Local activists take the fight for menstrual equity to the masses.
These are fraught times if the word “menstruation” causes you to cringe. Previously a private matter, menstruation products are having a very public moment, transcending the deeply ingrained reluctance of many to utter the word or, God forbid, openly discuss what is a perfectly natural process for millions of women every month.
The word has been used repeatedly in the Ohio House of Representatives as a bipartisan group of more than 20 legislators tries to pass House Bill 61, which would eliminate sales tax on “period products,” as supporters call them, placing them among other exempt items. Menstruation was also in the spotlight at the 2019 Academy Awards, where Kenyon College sophomore Ruby Schiff took home the short documentary Oscar for “Period. End of Sentence,” which she co-produced in high school in LA. The film features girls in Kathikera, India, who drop out of school because they have little access to sanitary pads.
Closer to home, Ohio State University sophomore Anusha Singh has started an OSU chapter of Period, a national nonprofit that provides free period products to those in need and tries to eliminate taboos around menstruation. Singh’s 180-member group has launched a drive to have free period supplies in the 200 academic buildings on campus by the end of May. Seventy buildings had them when Period started; now 150 do, Singh says. Residence halls are next on the agenda.
“We see this as a gender-equality issue,” says Singh. “It happens all the time: You get your period, and you don’t expect it, and you don’t have supplies. That should not be a concern on any young menstruator’s mind.” (I ask Singh if menstruator is a word. “It is now,” she replies.)
Columbus Councilmember Elizabeth Brown is pushing for free period products at all city recreation centers after starting a pilot project two years ago. “You shouldn’t have to use some makeshift solution or hunt down someone in a rec center who then has to hunt down a tampon in some closet somewhere,” Brown says.
The menstrual equity movement, building for years, has gained traction recently. Singh says young people are realizing they have a voice on the issue: “We’re sharing the success we’re having, and it’s having a ripple effect.” Brown credits a handful of outspoken advocates, including local marketing guru Nancy Kramer. “She gave me this ‘aha’ moment, when it dawned on me that we’re all backwards for not treating period products like toilet paper from the beginning of time,” Brown says.
Kramer has been thinking about free menstruation products since the early 1980s, when she saw them in bathrooms at Apple, her first client. But her big push began with her Free the Tampons Foundation, launched after her 2013 TEDxColumbus talk on the subject. Her goal: to change the socially accepted norm that women are responsible for carrying period products at all times.
“It’s a significant injustice in the long list of injustices women experience in their daily lives,” says Kramer. “Why should women bear the brunt of this? Without us taking care of it, there are no humans.”
The foundation encourages business owners, school administrators and others with public restrooms to allocate money for free products. IBM joined the movement March 1, announcing it will provide products at offices in the 170 countries where it operates. Kramer had a hand in that; she’s chief evangelist of IBM iX, the company’s digital marketing division.
At least one Columbus-based business has sprouted from the movement. After getting her period at an event in 2015 and finding no available supplies, OSU freshman Claire Coder dropped out of school and started Aunt Flow. The company sells organic menstrual products to more than 250 businesses and schools, including Ohio and Kent State universities, which provide free products in their bathrooms at a cost to the colleges of about $5 to $7 per year for each female student, says Aunt Flow current events manager Danielle Ferguson.
“We’re all about erasing the stigma of having a period,” she says. “Having a period is just as normal as going to the bathroom.”
California, New York and Illinois require free period products in public school restrooms. Kramer wishes leaders in Ohio and Columbus would follow their example. She notes that after New York City began providing free period products in a few public schools, attendance rose by 2.4 percent.
“It’s frustrating,” she says. “I’ve talked to so many political people about this. We’re better than this. This is a small thing that has a big impact.”
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