Yo, Photo Editor

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Okay, so good on the U.K. for upping its game by providing free sanitary products to all primary schools.

And good on the BBC for covering the move.

But what’s up this wack stock photo? The image is wrong on so many levels. 1) It is a photo of a machine where tampons cost £1 to illustrate an article about free menstrual products. 2) It is depicting a “Super” Tampax which is, well, quite a stretch for little primary school girls many of whom are more likely opting for pads in these early days. 3) Wow, some serious product placement going on here.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and wager that this photo editor is male, gave this story two seconds thought, and told his (male) intern to pull some ancient stock footage without even reading the article. Just a guess.

For an interesting piece on New York State’s free tampons in schools and how the costs will likely play out, see Bridget Crawford’s 2018 article on Feminist Law Professors.


Periods Gone Public


Jennifer Weiss-Wolf believes to have a truly equal society, menstrual products must be readily available and affordable to all.

Here’s an essay and sort of review I wrote for the Washington Post of Jennifer Weiss-Wolf’s new book “Periods Gone Public.”

Weiss-Wolf argues that menstrual equity is a gateway issue (gateway plug?) for feminists. “In order to have a fully equitable and participatory society,” she writes, “we must have laws and policies that ensure menstrual products are safe and affordable and available for those who need them.”

Weiss-Wolf, a lawyer who works at the Brennan Center for Justice, is the force behind the fight to eliminate a sales tax on tampons. She has also drawn attention to the plight of homeless women, girls in developing countries and female inmates, all of whom have difficulty getting the menstrual products they need.

Weiss-Wolf contends that the tampon tax amounts to a “pink tax” on women. Some states that charge sales tax exclude necessities such as food and medicine. Tampons and pads, by comparsion, are taxed 4 to 10 percent. Thanks in part to Weiss-Wolf’s efforts, 13 states have scrapped the sales tax on tampons, and legislatures in many other states are weighing similar action.

 Weiss-Wolf has joined with other activists in advocating for better Food and Drug Administration oversight of menstrual products. For instance, manufacturers are not required to list components on packages. While they must record “adverse events” related to product use, Weiss-Wolf points out that since “they don’t have to share internal studies or research with anyone outside the FDA, we’ve got no recourse for getting a second opinion.”

“Periods Gone Public” catalogues almost everything on the menstrual landscape, making the book an invaluable resource, if not a riveting read. However, Weiss-Wolf stumbles in places. Her discussion of efforts to provide disposable products to women in developing countries overlooks some environmental concerns and the blatant market-driven motivations behind some social entrepreneurs. And her embrace of a movement that she believes will improve the workplace ignores some scary implications. The Red School movement offers what it thinks is a visionary approach to menstruation. In this brave new work world, Weiss-Wolf writes that employees would be “offered an opportunity to chart their cycles” and “assess its impact on work habits and best practices.” She suggests that this knowledge, including insights like “I am lethargic and irritable for two days before my period,” could “provide guidance for customizing scheduling and assignments.”

In July 2016, Fast Company wrote about one office that is already doing that. Thinx, the maker of “period panties for modern women,” posts menstrual charts indicating where each employee is in her cycle. “Coworkers are aware when a team member is experiencing premenstrual tension or is likely to have cramps,” reporter Elizabeth Segran wrote. “In an ideal situation, they can be more sympathetic to one another. They believe that this approach actually makes everyone more productive.”

Weiss-Wolf describes this as “menstrutopia.” I see it rather as a menstrual dystopia of “Handmaid’s Tale” proportions, where women are reduced to the sum of their publicly chronicled cycles, hemmed in by predictive notions about their efficacy in the workplace at any given time, their emotional fortitude and their fluctuating value in the marketplace based on the state of their hormones.

Dicey science has long been used to evaluate women’s abilities in the workplace. During World War II, the government created instructional films for members of the Women’s Army Corps and female workers that cited scientific evidence that periods are “no excuse for absenteeism and self-coddling.” Postwar studies purported to show a woman’s infectiveness during her menstrual cycles. As recently as 1995, when the nation debated women in combat, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich alluded to the dangers of menstruation and warned about a female soldier’s life in a combat ditch, saying that “females have biological problems staying in a ditch for thirty days because they get infections and they don’t have upper body strength.”

Many programs to foster menstrual awareness in the workplace and elsewhere are driven by the corporate world. Weiss-Wolf casts many small, innovative start-ups in the developing and developed world as allies in the battle to eliminate the stigma and shame associated with monthly bleeding. And large companies such as Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson are seeking major inroads in the developing world. I have little faith in hitching the menstrual wagon to corporate stars in hopes that they will drive an enlightened movement.

“As long as you’re promoting products, you’re not addressing the stigma of menstruation — you’re helping menstruators hide their menstruation more efficiently,” says Christina Bobel, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Massachusetts and president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.

Fortunately, despite its flaws, “Periods Gone Public” is a rich picture of the current menstrual landscape — and a promising call to smart activism.

Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equality

By Jennifer Weiss-Wolf Arcade. 308 pp. $24.99

Entrepreneur to Forbes: “If I can own the vagina and the butthole, I win.”

Gotta love this entrepreneur’s tagline. “If I can own the vagina and butthole, I win,” says Miki Agrawal.

Agrawal is introducing yet another period-panty option (as well as another product I’m having trouble visualizing; a portable bidet for people with poop issues?). On the plus side, her panties feature a two-tampons-worth-of-absorbent-crotch and aren’t disposable but reusable. They don’t look that bad, kinda sexy.

Supposedly, you’ll be able to buy seven panties (one a day for a week-long period) for $200. You re-use them and they last two years.

The drawbacks? Maybe I lack imagination, but I can’t see this one-a-day thing being very comfy. Even if the crotch holds two tampons-worth of blood, won’t women want to change ’em out a bit over the course of a day, particularly on heavy bleeding days? But I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt since I like where she is headed with this concept–and because I am charmed by her unabashed capitalist takeover of the nether regions. Maybe she’ll give ole P&G a run for its money?

Where’s the Innovation in the Sanitary Protection Industry?

From an interview I had last week, appearing in Vice‘s Motherboard 3/13/15:

The thing is, the companies who would be the ones to develop new advancements in menstrual technology really have no incentive to replace the status quo.

“What’s happened is instead of genuine advancements in terms of new products, the industry has put its research efforts into just beefing up the existing products and creating a need for additional products,” said Karen Houppert, a writer and author of The Curse, a book about the sanitary protection industry. “It’s an effort to repackage the old as new and continue to alarm women about the prospect of anyone knowing that they bleed. That’s their stock and trade.” Read the article, “Why are Tampons Still a Thing?” by Kaleigh Rogers who wonders why, with all the advances in technology, hasn’t anyone come up with a better invention than tampons. “In 80 years the best option we’ve come up with is to shove some cotton up there,” Rogers says. (Note: She writes “cotton” in her article though in fact pads and tampons are not made of cotton but rayon and other stuff that the $2.8 billion global tampon market keeps under wraps. Top secret stuff, those tampon ingredients.)

‘Show me!’ a Prison Guard says to the Menstruating Visitor

IMG_2529Every once in while the disparate worlds I travel in collide.

This week when I was trawling the aggregating criminal justice sites to keep abreast of the news (My 2013 book, Chasing Gideon, is about the failed promise our our right-to-counsel for the poor), I stumbled on a menstruation story.

A news item in the Nashville Scene describes a woman who was visiting someone at a local prison in Clifton, TN. When prison guards found an unopened menstrual pad in her pocket, she told them she was having her period. They made her step into the bathroom, whip down her pants and show them her bleeding crotch, she alleges in court documents–though admittedly not in those exact words. (And this, after she offered what she considered a less-humiliating alternative: peeing in the toilet so they could see her pinkish urine.)

According to the legal complaint which is filed, confusingly, with a date stamp of January 22, 2016, the guards said she either had to submit to the search or forfeit the right to ever visit the prisoner.

She submitted.

But afterwards, she filed suit in U.S. District Court, Middle District of Tennessee, against the prison, owned and run by a private company called Corrections Corporation of America.

Referred to only as Jane Doe, “[b]ecause of the extremely humiliating and embarrassing nature of the facts alleged in her Complaint,” she is arguing that her constitutional rights have been violated.

According to the complaint: She was deprived of her “rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, equal protection of the laws, and the right against deprivation of liberty and privacy without due process of law.”

Clearly I have to do a little more digging here. I mean, what is the legal precedence here? Do prison guards across the country routinely check women’s vaginas for contraband? We hear about it happening all the time with the prisoners themselves…but is this also true of folks who are just visiting?

DiaryDoll and Me–on the CBC

Suppose the icon bled?

Suppose the icon bled?

Here’s a segment I did on the CBC’s The Current with Anna Maria Tremonti this morning, riffing on tennis player Heather Watson’s reference to “girl things” contributing to her loss in the Australian Open. Also on the show was Annabel Croft, former tennis player and founder of DiaryDoll, a British company that makes waterproof panties so women can double-up their protection.

Keeping your periods secret, forever! Hooray. During the interview, Croft refers to women “panicking” in work meetings when they’ve got their periods but don’t want to slip out to the bathroom to change their tampon or pad. Heaven forfend. Better to wear both tampons and water-proof panties.

The company website flashes a Marilyn Monroe-esque figure whose white dress flips up and down to reveal her pristine panties–a reference to the Seven Year Itch scene where Monroe stands over a heating vent. From the company website:

Made in Britain, DiaryDolls are completely washable and look and feel exactly like your favourite pants, giving you extra time when you need it most. 

Worn together with your normal protection, nobody need ever know!

DiaryDoll …we’ve got your back covered!

The graphics on the DiaryDoll website show a pregnant woman, too. That one has me puzzled. Are they suggesting the panties should be worn by pregnant women because maybe they have to pee really bad when they are sitting in the above meeting, “panicking?” Or is in case the pregnant woman might spot–and if so, are they supposed to wear these special panties every single day, just in case? Or is it because a woman might miscarry? Or her water break? I’m so confused.

But, ahh. Protective panties. I’m so glad they’re back.

Protective panties. You've come a long way, Baby! Or have you?

Protective panties. You’ve come a long way, Baby! Or have you?

Rosie: I’m Bleedin’ but I’m Strong

Pop in a plug, girlie, and weld those bombers.

Pop in a plug, girlie, and weld those bombers.

As tennis player Heather Watson refers to “girl things” in explaining her loss at the Australian Open and the press jumps on the conversation about whether elite athletes are truly hindered by menstruation, keep in mind that this is not a new conversation.

The news cycle–wait, the news cycles? Doesn’t that render it unfit?–has a tendency to investigate this matter at politically expedient moments. Check out my 2007 New York Times op-ed on how, during the 1870s and 1880s when Americans were debating higher education for women, there was a rash of studies revealing that women’s menstrual cycles rendered them unsuitable for sustained mental and physical labor.

Then when World War II rolled around and Uncle Sam needed those women in the factories, the government released a propaganda film, Strictly Personal, telling them to stop their belly-aching about bleeding. The war effort had no room for neurotic slackers who tried to cut out of work early just because they were getting their periods.

Post war, when the soldiers came home and the government was urging Rosie-the-Riveter to take off her hard hat and put on her apron, there was suddenly research showing, for example, that women typed slower when they were menstruating. A woman’s place is in the home, of course, the studies “proved.”

‘Girl Things’ Get Her Down

Heather Watson loses first round at Australian Open--and blames it on "girl things." BBC picks up the story.

Heather Watson loses first round at Australian Open–and blames it on “girl things.” BBC picks up the story.

A trick question: When do I ever get called by a sports writer for commentary? Me, the one who is out-loud and proud to be clueless about all things sweaty and competitive?

When an athlete gets her period, of course!

The BBC wrote about it yesterday–and cut my concluding quote a bit short. I said: “The positive is that she did raise the topic. It helps that a young girl mentions this is going on. It’s good when it surfaces in conversation, otherwise it feels that part of your reality doesn’t exist and to acknowledge its existence is a very good thing.”

But I went on to say it was a real drag that she referred to it euphemistically as “girl things.”

From the end-pages of my book, a little reminder about decades–nay, centuries–of creative linguistic contortions women have put themselves through to avoid direct reference to menstruation:


So, hmm, if I were to score Watson’s “girl things” in the annals of menstrual moments? Honesty: 15. Feminism: Love.