For young activists, a new cause: period parity

Sarah Groustra, a 2018 Brookline High school graduate, wrote a student newspaper column that inspired members of her community to begin offering free menstrual products in public bathrooms. Erin Clark for The Boston Globe

Uncomfortable talking about The Curse? Shark Week? Surfing the Crimson Wave?

Get ready to hear a lot more about it.

In this time of ferocious female discontent, women are increasingly demanding a conversation about their periods and a reconsideration of public policies surrounding the cost and distribution of menstrual products.

Brookline Town Meeting members decided last month to start providing free menstrual products in public bathrooms by 2021 — a move they believe makes their municipality the first in the nation to do so.

Boston city councilors recently proposed providing pads and tampons in city schools to encourage students, most of whom are low-income, to come to school even if they’re ill-equipped. Cambridge schools were the first in the area to do so, followed by Somerville, and now Massachusetts lawmakers are considering a bill requiring menstrual products in all public schools, as well as in shelters and prisons.

And the MIT Media Lab is setting out to reimagine the tired old monthly enterprise with a “period hackathon” aimed at brainstorming innovative period products and policies.

A national advocacy group this week even launched a coordinated campaign with influencers including Serena Williams and Karlie Kloss to challenge the sales tax on menstrual products imposed by 35 states (not Massachusetts) as not only annoying but inequitable and illegal.

“This is really big. It isn’t just about menstrual products,” said Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, an attorney and author of the book “Periods Gone Public,” who suggests the lapses say something much larger about societal regard for half the population.

“Is this a sign of what is wrong with the system: That our bodies and our needs aren’t accurately reflected in the laws and policies under which we live?” she asked. “What does it say about how we consider women as citizens of this country?”

The idea of “menstrual equity” is finding traction in the #MeToo era as women demand that issues long dismissed as individual female complaints be heard, acknowledged, and reconsidered by society at large.

“I’ve never met a woman of any age who didn’t absorb the lesson directly or indirectly that this was her problem to solve, and also something that had to be hidden from others,” said Rebecca Stone, the Brookline Town Meeting member who championed the effort. “That you should be embarrassed if someone knows you’re bleeding.”

Dismantling time-worn social conventions will be a challenge, of course. Enter the MIT Media Lab, which aims to disrupt the whole notion of the period by throwing a new generation of innovators and agitators at it. In January, the Media Lab plans a weekend-long “period hackathon” called “There Will Be Blood.”

The hackathon is the brainchild of two female researchers who previously staged a similar event to reimagine the breast pump. (One of them, Catherine D’Ignazio, is a mother of three who was tired of pumping on a bathroom floor.) They’re seeking diverse applicants who can offer new perspectives, noted Alexis Hope, an MIT Media Lab research assistant.

“That’s one thing we really care about — ripping open the walls of MIT a little bit, to allow more people to participate in the process of innovation,” Hope said.

Menstruators are not all female, mind you, since they include transgender men. But all menstruators will point out that their predicament is not a surprising or original one. It’s a predictable and nearly universal occurrence for roughly half the population for nearly half their lives. Why, then, is it not anticipated by public bathrooms and public policies?

“Everything else we do for human body function for public health and hygiene reasons — we provide those products for free,” said Stone, pointing to toilet paper, soap, toilet seat covers, paper towels, and even urinal cakes. Not so, pads or tampons.

For some, it’s a radical shift of perspective.

“Why can’t they just bring their own? Do we have to do everything?” a male constituent at a senior center groused to state Representative Jeffrey Roy, a Franklin Democrat.

“I turned to him and said, ‘Bill, do you have toilet paper and hand towels in your pocket right now?’ ” Roy recounted.

Roy, one of several male politicians in Massachusetts sponsoring period parity bills, argues that menstrual products shouldn’t be treated any differently. “It’s an idea whose time has come,” he said.

“This is the first time I think in Massachusetts that we’re really seeing more momentum around the conversation around menstrual equity,” said Sasha Goodfriend, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization for Women, which is pushing a bill on Beacon Hill.

The period parity logic challenges age-old assumptions about whose necessities are really necessary — and the howl-worthy implication of many states’ sales tax codes that tampons are not necessities but “luxury” items. (Though the “tampon tax” makes for lovely alliteration, there is no tax specific to menstrual products; it merely means that menstrual products aren’t exempt from sales tax as necessities, like food.)

Lawmakers already have done away with the tampon tax in Illinois, New York, Florida, and Connecticut and the cities of Chicago and Washington, D.C. In November, Nevada voters statewide supported a ballot measure to end it.

When Weiss-Wolf’s book was published in October 2017, the #MeToo movement was taking off, and her issue seemed “so small compared to that tidal wave of activity and anger,” she said in an interview. But she watched the movements run along parallel paths.

“What we learned in #MeToo is that this is what a fully dystopian society looks like when our needs and our stories go fully unacknowledged by the powers that be,” Weiss-Wolf said.

With fellow attorney Laura Strausfeld, Weiss-Wolf successfully challenged the tampon tax in New York state — exempting menstrual products from the state’s 4 percent sales tax — and created a nonprofit advocacy organization called Period Equity.

Now, they’re partnering with the MIT Media Lab on the hackathon, in the hopes of laying the groundwork for a coordinated campaign to repeal the tampon tax, now levied in 35 states.

Though a sales tax is a relatively a small price to pay each month, it’s one that non-menstruators (previously known as men) will never pay, creating a point of contention for feminists keenly attuned to gender inequities right now. Menstrual products also can’t be purchased with food stamps, and low-income students who can’t afford them sometimes skip school rather than risk embarrassment, advocates say.

“Girls shouldn’t be worrying about their periods. They should be worrying about their educational experience,” Caroline Williams, an 18-year-old recent Medway High School graduate, testified at the State House last week.

Williams, who wrote about the topic for a persuasive writing assignment, spoke with her state legislator, Roy, after he visited her school for a civics presentation. When he asked her to collaborate on a bill, she emphasized two priorities: that students shouldn’t be charged for such products and that acquiring them shouldn’t require a diversion to a nurse’s office.

“A period isn’t an illness. It doesn’t mean you’re sick. It means you’re healthy,” Williams said.

The push for period products in Cambridge and Somerville schools also came from students. And Brookline’s effort was inspired by a young woman, 2018 graduate Sarah Groustra, who wrote a high school newspaper column denouncing period stigma.

Stone, the Brookline Town Meeting member who took up the cause, said she was “blown away that I’d never thought about it. Here I was, not only somebody who had experienced a period and borne two children and worked with reproductive rights, and I never thought about it as a rights issue, never thought about it as an equity issue, never thought about the fact that the taboo is part of reinforcing women’s second-class status.”

Now a student at Kenyon College, Groustra said it was “incredibly gratifying” to hear Stone crediting her for the inspiration and to watch her idea come to fruition in her hometown.

“I really do believe the best way to end a stigma is just to talk about it even in the smallest ways,” Groustra said. “And I was happy to put myself out there, to work on combating that.”

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.

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