Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, J.D., gave a talk on her book Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity, at Hodson Hall on Tuesday evening. Hopkins Feminists and the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance (DSAGA) co-hosted the event.
A public interest lawyer and vice president for development at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, Weiss-Wolf is also the co-founder of Period Equity, the only national law and policy organization that focuses exclusively on menstrual access, affordability and safety.
Weiss-Wolf said that her interest in the topic began in 2015. She saw that her Facebook news feed featured a post by a local parent, who said that her two teenage daughters were collecting pad and tampon donations for their community’s food pantry.
“I can’t quite explain why it hit me on such a visceral level, but it was a complete shock to me,” she said. “I never had really thought about that aspect of our life, about what it would mean to be someone who was challenged in affording these products, why it was the food pantry didn’t have them or readily provide them. It just triggered so many questions for me.”
After seeing the post, Weiss-Wolf spent the next several days researching unequal access to menstrual products and education.
“I just dropped everything,” she said. “I was sitting there just doing a repeat Google search to understand everything that I could or what the public was saying about this issue that I had never thought about before.”
She explained how lack of access to menstrual products and education negatively impacts girls and young women. For example, many students in poorer communities are unable to attend school while on their periods.
“Young women in particular were being shunned from their homes and societal participation due to menstruation,” she said.
Weiss-Wolf said she was surprised by the wealth of information she found online regarding menstrual access as a public health crisis.
“The level of discourse and active intervention was actually really remarkable,” Weiss-Wolf said. “ I was surprised that I didn’t know more about it. There was not really a shortage of information about it.”
She felt, however, that there was a lack of conversation about the subject in the U.S.
“I would find every so often a shelter or a food pantry would include menstrual products,” she said. “But there was really no discourse, certainly no storytelling on the part of people for whom this was a problem.”
Weiss-Wolf said that it was important to develop a systematic narrative around menstrual access in the U.S. so that people could come up with solutions. She believes that misogyny has stalled discourse on menstruation, noting that many people feel uncomfortable discussing reproductive systems and health.
She criticized people for voicing disgust regarding menstruation, saying that complaints are often inconsistent.
“They don’t even make sense when you put them together,” Weiss-Wolf said. “The gist of it was: You want your birth control for free, you want your babies for free, you want your abortions for free, now you want your tampons for free?”
In January 2015, Weiss-Wolf published a piece on improving menstrual access on the New York Times, via op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof. She said that the piece “marked the starting line” for greater advocacy around menstrual health.
“Other people started writing about it and talking about it and considering not just the ideas that I was putting out there about equity, participation, policy agenda, but thinking about it through all kinds of lenses,” Weiss-Wolf said.
Junior DSAGA Director of Administration Isabella Altherr said that she was pleasantly surprised by the range of people who came to the event.
“People in the room who I didn’t even necessarily know are interested in the topic,” Altherr said. “A lot of the time I feel like you know all of the people who come to similar events, so it was good to see new people.”
Sophomores Chanel Lee and Bridget Chen recently received funding for an initiative called Wings that aims to improve menstrual health for women suffering from financial insecurity or homelessness in Baltimore County.
“We’re in the formative stage of trying to figure out what is the best product or what are the best services that we can provide to marginalized populations of women in Baltimore,” Lee said.
Chen felt that the talk was very powerful.
“I think everybody in this room was just taken aback by just all the stories that she carried with her,” she said. “Coming here today was very helpful for both our own education and what we want to share in the future.”
Junior Teja Dupree felt that the talk was very informative and believes that there should be a course at Hopkins on menstrual access and education.
“It never really crosses my mind how many people don’t have access to tampons, pads, cups... but it’s all so important,” she said.
Junior Karina Rahaman noted the way specific groups of people who menstruate, such as those in prisons, are disproportionately impacted by inequitable menstrual access.
“You would think that the national government would do something about that or that we would care for people and treat them like decent human beings,” she said. “But you know, it’s America.”
Rahaman hopes that going forward, people will be more open in discussing menstruation and reproductive health.
“There needs to be more visibility on this,” she said. “We just stick cotton up our vaginas. And we don’t know what is in there — we are sheeple.”
Diva Parekh contributed reporting.