The 'Tampon Crusader' Who Pushed to Make Periods a Political Issue
Broadly spoke to Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, the author of a new book on menstrual equity, about what it's like to live in "The Year of Infinite Period Possibility."
Original photo by BSIP/UIG via Getty Images
Since she began advocating for equitable menstrual policy in 2015, Jennifer Weiss-Wolf has been called a "tampon crusader," a "menstrual activist," and even a "slayer of the tampon tax." But cool alter egos aside, when it comes to advocating for access to tampons and pads, Weiss-Wolf says she's never been more sure of anything in her life.
"I'm fearless when it comes to this issue because I just believe in it so intrinsically," she told Broadly. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about this."
Weiss-Wolf, who's also the vice president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, has written dozens of op-eds and essays on this topic. She's also traveled to Kenya, Nepal, and India to learn about menstrual intervention, drafted model legislation, and launched a menstrual policy nonprofit called Period Equity.
In her new book, Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity, Weiss-Wolf explores the burgeoning movement to make feminine hygiene products affordable for those in need. Broadly spoke to the "tampon crusader" herself about the future of this work.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
BROADLY: So we know Cosmopolitan dubbed 2015 "the year the period went public." Amnd last year, Newsweek called 2016 "the year of menstrual change." What moniker would you give 2017, as it relates to menstrual equity?
JENNIFER WEISS-WOLF: Maybe "The Year of Infinite Period Possibility." We're in a whole new frontier now, in terms of both awareness about the need for periods to be a political issue, but also the will and the willingness to advance that agenda.
There were a couple of peak moments this year in menstrual activism, including the introduction of bills on the federal level that tackled access, such as Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act and the Menstrual Equity for All Act of 2017. Any other noteworthy moments?
Between the two state legislature sessions from 2016 to 2017, 24 states introduced legislation or otherwise debated the tampon tax. Even when laws don't pass or make it all the way through the legislative process, it's still progress that the issue is being raised and that legislators are thinking about it in terms of their obligations to meet the needs of their constituents.
In 2016, three states [Connecticut, Illinois, and New York] did away with the sales tax on menstrual products; in 2017, we got a fourth, which is the state of Florida—which I should also add was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, who is a staunch Republican.
[Additionally] the county of Los Angeles passed an ordinance making tampons available to people in the juvenile detention system. The state of Colorado, by budget line, mandated the provision of menstrual products to all state prisoners. And most recently—this is terribly exciting—the state of Illinois passed legislation that goes into effect next year that mandates the provision of menstrual products in all of the state's public schools.
What's really neat is a lot of this progress has happened since I was pencils down on the book.
Where do you see the menstrual equity movement going next?
We've got nowhere to go but forward. Menstrual activism is one of the very few issues that have support across the aisle—it transcends the polarized, toxic political environment that we're in right now. After Sens. [Cory] Booker, [Elizabeth] Warren, and [Kamala] Harris introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which, among other things, provided for the provision of free menstrual products to federal inmates, the Bureau of Prisons, which is run by the Department of Justice, issued a guidance that mandates menstrual products for federal inmates. What I've always pointed out to people is, this isn't Eric Holder's Department of Justice under Barack Obama. This is Jeff Sessions' Department of Justice under Donald Trump. We have probably no bigger enemy, both to criminal justice reform and women's rights, than Jeff Sessions. And this Bureau of Prisons did that. That, to me, means we're off to the races.
In your book, you write: "A truly comprehensive menstrual equity agenda would eventually drive or help reframe policies that foster full participation and engagement in civic society—and that accept, even elevate, the reality of how menstruating bodies function." What do you mean by this?
We have tons and tons of laws and rules and regulations and policies by which we live our lives. Not one of them takes menstruation into consideration when they think about the people who are affected by these laws and rules and regulations and policies. To me, that's what the future of this agenda is. It's about putting menstruation at the table with everything we think about. When we think about anything, we [should] include the fact that people menstruate as part of our process in determining the best rules and laws.
Menstruation has been ignored or marginalized long enough. Let's stop ignoring and marginalizing it; let's put together some rules that acknowledge it and therefore do better by all of us. These policies aren't even meant to provide special benefits to women or girls or people who menstruate.They're just designed to acknowledge that reality so that we have a chance to participate equally and fairly and create a better society for all of us.