Menstruation has made the move from the margins to the middle of the conversation about women’s health over the past couple of years, due in large part to the proliferation of brands that use menstruation for marketing. For example, THINX attempted (and mostly succeeded) to address stigmas associated with reproductive health in their advertising and creative content. Alongside that work, however, there was a less flashy fight being waged that traded viral subway ads for effective legislation on the path to what is being called “menstrual equity.” One of the major pioneers at the helm of this policy work is writer and feminist advocate Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, with whom I had the pleasure of speaking this week.
Her relationship with menstrual activism began as many often do, with what she referred to as her “lightbulb moment” about the lack of access to menstrual products available to low-income people in the U.S. About this revelation, which came in early 2015, Weiss-Wolf said she “couldn’t believe it and couldn’t stop thinking about it,” and immediately began analyzing factors that affect the accessibility of these products. One of these factors was the issue of the tampon tax--an added sales tax that makes necessary products prohibitively expensive for women of certain socio-economic standing, and which is one of the more obvious examples of sexism--which she identified as a significant and very solvable problem. Quick to acknowledge that other states traditionally considered “less developed” than the U.S., specifically Kenya, have long since abolished their tampon taxes, Weiss-Wolf found it odd that no one seemed to be focusing on the tax here at home. In addition to her work in opposition to the tampon tax, Weiss-Wolf extended her focus to menstrual advocacy enterprises around the world, with special attention paid to India, Kenya, and Nepal (where she is visiting soon), interested in learning from those who have been engaged in this work for much longer than she had.
As her work progressed, Weiss-Wolf explained her frustrations with what she observed as a sole emphasis on “ad hoc participation” in menstrual advocacy, such as donation drives, that may offer temporary solutions to lack of access to menstrual products, but fail to address any root causes responsible for menstrual inequity. She recognized that there was a severe lack of clear direction in the policy realm, and decided that her focus would henceforth be committed to creating a policy agenda for the menstruation movement. To Weiss-Wolf, the menstrual crisis is a “democratic issue of civic engagement.” She argued that “people can’t meaningfully contribute to society if they don’t have access to resources,” adding that her interest in the policy side of the work stems from a belief in policy as both the best reflection of people’s beliefs, and the most effective and efficient way to change a culture. According to Weiss-Wolf, sweeping, quality social change is most often born at the intersection of public policy advocacy, legal strategy, public education, and public messaging--not necessarily any one avenue on its own.
In light of the recent controversy surrounding certain companies, Weiss-Wolf shared her belief that major shortcomings of “feminist” brands (other than the question of whether or not they can actually exist) include a lack of cohesion between brands and policy makers, and that they often take too much credit for the work being done on a more grassroots level. Devotion to the bottom line often limits a brand’s impact to just that of increasing visibility for and maybe providing cursory education about an issue, instead of putting work toward concrete legislative progress, which is generally not a reasonable priority for a company trying to make a profit. With this knowledge, Weiss-Wolf believes that collaboration between companies, advocacy groups, and policy pushers is necessary to see the most effective changes taking place in any sphere of influence, including menstrual advocacy. Making the connection between the swell of public support for menstrual equity and the less-sexy policy side of the work is her proudest accomplishment; she saw a gap that needed filling and stepped directly up to the plate, with a thoughtful policy agenda in tow.
Interestingly enough, doing this work has opened her eyes to the otherwise ignored political potential of the period. “The movement toward menstrual equity is a rare legislative opportunity to bridge the partisan divide,” Weiss-Wolf remarked, noting that her initial work against the tampon tax received feedback and support from such diverse actors as the American Medical Association, a variety of constitutional scholars, and even members of the Republican party. And speaking of the Republican party, I asked Jennifer how her policy work has shifted since the election in November, expecting devastating news of one kind or another. Her response, however, was surprisingly optimistic, given the circumstances. She explained to me that in October, right before the election, the policy agenda was in its heyday; 15 new states had introduced laws to end the tampon tax, and three of those states actually wound up successfully abolishing the tax. The pre-2017, pre-Trump period policy agenda looked rosy, with many activists, including Jennifer, envisioning 2017 as some kind of period utopia. Just imagine it: our competent and level-headed female president would wave her magic pen and make free menstrual products the law of the land. Unfortunately, as we all know, the reality of the situation is slightly different. Instead of our fair-haired and fair-headed warrior queen waving in progressive reproductive policy, we got an off-brand cheeto puff waving away (or at least threatening to) any semblance of progress in many different policy arenas.
In the depths of her political despair and mourning, and in the face of losing health care and reproductive care entirely, a real potential under this administration, Weiss-Wolf confessed that she worried that period policy was too small of an issue to take on. She was quick to mention, however, that both Trump and Pence have recently found themselves subject of separate debates about menstruation, making now a strategic time to address menstrual equity. While few affirmative wins are expected under this administration, she still believes that we find ourselves in a unique moment; one that has given us the chance to salvage some common ground as we all rally around periods. Unlike this month’s unfertilized eggs, all hope is not yet lost.
Jennifer’s new book, Periods Gone Public, will be released in November of this year, and will “explore menstruation in the current cultural and political landscape and to investigate the new wave of ‘period feminism’ taking the world by storm.” For more information about Jennifer, check out her website here.