Crimson tide, Aunt Flo, lady business, that time of the month, Carrie – the list goes on. The number of euphemisms used to avoid saying the word “period” in public is staggering. Stigma around periods is as old as humanity. It can take many forms including simple discomfort in discussing the topic to excluding people who are menstruating from society. The stigma allows practices like taxing period products as luxuries or not providing period products in public bathrooms to stand without question. Stigma stifles intelligent discussion of hygiene and dignity. There really is no argument for not making period products publicly available as we do toilet paper and paper towels. But discomfort with the discussion prevents progress both in legislatures and with education of the general public.
Ever so slowly, discussion of menstruation is becoming more acceptable and nowhere is that more obvious than in the advertising space. From the brash and funny ad for Flex to the visceral Always “What the Gush?” moment to the artistic Thinx period underwear subway ads, we see more open discussion of period products. By making period advertising that grabs people’s attention and actually explains what is happening, these companies are helping to normalize talking about periods. And that is, of course, a good thing. But does it lead to more access to products?
A Global Issue
Period poverty is an international phenomenon drawing attention in legislatures globally over the past decade. The term refers to the fact that many people are not able to regularly afford period products like pads and tampons. As a result, they miss many days of school or work, and suffer huge hits to their dignity. Over the past decade, Namibia, Kenya, Canada, Australia, and India passed laws dropping taxes on period products. New Zealand is providing free period products in schools. And in Scotland, they are providing period products free of charge to anyone needing them.
In India, an organization called Boondh, addresses this issue with their #StopPeriodPenalty campaign. Like their American counterparts, they use both legal and socio-cultural arguments. They are working toward changing attitudes toward menstruation by creating a repository of stories of menstrual exclusion, analyzing the stories through a legal lens to identify patterns of exclusion, raising awareness with government stakeholders, and developing a toolkit of rights so that people know their legal rights when presented with exclusionary practices. Boondh also has a donation program that provides menstrual cups and pads to those who cannot afford them.
Period equity advocates are attempting a two-pronged approach by bringing period discussions into public discourse and presenting menstrual equity legislation. In her book, Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity, author Jennifer Weiss-Wolf highlights the ways that discussions of menstruation have increased since 2015. Women, especially celebrities, are more open to discussing their periods in a matter of fact manner. From social media campaigns like #PeriodsWithoutShame, to free-bleeding marathon runner Kiran Gandhi, and long-form articles by women like Megan Markle, and PSAs from Daveed Diggs, supporters are bringing the topic to the media. But is that making a difference in legislatures?
Progress in the U.S.
Here in the United States, period products have historically been taxed as “luxury items” rather than necessities which are not taxed. While it is hard to understand how that happened in the first place, advocacy attorneys at Period Equity are working to move states to repeal those taxes. So far, twenty states have done so with legislation introduced across the country this year in the remaining states. With 20% of teens reporting that they cannot afford period products and miss school as a result, there is no time to lose.
Stigma Affects Legislative Moves
In talking with advocates who are pushing legislation in states around the country, some report that just getting people to talk about periods is difficult. According to Alisa Clements, West Virginia Director of Public Affairs for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, “When I first started lobbying on this issue, there was a lot of discomfort on both sides. Our contract lobbyist was very uncomfortable talking to male legislators about periods, although he had a daughter. The women legislators did not want to have to speak about their periods on the floor.” So if period stigma is so bad that we cannot even have discussions about the topic without creating discomfort, we understand that moving legislation will be an uphill battle. Here in my home state of North Carolina, a bill was introduced last week to address the tax issue.
It’s about more than taxes, it’s access
The repeal of the luxury tax is only one of the moves needed to tackle period poverty. If you are an American who cannot afford period products, you have to find access to a diaper bank or a food bank to obtain them, and that is only if they provide them. Our government safety net programs like Medicaid and food stamps do not allow period products to be purchased with those funds. Advocates are working toward full access to free period products in public schools, homeless shelters, prisons, and government buildings.
Representative Grace Meng (D-NY) introduced a federal menstrual equity omnibus bill each session since 2017 and will reintroduce it this session. It is called the Menstrual Equity for All Act (ME4ALL). The bill calls for:
- Allowing Medicaid to include menstrual product purchases
- Allocating emergency shelter funding to cover menstrual products for people who are displaced or homeless
- Requiring the Departement of Homeland Security to provide menstrual products
- Changing federal education law to include pad and tampon availability free of charge in school budgets
- Drawing on labor regulations to mandate free menstrual products in workplace restrooms
Additionally, ME4ALL requires all state prisons and local jails, in addition to federal prisons, to provide free menstrual products to incarcerated people. If they do not provide period products in all correction units, they would not receive their federal justice funding.
Menstrual Equity boils down to a simple idea. People who menstruate deserve the dignity of access to period products no matter the circumstance or location. Let’s make it happen by becoming advocates ourselves.