Periods Gone Public

bw-houppert1022

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

Advertisements

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?