Brookline considers offering free hygiene products in public buildings
A proposal to offer free feminine hygiene products in public bathrooms at Brookline’s Town Hall, libraries, and recreational facilities will be decided by Town Meeting in May.
“This is a basic human right,” said Rebecca Stone, a former Brookline School Committee chairwoman who proposed the town’s warrant article.
And in the state Legislature, a pair of bills in the Senate and House would make tampons and sanitary pads available in public schools that serve students in grades 6 to 12, homeless shelters, and prisons across the state.
The separate measures are intended to make the supplies as freely available as toilet paper in public bathrooms. They are also meant to help break down the stigma surrounding menstruation, proponents said.
The Brookline and statewide proposals would require feminine hygiene products to be provided in restrooms for women and men, as well as unisex bathrooms. Because gender identity is fluid, not everyone who uses them identifies as a woman, proponents said.
“We want menstrual products to be not only in women’s bathrooms, but in all bathrooms for people who menstruate,” said Sasha Goodfriend, the president of Mass NOW, the state chapter of the National Organization for Women, which proposed the state bills.
Brookline’s measure would make the town one of the first communities in the state to require the suppliesin municipally owned public bathrooms.Brookline Town Meeting begins at 7 p.m. May 21 at the Brookline High School auditorium.
The proposal does not apply to bathrooms in the town’s public schools. The Brookline School Committee’s policy subcommittee has discussed Stone’s proposal and is looking into what to do, Superintendent Andrew Bott said.
Stone said that if public bathrooms provide the supplies, people wouldn’t have to worry or feel shame if they experience their period unexpectedly.
If approved, the proposal’s message would be: “We are respectful of the public health and public hygiene needs of the entire population,” Stone said.
The state Senate and House bills have been referred to the Legislature’s Committee on Public Health. Those bills “aim to break down the taboo around the everyday needs of people who menstruate,” Goodfriend said.
State Senator Patricia D. Jehlen, a Democrat from Somerville, said people should not lack access to these essential supplies because of an inability to pay for them.
“For some people, it’s a matter of inconvenience and embarrassment, and for others, it’s a matter of economic difficulty,” Jehlen said.
The local proposals come after other states have passed similar measures, including New York, which offers feminine hygiene products in prisons and schools, and Illinois, which provides them to students in schools.
Last year, Scotland became the first country to provide themfor free in schools and institutions of higher education.
Jehlen said changing attitudes — including the #MeToo movement and efforts by women to push back against body-shaming — have contributed to addressing menstruation publicly.
“People have been very reluctant to talk about menstruation ... I think there is a new movement of people being able to talk about their own bodies,” Jehlen said.
Young people also have helped drive interest in the local proposals.
Stone said she was inspired to create the warrant article after a Brookline High School student wrote about the issue in a school newspaper.
Jehlen said she first learned of efforts to provide feminine hygiene products in public bathrooms from high school students who set up such programs in Cambridge, Somerville, and Medford.
At Medford High School, seniors Willa Driscoll, 17, and Maya Gomez-Coultas, 18, launched a program in 2017 called “Free the Pad,” which distributes supplies to students inside girls’ bathrooms in the school.
Since the program started, fellow students have told them that having easy access to the productshas helped relieve stress during the school day, Driscoll said.
“I think it is important to do this type of work because it sheds light on an experience over half the population of the world [has], but is somehow talked about so little,” Driscoll said.
Gomez-Coultas praised the proposals in Brookline and the state Legislature as having the “potential to make a difference in the everyday life of many people.”
In Brookline, Stone anticipates there will be some debate over her proposal at Town Meeting in May. But she views that as an opportunity for a “teaching moment,” she said.
“I imagine there will be [some] people, not just one or two, who will say, ‘Is it really that big a deal?’” Stone said. “And the answer to that is, ‘Yes.’”