Nearly two years ago, then-sophomores Bridget Chen and Chanel Lee founded the student group Wings, with hopes of bringing free and accessible menstrual products to Hopkins.
This Monday, Wings launched the Menstrual Products Initiative (MPI) pilot program, installing free tampon and pad dispensers in eight women’s restrooms and two all-gender restrooms across Homewood Campus.
The pilot program, scheduled to end on April 20, is funded by the Office of Women and Gender Resources and co-sponsored by the Office of the Dean of Student Life.
According to Lee, the dispensers will be restocked at least twice a week by 30 student volunteers. Facilities and Custodial Services, Lee added, will assist these efforts.
Lee underscored the need to destigmatize periods and promote menstrual health on campus.
“Do we talk about periods in regular conversations? No, we don’t, because it’s almost embarrassing, even when it’s a naturally occurring bodily function,” they said. “When someone’s nose is bleeding, you try and stop it, but when someone’s bleeding because they’re on their period, we don’t do anything about it.”
In 2017, the menstrual products brand Always found that one in five American girls have “either left school early or missed school entirely because they did not have access to period products.” Lee emphasized the importance of expanding access to these products, noting the University’s efforts to increase the percentage of First-Generation, Limited-Income (FLI) students.
Freshman Amara Gammon, the daughter of Jamaican and Filipino immigrants, noted that although there are free condoms offered on campus, the University has not provided free menstrual products until now.
“For a lot of FLI kids, getting access to some of these materials isn’t always possible,” she said. “Inaccessibility makes it really difficult to be a person with a vagina. I feel a lot more secure knowing that there’s a resource — that I can go somewhere and have what I need.”
Junior Adriana Pereira, who moved to the U.S. from Cuba when she was three months old, echoed Gammon’s sentiments in an email to The News-Letter.
“Menstrual products aren’t a commodity, and sometimes I feel like they’re treated that way. Every person who menstruates should have access to these products without having to put a dent in their pockets,” she wrote.
Chen and Lee chronicled the fight for menstrual equity at Hopkins. In November 2016, the Student Government Association (SGA) passed a bill, introduced by then-Freshman Class Senator Rushabh Doshi, to provide women’s restrooms with free menstrual health products. However, Executive President Dean Chien told The News-Letter in March 2019 that the initiative died out because it was not sustainable.
Over a year later, Chen and Lee formed Wings, winning an Idea Lab grant in spring 2018. The Idea Lab, the University’s crowdsourcing platform, allows students to submit entrepreneurial ideas that their peers can vote on.
The following fall semester, then-Sophomore Class Senator Lauren Paulet introduced a bill to provide Wings with funding and to allow SGA members to stock all-gender restrooms with menstrual products, as not all people who menstruate identify as women.
However, Lee, now a senior class senator, stated that this solution was temporary.
“We’re an organization that specifically focuses on menstrual health, hygiene and equity, whereas SGA — I know personally — we are really spread out. There’s so many issues that people are trying to cover that this gets lost in the cracks,” they said. “I can see why this wasn’t a priority.”
During March 2019, Chien helped connect Wings members with University officials like Dean of Student Life Smita Ruzicka, Custodial Services Manager Jeanine Boyd and Director of Women and Gender Resources (WGR) Jeannine Heynes.
Before the meeting, Lee and Chen envisioned a two-part initiative. The first half would involve distributing SGA’s stock of leftover menstrual products across campus, which Lee thinks still remain in Levering Hall.
According to Lee, University officials suggested that Wings prioritize the second half: installing plastic dispensers from Aunt Flow, a company that focuses on sustainable menstrual health.
This summer, Chen and Lee — along with Co-Directors Lina Kim and Emily Sturm of Wings’ Campus Outreach Committee — spoke with students from peer institutions like Brown University, who have rolled out similar initiatives in the past, to obtain advice and data. Chen stressed that despite having one of the world’s top public health programs, Hopkins is lagging behind comparably selective universities when it comes to menstrual equity.
“Because we’re one of the last schools to hop on board, it happened so fast,” she said. “The whole process of talking to administrators and making this roll out was about a year, and that’s shorter than other schools.”
After compiling a report of their plans, Wings spent this fall working out the logistics of the Menstrual Products Initiative (MPI) and mobilizing students in cultural groups and Greek life, as well as members of WGR-affiliated groups like the Graduate Representative Organization.
Chen explained that the locations of the dispensers were determined by responses to “Menstrual Products in JHU Bathrooms: Needs and Climate Assessment,” a campus-wide survey Wings circulated from December 2018 to January 2019.
The survey, which collected over 1000 responses from students, staff and faculty, found that 97 percent of students would be comfortable seeing products in female and all-gender restrooms.
In addition, the survey found that students were largely impartial to stocked male bathrooms.
Despite earlier thinking, Lee clarified that the dispensers, located in sites such as Brody Learning Commons and the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy, are from HOSPECO instead of Aunt Flow. According to Lee, Facilities told Wings that HOSPECO would be more affordable in the long run, though Lee finds Aunt Flow to be more environmentally friendly. According to Chen, Aunt Flow has introduced sustainable dispensers at dozens of other universities.
Chen added that humidity from recent rain has interfered with the mechanism of the pad dispensers. However, Facilities is working with HOSPECO, she said, to fix this defect.
In the coming weeks, Chen said, Wings will collect input on the MPI using an online survey.
“Hopkins is a very evidence-based and data-driven school,” she said. “If we have really firm and positive support for this initiative, we can convince administrators not just to continue to fund the dispensers that are on campus right now, but to expand them to other buildings ... These 10 dispensers cannot address the entire campus’s needs.”
Lee observes that the products are being used more quickly than expected, and encouraged students not to take more than one pad or tampon at a time, noting that they are intended primarily for emergency use.
Junior Nicola Sumi Kim, a policy intern for Environment Maryland, praised the MPI.
“I use a Diva Cup, but I still think that having tampons and pads available on campus is an amazing step forward,” she said.
At the end of the semester, Chen and Lee hope that the University will take over and grow Wings’ initiative, which they believe would further menstrual equity for students of all genders.
The Bloomberg School of Public Health, Chen added, is pursuing a similar initiative to Homewood’s. She would like for all of the University’s campuses to offer free menstrual products in the future.
The MPI, Lee said, highlights the power of student advocacy.
“Given that this initiative is completely student-run, I think that this initiative will inspire some students at our school to, if they want to get something done, just go out and do it,” they said.
Sturm, who helped plan the MPI, agreed with Lee in an email to The News-Letter.
“It’s been really empowering to know that I was involved with a team that started such an amazing initiative,” she wrote. “We’ve already gotten positive responses from students and faculty expressing that they appreciate the program.”
For instance, in an email to The News-Letter, Wings’ advisor Jeannine Heynes commended the MPI, which she called gender-conscious and data-driven.
Heynes is the University’s first WGR director and has advised Wings since fall 2018.
“Access to emergency menstrual products can remove the barriers that many menstruators face with unpredictable cycles, inconveniently taking them out of the classroom, offices, labs, and study areas,” she wrote. “The work that Wings has done to raise awareness of this issue, while providing an inclusive and accessible solution, is impressive and appreciated by many.”
Correction: The original version of this article described Nicola Sumi Kim as an environmental representative for the Office of Sustainability. She no longer has this position.
The News-Letter regrets this error.