NYC Joins ‘Free the Tampon,’ Handing Them Out in Schools, Jails

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Energizer Holdings Inc. Playtex brand tampons sit on display in a supermarket in Princeton, Illinois, on April 30, 2014.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
  • The law would affect about 323,000 in schools and shelters
  • The stigma causes some girls to skip school, students say

On the 200-year-old steps of New York’s august, columned City Hall, lawmakers gathered a crowd and shouted "Tampons!" "Panty liners!" "Periods!" in a cheer for demystifying menstruation. 

The rally, organized by City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, came moments before a unanimous vote last week to provide unfettered access to tampons and sanitary pads in schools, foster homes, jails and homeless shelters. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who ran for office with a vow to make the city more affordable, said he intends to sign the bills soon. New York has become the first U.S. city to enlist in the fast-growing worldwide movement to “free the tampon.”

In Britain, resentment over the European Union’s sales tax on tampons fueled arguments for exiting, even after the EU allowed members to repeal it in March. In the U.S., backers intend to replicate the policy nationwide. Washington city council members are considering giving tampons and pads to women who are homeless or in shelters or jail. Bills lifting sales taxes on them await governors’ signatures in New York, Connecticut and Illinois, a goal President Barack Obama backed earlier this year. 

Political advisers discouraged Ferreras-Copeland from taking on the issue, warning she’d forever be known as the “tampon lawmaker.” She pursued it anyway. 

“You can’t solve a problem that nobody wants to talk about,” Ferreras-Copeland said. “If we had to ask men to pay 25 cents for every square of toilet paper, or if they went to the bathroom and found no toilet paper, there would be an uprising.”

The New York law would serve 300,000 schoolgirls and another 23,000 women in homeless shelters. Dispensers will offer free tampons or pads in bathrooms. Its cost would range from $2.5 million to at least $3.8 million a year, depending on whether one accepts the council’s low prediction or the United Federation of Teachers’ higher estimate.

Empowering Girls

The focus on girls comes as the average age of menarche, the beginning of menstruation, has dropped in the U.S. to less than 13, from 16 or 17 at the turn of the 20th century, according to a National Health and Nutrition Survey published in 2012.

Students who can’t afford a female-hygiene product, or are at school and suddenly need one, often skip class rather than risk the embarrassment of blood-stained clothes. In most schools, menstruation is treated as if it were an illness, forcing students to miss class and go to the nurse’s office for a hygiene product. Girls told Ferreras-Copeland they would wear the same pad or tampon for hours longer than recommended.

Lineyah Mitchell, who this month graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School, testified at a council hearing last month about the embarrassment.

“I wish it were easier to access products at my school where I could just go to the bathroom and there would be pads there, rather than having to go to the nurse and then bathroom while somehow avoiding being late to class and being penalized,” she said. 

In a pilot program, the city Education Department found that attendance increased at the High School for Arts and Business in Queens, to 92.4 percent from 90 percent, after dispensers were installed. 

The issue has come a long way since feminist author Gloria Steinem raised it in 1978 with a satiric article in Ms., the magazine she founded, in which she imagined males experiencing “men-struation” in a world without taboo or shame.

“Men would brag about how long and how much,” she wrote. 

Yet attitudes didn’t change for decades -- until the past year, when the subject captured the attention of politicians. President Obama took on the issue in January, saying he had “no idea” why some states taxed tampons as luxury items.

“I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed,” he told Ingrid Nilsen, a YouTube channel celebrity and “Project Runway” judge.

‘Menstrual Equity’

“It’s a watershed moment for the U.S., this idea of menstrual equity, and it’s being driven by a lot of smart people recognizing the problem working to remove the stigmas attached it it,” said Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, vice president for development at the Brennan Center for Justice, a constitutional-rights advocacy institute at New York University School of Law.

The Maplewood, New Jersey, resident first learned about the issue a year ago from a neighbor who posted a Facebook notice promoting a fundraising campaign to donate tampons to a food pantry. She began to read and think about it, and now devotes about 15 hours a week to writing and advocacy.

“Orange is The New Black,” the Netflix prison drama, opened its fourth season this month with a scene depicting inmates waiting in a line for menstrual products to be distributed, only to be turned away by an officer who announces that the institution has run out of such “inessentials.” He suggests they buy them at the commissary for $10 a box; not much help when the prisoners’ labor pays 10 cents an hour.

The deconstruction of the menstruation taboo proceeded apace last August with the outrage that followed when Donald Trump, now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, reacted to aggressive questioning from Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly saying, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, coming out of her, wherever." Trump later denied that he had meant to suggest that Kelly’s alleged hostility was due to menstruation.

In April 2015, Kiran Gandhi, a 27-year-old Harvard MBA grad and former drummer for rapper M.I.A., became a movement heroine when she ran the London marathon without menstrual protection after her period started. She finished the race in four hours, 49 minutes, with blood visible on her tights.

Since then she’s become an advocate for the cause. Her experience led to an invitation to the White House where two weeks ago she met the president and Michelle Obama, who praised her as a “change-maker.”

“A pad would have given me severe chafing, and with a tampon I’d have to carry more than one, and there’s very little privacy, so I decided to just run bleeding freely rather than deal with any of those less-than-perfect options,” Gandhi said.

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