future will hold for this movement after President-elect Donald Trump takes office due to his history of sexist rhetoric and behavior.

“Donald Trump is the person who put period bashing on the national forefront when he criticized Megyn Kelly during the presidential debate about ‘blood coming out of her wherever’,” Weiss-Wolf said.

However, she also said that, in a time when women’s health advocates will have to play a largely defensive role, the movement to abolish the period tax could be one of the only areas of progress.

“It might be one of the few bright lights we have in advocating for women’s health,” Weiss-Wolf said. “Because it’s so new it’s not like we’re on the defensive, because there’s nothing for this to dismantle.”

Because the menstrual activism movement is young and growing, there is lots of opportunity for individuals to get involved, Weiss-Wolf said.

“Whether it’s organizing a donation drive in your own community or at your school, whether it’s advocating at your school for the free provision of menstrual products, whether it’s just signing the petition that we started,” she said, “there are so many things that individuals can do and really, actually see a tangible difference for having stepped up.”