“If men could menstruate,” Gloria Steinem observed wryly in an iconic 1978 essay for Ms. magazine, “[s]anitary supplies would be federally funded and free.” Surely, too, tampons and pads would be stocked in every public bathroom just like toilet paper.
Instead here we are, almost 40 years and a powerful women’s movement later, and women and girls still have to pack their supplies into pockets and purses, and figure out how to have them handy at that time of the month. For decades public restrooms have housed the occasional vending machine, but at this point they seem to be generally regarded as a failed experiment. They are usually broken. If a machine takes your quarter, it usually turns out to be empty. If by some miracle a product comes out, it’s a stale, inch-thick relic from the 1970s. If you unexpectedly get your period away from home, good luck.
This year, an eighth grader in my small suburban town decided to do something about this perennial problem. For her Girl Scout Silver Award project, Serena DiDio put free menstrual supplies in all of the middle school girls’ bathrooms for the month of May. Serena conceived of her effort as a demonstration project: her hope is that the middle school will commit to stocking pads and tampons in the girls’ bathrooms on an ongoing basis, once she has illustrated how it can be done.
Earlier this year, Serena approached the school principal to pitch her idea. She came prepared with a budget, a fundraising plan, a stocking plan, and an explanation of how her proposed innovation would enhance girls’ education. She also came ready to defend her plan against possible objections that the supplies were unnecessary, or would be wasted or stolen. She explained to me, though, that her female principal understood the benefit of the plan immediately, and was enthusiastic about collaborating with Serena on it. She also asked Serena to collect data on actual usage and cost, so that she could include it in her proposed budget for next year. As Serena found, women’s needs are more likely to be recognized and addressed when women hold positions of authority.
When I asked Serena how she came up with the idea, she explained that as a lifelong feminist, she wanted to do a Silver Award project that would benefit the girls in her community. It occurred to her that she could do something to ease a major middle school life transition. As she explained, “In sixth grade, you’re adjusting to a new school and to getting a period. It’s horrible!” Our town’s middle school has a ridiculously complex rotating schedule of classes, with three minutes of passing time in the overcrowded hallways between class periods and a rushed lunch squeezed in the middle. There’s no time to deal properly with a period.
Teachers are understanding, but it’s still a problem. “I don’t want to go all the way back to my locker, try to hide a pad discreetly in my pocket, and go to the girls’ room. You lose 10 minutes of class time.” While this is not the magnitude of period problems faced by girls in many parts of the world (where a lack of menstrual supplies means that girls miss school for several days each month and fall irremediably behind their male peers), it’s clearly not ideal. No one should have to miss part of algebra because she has her period.
When I interviewed women for my book, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America, I heard stories like Serena’s from women across the country, and across the generations. Ida Smithson1 went to a segregated school in the rural South in the 1920s, and she explained why she never considered trying to change her cloth menstrual pad during the school day. “Look, we didn’t have book bags then. We carried our books in our arms. And no specific place to put your books or anything; you put them under your desk.” She laughed thinking about how she could possibly have carried a new cloth pad. “The only way you could carry one was to carry it in your lunch bag!” She joked, “Unless you carried it in your bosom, now… If you had large bosoms, you could hide it up there!”2
Rachel Cohen, growing up in Denver in the 1930s, remembered her dread at having her period at school because “it was considered to be very disgusting, and you were ashamed of having all that blood run out of you and having those smelly napkins and to dispose of them. I mean, if you were in school, you obviously had to carry a spare one with you… so you had to kind of hide it in your notebook or whatever it was, and carry it around with you.”3
I got my first period in the 1980s, and I remember my mother taking me shopping for a pocketbook so I would have a way to carry supplies. It was an era of teased hair and dramatic make-up: I didn’t mind carrying a purse since I was happy to have a place to stash my hairbrush and blue eyeshadow for trips to the girls’ room. Serena told me that these days, though, middle school girls don’t carry purses. Even having a purse has never been a guarantee of smooth sailing. Margaret Olsen vividly recalled an experience from the 1960s. “I can remember in junior high, one day on the playground, one of the boys grabbed one of my friends’ pocketbooks. And the boys were running with the bag, and she was hysterical because she had a pad in there… I don’t remember what the outcome was; I just remember that moment. That being such a big thing, especially at that horrible age, at junior high.”4
Serena’s plan to keep communal supplies in the girls’ bathroom clearly addressed a long-unmet need. She was delighted to find that not only close friends, but acquaintances came up to her in the hallways to thank her for her innovation and suggest improvements. She added tampons to the mix at the suggestion of some peers who preferred them to pads. Her project sparked conversations about issues that girls too often face in isolation. Previously, she told me, “I never had that community sense with other girls around menstruation,” but her project got girls talking about changes they could make to benefit all the girls in their school.
I am looking forward to seeing how Serena’s project is implemented at the middle school. To me, Serena’s project is not only about menstrual pads and keeping up in algebra. She and her peers will graduate from the middle school with a little stronger sense that girls’ needs should be routinely acknowledged and respected in public spaces. Serena, and other activists like her working to #freethetampons, are making seemingly small changes that I believe will make a big difference in how girls and women are able to function in the world.
UPDATE: Serena’s principal is pleased to confirm that Serena’s project will be implemented on a permanent basis at the middle school, with funding and management provided by the school.
- All interviewee names from The Modern Period are pseudonyms. Return to text.
- Lara Freidenfelds, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 31. Return to text.
- Modern Period, 148-49. Return to text.
- Modern Period, 149. Return to text.