When Brown University's student government started stocking campus bathrooms with free tampons and pads at the start of this school year, people were thrilled.
"We had seen a lot of momentum and wonderful progress on this issue on the state level and in secondary education, with states eliminating their tampon taxes and New York City public schools providing the products as well," Viet Nguyen, Brown's undergraduate student body president, told me. "While there was chatter in the higher ed sphere, there wasn't as much tangible action. We wanted to tip the dominoes."
Now, you can find tampons and pads in about half of bathrooms on campus—and not only in women's bathrooms, but in men's and gender-neutral bathrooms as well. The idea is spreading fast: According to Nguyen, more than 40 universities across the world—including Cornell, Syracuse, and Connecticut College—have reached out to Brown and started jumpstarting their own programs.
The movement to make menstrual supplies more accessible on college campuses is led largely by student governments, but it's inspired by an international effort to end the stigma surrounding menstruation. At the forefront of this effort are campaigns to end the "tampon tax"—the practice in many states of taxing tampons, pads, and other menstrual products as non-essential items, while counting items like contact lenses, lip balm, and even Rogaine as necessities.
In 2015, Canada became the first country to get rid of a tampon tax after a petition garnered nearly 75,000 signatures and pushed the government to act after years of debate. The move spurred the UK and Australia to consider similar measures, and also increased momentum in the United States. At the time, 40 US states taxed tampons. Since then, New York, Illinois, Connecticut, and Washington, DC, have eliminated taxes on tampons, with similar measures pending in several other states.
Taxes aside, tampons and pads represent a real expense for the people who need them. California state assemblywoman Cristina Garcia estimated that Californians who menstruate spend an average of $7 per month on supplies, or $84 per year. Over a lifetime, that's an extra $3,360 spent just on sanitary supplies. Newer, reusable alternatives like menstrual cups and period underwear can be cheaper in the long run, but are expensive upfront—reusable cups retail for $15 to $40 apiece, and period underwear run about $24 to $38 a pair. For a low-income individual or household, these can be significant expenses. Food stamps do not cover sanitary supplies, and some low-income women have reported trading food stamps for tampons.
In addition to aiding low-income students, many student leaders argue that tampons and pads are as much a bathroom necessity as toilet paper and hand soap. "From an equity standpoint, if you use tampons and pads, right now you don't have everything you need in most public bathrooms," said Abigail Porter, a senior at Columbia University and vice president for policy of the Columbia College Student Council.
In a survey conducted by advocacy organization Free the Tampons, 86 percent of respondents reported having at least one experience when their period arrived unexpectedly in public and they were without the supplies they needed. This is no surprise to anyone who menstruates: Even the most regular periods can come early or be heavier than expected, leading to a scramble to find supplies. Only 8 percent of survey respondents reported that tampon and pad dispensers in public bathrooms work all the time, a wholly unsurprising fact to anyone who has ever been in a public women's bathroom. On the off chance a dispenser is working, it usually requires quarters, meaning that you are still out of luck unless you have a quarter with you in your moment of need. Plus, these dispensers are usually located in women's bathrooms only, leaving transgender men without access to them.
Brown's program may have inspired other campuses to provide free tampons, but it wasn't the first college to come up with the idea: The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has provided free tampons in women's and gender-neutral bathrooms since 2015, and the University of Minnesota has provided free menstrual supplies on campus for at least a decade, stocking one women's bathroom per building. The University of Minnesota also started stocking gender-neutral bathrooms last year, inspired by the inclusivity of Brown's program.
At Columbia, a new pilot program is starting this month, modeled from Brown's, to provide tampons and pads in men's, women's, and gender-neutral bathrooms. An earlier version of the program, which debuted in spring 2016, provided free tampons and pads in just one location, at the campus Health Services clinic. The program was cancelled due to lack of interest—"Columbia ditches free tampons because nobody actually used them," proclaimed a gleeful Daily Caller—but reinstated after student outcry.
"Last year, the program started in the middle of the semester, without much advertising, and just in one location," Porter said. "But when it was suspended, we heard from a lot of people who wanted the program to continue. We're looking forward to a new program and having the products in bathrooms." She also told me there was an accessibility issue with the original plan. Columbia's campus is uneven and has many stairs, which is already a problem for students with disabilities. Having tampons and pads in only one location meant that disabled students may not have been able to reach them conveniently. The university offered to foot the bill for dispensers, but members of the student government will stock them.
At Emory University, the administration was convinced to fund and manage a pilot program after it asked student-government representatives to gauge student interest. Julie Chen, then an Emory College council sophomore legislator and now assistant vice president of finance, set up a petition and shared it on her personal Facebook page. "Within a few days, it had 900 responses," she said. The pilot program, which operates in only four locations, began in fall 2016. After a successful initial run, the university agreed to extend it for two years, after which students hope it will remain and expand.
"Providing these products is a huge movement, especially in the North," said Emory College Council President Molly Zhu. "One thing we really hope to do is bring this progressive feminist movement to the South."
Zhu may be getting her wish already: Duke University recently announced that it will begin providing free menstrual products in one of its buildings, and student activists at Reed College, UCLA, University of Arizona, and others are placing pressure on their school administrations to step up their menstrual-hygiene offerings.
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