I read an article about an amazing group of Girl Scouts in Ohio (though technically all Girl Scout groups are amazing) who installed cabinets in the girls’ bathrooms of their schools to hold feminine hygiene items. I was excited by this smart and helpful project, but then I was struck by how annoying it is in the year 2019 that such a project is even necessary. Why doesn’t every school everywhere already have cabinets like these in the girls’ restrooms? Why hasn’t this always been a thing? According to the article, “…they got the idea because they were not allowed to carry bags around during school, and their uniforms didn’t have pockets. If students needed feminine hygiene products, they would have to go to the school nurse to pick them up.” Think about this for a moment. Let this reality set in.
When my oldest daughter, who is a senior in high school now, was in middle school, she always used to say that she liked the winter months better for having her period, because in the winter she could sneak her tampons or pads into her boots. The pockets of her pants (if she was lucky enough to have pockets in her pants) or carrying a purse was too obvious. Boys and other girls made fun of girls who carried purses or who had to root around in their bookbags to get out pads or tampons. It also wasn’t practical, and often she wasn’t allowed, to stop by her locker on her way to the bathroom if she needed feminine hygiene products in the middle of class, and the time in between classes was too short to make the extra trip. On top of that, teachers were not always willing to let students, male or female, go to the bathroom whenever they needed to.
Things didn’t really improve when my younger daughter, who is currently finishing up eighth grade, started middle school. If anything, bathroom breaks in class are given less frequently, and she used to come home upset, because she couldn’t always figure out when during the day she would have time to go to the bathroom. Often she would try to go the entire school day on one pad. She, like her sister, came up with some creative ways to sneak her hygiene products, but for the life of me, I question why, in modern society, girls have to sneak. And for all of these difficulties, it is easier for middle school girls than for elementary school girls to get through this, because middle school is the age most girls are expected to begin their periods. All of us women know that many girls start their periods far earlier than middle school. However, look in elementary school girls’ bathrooms, and just see if they even have individual feminine hygiene trash receptacles in the stalls. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Most of them don’t. There are stories nationwide of girls bleeding through their pants at school because their teachers wouldn’t let them go to the bathroom, and of female prisoners in state penitentiaries not given access to enough feminine hygiene products, or sometimes any at all.
None of this is to say that it’s not far easier to be a menstruating girl or women in America now than it has ever been. Sure, feminine hygiene products are expensive, but if you can afford to buy them, they are highly effective and much more discreet than they used to be. I hear stories of my mom, who is now in her eighties, having to wear pads with belts, because that was before they made them with adhesive. They were bulky and annoying, but way better than the rags that her mother and generations before her had used, as well as what they use still today in other countries.
The short documentary, Period. End of Sentence, has gotten much hype after winning the academy award this year. It’s about a group of women and men in India who start an in-home production of pads to sell cheaply to women and girls in their area. It addresses how difficult it is for young women to stay in school or seek work for themselves after their periods begin, because they don’t have access to hygiene products, bathrooms, and even the means to clean themselves appropriately. This is a world-problem. Menstruation is not only taboo; it is liability.
Let’s discuss menstrual taboo. It is still very much with us today, even if it is better than it used to be. A lot of people don’t realize that the reason women have been relegated to second-class citizen status, why they aren’t allowed to be religious leaders in certain religions or perform many jobs that men can perform, is because they menstruate, and menstruation has, for millennia, been considered “unclean.” Women were not allowed to be priests because they were not allowed in the holy sanctum of their religious places when they were “unclean.” Women weren’t allowed in a lot of places when they menstruated, and sometimes for days afterward, until they were considered “clean” again. This menstrual taboo has continued generation after generation, even after humankind has developed reliable and sanitary feminine hygiene products, even after people and churches have forgotten the actual reason why women weren’t allowed as religious leaders, or government leaders, or leaders of other kinds.
Attending to one’s period is and has always been a logistical, time-consuming, and expensive problem. I imagine that one of the biggest reasons why women weren’t allowed in combat or in lengthy foxhole-style military deployment until relatively recently was because of periods. This is not to say that it should be a reason why women aren’t allowed in combat, just that it needs to be taken into account. Consider any job that women can be good at, but shy away from because they are women, and, believe it or not, feminine hygiene is a barrier to that job. Consider the surgeon who has to stand for hours, sometimes eight to twelve hours or more, without a bathroom break, while concentrating on saving a life. Consider a female astronaut menstruating in space. I can guarantee that our female soldiers, surgeons, and astronauts have figured it all out and come up with reasonable solutions, despite the not-so-great efforts of the US Military, the AMA, and NASA. The important takeaway is that women actually can do anything, but it’s a whole lot easier for them to it when they have easy period solutions.
But consider just how much these period solutions cost and how many products a woman needs to buy in her lifetime. Ask any foodbank and they will tell you that they have a constant, urgent need for feminine hygiene products, but a lot of the time they are afraid to ask for them, because it embarrasses people. A lot of these agencies get plenty of food donations, even, occasionally, baby product donations, but rarely feminine hygiene donations. Schools need them, too: elementary, middle, high schools, even community colleges. Next time you are shopping for your own products or products for the women in your life, consider picking up a package to donate to your local charity; they will thank you. Consider donating to organizations like The Pad Project or Helping Women Period. Make feminine hygiene products available in girls’ restrooms. Take away the stigma, the taboo, of menstruation, since literally half of the population of the world menstruates. Make period products easily available. Support progressive legislation that advocates eliminating the tampon tax, which counts feminine hygiene products as “luxury items.” And, at the very least, let girls go to the bathroom when they say they need to go to the bathroom. If we can normalize periods and make them easier on our girls and women all over the world, we will all achieve so much more.
Helping Women Period. https://www.helpingwomenperiod.org/
MacNamara, Brittney. “Ohio Girl Scouts Fought to Put a Tampon Locker in Their School Bathroom.” Teen Vogue. March 8, 2019. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/ohio-girl-scouts-fought-to-put-a-tampon-locker-in-their-school-bathroom
Marfice, Christina. “This Ridiculous School Bathroom Policy Has Girls Bleeding Through Their Pants.” Scary Mommy. May 2, 2018. https://www.scarymommy.com/charter-school-bathroom-policy-girls-bleeding-pants/
The Pad Project. https://www.thepadproject.org/
Polka, Erin. “The Monthly Shaming of Women in State Prisons.” Public Health Post. September 4, 2018. https://www.publichealthpost.org/news/sanitary-products-women-state-prisons/
Roy, Nayantara. “’Period. End of Sentence’: Transforming a Taboo into a Cause.” February 16, 2019. https://www.documentary.org/online-feature/period-end-sentence-transforming-taboo-cause
Rebecca Lane Beittel is a mom. Wife. Reader. Writer. Barn Escaper. Progressive Thinker. Not a supporter of the patriarchy.