If Jennifer Weiss-Wolf were a superhero, her alter ego would probably be Period Warrior: a brave champion for all who menstruate, who never leaves home without extra tampons for anyone in need, and whose secret power is the ability to push forward a legislative agenda that ensures menstrual equity and justice for all. Actually, minus the moniker, that’s all pretty much true... So maybe Weiss-Wolf (who hyphenated her last name because that’s how much she loves Wonder Woman) is as much a superhero as reality will permit.
Her origin story dates back to New Year’s Day of 2015 when, after dashing into the freezing cold ocean with her girlfriends for their annual Polar Bear Club outing, she returned home and started scrolling through Facebook. Something caught her eye: a story about women’s inability to access basic sanitary supplies. Intrigued, she started Googling. What she found was a dearth of information.
“I’d find a shelter in Ohio that included tampons or pads on its wish list of items to be donated, or an occasional blog post,” Weiss-Wolf said during a recent interview with Refinery29. “But there was nothing really defining the problem of menstrual inequity, or asserting that it was a problem in the first place.” So she decided to take up the cause herself. Nearly three years, dozens of op-eds, and countless hours spent on legislative reform later, she has literally written the book on menstrual equity, titled Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity.
What does that actually mean? For starters, it means exempting tampons and pads from sales tax in the same way we do toilet paper. It means providing students, incarcerated women, and shelter residents with menstrual products because they fit the definition of basic necessities. It means creating policy that recognizes that more than half of Americans menstruate, a fact that deserves legislative consideration. We spoke to the superhero herself about the rise of menstrual activism, the ground that’s been gained — and, perhaps most importantly, where we go from here.
First up: Can you give me a very basic working definition for what menstrual equity means?
“In order to have a fully equitable society, we need to have laws and policies that take into account the fact that half the population menstruates. We have loads of government subsidized stuff which we just don’t think about because these things have been normalized as part of our culture. For example: We have multiple regulations that require the public bathrooms to be equipped with toilet paper. For the same health reasons, menstrual products should be tax exempt; affordable and available for all; safe for our bodies and for the planet. Some people who have taken on the issue of menstrual access have done so through the frame of human rights; others have done so through public health. But equity is a different angle: It’s about the ability to participate, about civic engagement and democratic principles."
So why start with the tampon tax of all things?
“The tampon tax — challenging the government to exempt menstrual products from sales tax — was always in my head. Lots of conservatives were quick to point out there is no special tax on tampons. It’s kind of the reverse of a tax, actually: State governments can choose products to exempt by defining them as a necessity, and most have chosen not to include menstrual products on that list. This fight was happening in other countries: in Canada, in Great Britain, in India, in Africa — including in Kenya, who did away with tax on menstrual products more than a decade ago. That’s why the tampon tax seemed like a good place to start: It would be easiest for people to wrap their heads around."
Why has it been complicated to get America to exempt sanitary supplies from taxation?
“What's interesting about the fight here in the United States is that we don’t have a national sales tax. Our sales tax is determined state by state. Back in October 2015, we had 40 states that were not exempting menstrual products from sales tax; five that had already done away with it, for particular political reasons; and five that just didn’t have sales tax at all. My thinking was that creating a national petition — rather than 40 different state petitions — was the best way to take the tampon tax fight on. In terms of how it’s gone in a nutshell: Over the last two legislative sessions, in 2016 and 2017, 24 states have introduced legislation or otherwise debated the issue on their legislative floor; four have successfully done away with the tax. Others have come close, so the fight will continue."
"I think, also, when it comes to menstruation, there is this notion that people on the other side of the world need progressive policy more than we do in the United States, almost like 'they banish girls to sheds during their periods and we would never do that so we're ahead of the curve.' That’s part of our problem; another is the intersection of poverty and misogyny. Another critique I’ve gotten is: Can’t anything stay behind closed doors? But to bring it back to the idea of equity: Our national narrative is one of justice for all. Putting menstruation, and the marginalization of it, into that context demonstrates a barrier to our ability to actually fulfill those ideals.”
What progress has been made on the state and local level?
“As the tampon tax stuff was happening, I thought the next move would be to talking about access and addressing the needs of vulnerable people through government agencies — low income students, people who rely on shelters, people who are incarcerated. I started working with legislators here in New York City, and they took it up through the NYC Council. Not surprisingly, it took a little more time for people to warm up up to the idea of access to ‘free’ products for poor people. But people showed a lot of empathy, too. Public support ended up growing pretty quickly. New York City introduced these access laws in early 2016, passed them in the summer, and then the mayor signed them into law for the city’s correctional facilities, shelters, and public schools.
“Illinois just recently just passed new laws that require menstrual products at all of the state’s public and charter schools; the county of Los Angeles did the same for juvenile detention centers; the state of Colorado did so for state prisons. And then, of course, the federal Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act; as well as another federal bill in the House called the Menstrual Equity for All Act, which has a lot of gold star aspects to it. It takes it to the next level, which I would call menstrual affordability, because it addresses things like a tax credit for low income people for the purchase of these products; it also asks for a Department of Labor standard so that workplaces are required to supply these products, which would be especially meaningful for low income workers.”
How do you keep the conversation about menstrual equity from becoming politically polarized?
“Menstruation is so fascinating because it has everything to do with reproductive rights and yet nothing to do with it at the same time. There are parts of women’s bodies and lives that continue to be extraordinarily divisive — whether it’s abortion or contraception or sex ed. I make no bones about where I stand on reproductive rights. That said, I’ve had lots of offers from reproductive rights organizations to join the advocacy, and I’m wary of bringing in the pro-choice perspective too soon. I want to let the pot simmer a little bit, and to let legislators who have never thought positively about women’s reproductive functioning to have a chance to hear from their constituents and consider. If we could neutralize menstruation my hope is that could bring us toward more common ground between the two polarized sides."
Do you think bringing both sides together on anything related to women’s health is actually possible?
“This is one of the very few places in our entire political system where there is not only huge popular support but complete bipartisan interest. In the beginning August, the Bureau of Prisons issued a rule mandating menstrual products for federal inmates. What’s notable about that is that it was Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department that did that. This is one place where we can forge an affirmative agenda for women."
So how does our society actually put the ideals of menstrual equity into practice?
“It’s a combination of legislative agenda and legal levers, as well as research that can underscore the policy agenda, coupled with cultural dialog. The media has been a major partner in that last part, largely driven by women. In terms of creating a legislative agenda, my goal has been to advance the notion of the ‘economics of menstruation’ as an umbrella that a lot of ideas could live under."