Q&A: Menstrual Equity Champion Jennifer Weiss-Wolf on Fighting for the Reproductive Health of Incarcerated Women

On Tuesday, Elizabeth Warren (D—MA) and Cory Booker (D—NJ) introduced The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act in the Senate. The legislation, co-sponsored by Senators Harris and Durbin, would provide the nearly 13,000 women in federal prisons with free menstrual products and ban the shackling of pregnant women, among other improvements intended to change how parents interact with their children while in prison.

Ms. spoke with menstrual equity expert Jennifer Weiss-Wolf regarding this exciting piece of legislation and its potential to benefit the lives of women behind bars.

Can you begin by describing your connection to menstrual advocacy and your efforts to push this issue into the public sphere?

When I first started talking with people about menstrual advocacy and what it means to have access to menstrual products, I made up a phrase called “menstrual equity.” This phrase is based in a democratic participatory framework that addresses the idea that without access to menstrual products, people who get periods are denied the opportunity to freely and equitably participate in society. Menstruation inhibits people’s ability to attend school and be productive at work, as well as contribute to the persistent marginalization of communities who have limited access to menstrual products including low-income students and individuals who are homeless or incarcerated.

When I first began talking to people about it, many people were confused or doubtful of the relevance of the issue. But after I began describing my commitment to menstrual equity it didn’t take long for them to experience deep empathy. Unlike other issues, where people can’t necessarily relate due to differences in life experience, when people considered periods in relation to incarceration, it was the one place where they could come to some understanding. Particularly for women, as we all know how horrible it feels to not have access to adequate menstrual products. There is not a single one of us who hasn’t had a period unexpectedly and needed to manage that situation.

I became aware of that reaction whenever I had a conversation with someone about my work. As I began to frame my policy agenda, I focused on first, creating a number of talking points to appeal to those across the political spectrum, and second, to get people to that place of empathy relatively quickly and have an open mind.

So it comes as no surprise to me that a sweeping piece of federal legislation addressing the needs of women in the correction system led with the issue of menstrual equity. It is not a frivolous issue, and half of the population understands that. The other issues that this criminal justice bill addresses are deeply important too, and it’s really exciting to see menstruation being treated as equally important as other ways women experience marginalization, especially for those behind bars.

Before the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, were there bills previously proposed in the federal government that addressed the issues this bill covers?

There is a bill currently in the House of Representatives called The Menstrual Equity Act of 2017 that was introduced by Representative Grace Meng from New York which includes a provision of access to menstrual products for federal inmates, which is the House counterpart to the bill just introduced in the Senate.

At the state level, there has been legislation within the past year focused on women and mothers in the justice system. There have also been reports recently released by the Correction Association of New York in 2015 called “Reproductive Injustice” and ACLU of California’s report on women and the oversight of women’s health in the criminal justice system called “Reproductive Health Behind Bars” that was published in 2016, so the issue has not gone unnoticed, in particular by menstrual equity advocates. Criminal justice advocates across the nation are aware that the justice system was never created with women’s bodies in mind. According to the Sentencing Project, there has been a 700% increase in women in the justice system since 1980. We can say broadly that our societal patriarchal system never really intended to lead with women’s needs, but certainly the correction system was never created with women’s bodies in mind.
The report that I referred to that was released in 2015 by the Correction Association of New York, by in large led with the finding that New York women were still being shackled during medical appointments and labor. There was such outrage about that reality that the state legislature passed a law outlawing that practice. At the time, The Nation was the only place that led the story in regards to access to menstrual products in response to the 2015 report. As I’ve written about in Ms., menstrual activism has completely skyrocketed since that time. It’s interesting to see that two years later, the idea that that would be one of the more popular issues is heartening for those advocating for menstrual access.

On the menstrual access aspect of women in the criminal justice system, laws have already been passed at the state and municipal level. New York City last spring passed some of the most sweeping women’s health legislation in the world by making it required by law that tampons and pads would be provided for free in all state correction facilities, shelters and public schools. Since then, the state of Colorado passed a law that included in its budget a line that required tampons and pads to be provided throughout the entire state prison system. The County of Los Angeles passed an ordinance requiring all county juvenile detention centers to provide tampons and pads throughout the city. New York state introduced legislation this year that passed almost unanimously in the assembly that would require all of the county and state correction facilities to provide menstrual products to inmates. I wrote a piece about that for Ms., but unfortunately that bill died in the Senate.

What other needs of women in the criminal justice system does this bill not address?

The most important issue the bill hasn’t addressed is the question of access. Menstruation in the criminal justice system is often treated as a medical need and illness that requires a doctor’s help rather than a basic human need, which inhibits women’s access to receiving adequate menstrual products. In the articles I’ve read so far, none have mentioned how these products will be provided to these women in a way that doesn’t create an imbalance in the power structure between the inmates and those responsible for distributing the products. Part of the challenge of managing menstrual products as a hygiene need is that incarcerated women are subject to a power dynamic that is almost incomprehensible to those of us who haven’t experienced it. In the researched that I’ve conducted for my upcoming book, Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand For Menstrual Equity, I talked to a number of inmates. They all emphasized that the ways in which the products are accessible to them is as important as the existence of the products themselves. Anything that exacerbates that power imbalance is problematic and lends to the deprivation of dignity that women already experience in the justice system. When looking at the statistics that show that women who are incarcerated are often victims of abuse themselves at the hands of their partner, you are putting already vulnerable people at risk of even more abuse.

The bill must also address the quality of the products themselves. Some people respond to that with, “why should someone behind bars be receiving fancy tampon applicators?” but the truth is that most products provided in correction facilities are so poor that people need three or four to do the job of one. Someone who has never had their period does not understand that poor quality will compromise the basic functions of these products and the problem these women experience will continue to persist.

What do you think inspired these senators to sponsor this bill? What are some recent efforts made by advocates of criminal justice reform and menstrual equity that might have contributed to their support for introducing this bill?

There is a deep bipartisan commitment to criminal justice reform in the United States. It is a situation incomparable to any other issue being advocated for at the state or federal level. For a variety of reasons, folks on the right and left have deeply-held beliefs about what is “broken” in our current criminal justice system. It’s not surprising to me, especially from stalwart Democrats like Senator Warren and Senator Booker, to see innovative legislation focused on criminal justice reform exclusively focused on women. I don’t know how popular or bipartisan this bill will ultimately be, but it illuminates the stories of many women in the criminal justice system that people might not be aware of, especially in the time of the current Administration and its antipathy toward criminal justice reform. That in of itself is a tremendous public service.

Another aspect that is doubly fascinating is how rapidly menstrual advocacy work has become bipartisan. That was always my goal in charting this policy agenda, starting with the issue of the sales tax on menstrual products, and knew that this issue would garner Republican support. It has a lot of Republican talking points built into it, like the idea of over-taxation. These kinds of bills have had support from Republican state legislatures across the country, from Florida to Illinois. The menstrual stuff has founds its way to very neutral territory. Which, considering what we were up against in charting this agenda, when considering the issue of menstruation has been marginalized for all of time, is a huge accomplishment. Proposals about vulnerable women from all aspects of society, from those who are incarcerated, to those who are homeless, the idea of access to menstrual products doesn’t cause blow-back. Menstruation has proven to be a frame that the public is willing to be empathetic about.

We are in a political reality right now in the way Congress, the White House and Supreme Court are set up, that most of what we can do is protect against their agenda of targeting women and women’s bodies. A lot of the wins we’ll experience over the next couple of years will at best be about beating back against the worst things from fighting against Planned Parenthood being defunded and keeping Medicaid coverage viable in our health care system. But menstrual advocacy is one of the places where we can make action in an affirmative manner and appreciate the reality of women’s bodies in a non-defensive way.

What is your reaction to the success of your work thus far?

When I first started doing this, people would say, “what are you doing?” and now, look what it’s led to! For me, it’s allowed me to look at all of the laws that govern our daily lives and use this menstrual framework. In this book I’ve written that will be coming out in October, after talking about this movement and how it emerged in force over the past couple of years, I explore nine areas of law including health care, education, homelessness, incarceration and workplace policies, and examine how they might look different if laws acknowledged the fact that over half of the population menstruates on a monthly basis.

Menstrual advocates provide a unique voice and I hope to be able to use it and use this book as a platform for addressing so many of these inequities. Hopefully by framing it around menstruation, we can make progress we haven’t seen before.

My heart is filled and I’m so excited about this bill. I can’t wait to see where it goes and to keep telling this story. This is a story that people think they know, since they might have heard about the tampon tax in the news, but the story of how, why, and what we need to do next to leverage this issue is explored in my book and I can’t wait for people to read it.

Weiss-Wolf’s book Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand For Menstrual Equity comes out in October.


Micaela Brinsley recently graduated from the Performance Studies department at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, she is a feminist theatre artist, activist and writer with a background in performance art and labor rights. Passionate about social justice, she is an avid conversationalist committed to making the world a more just place. She has been writing for Ms. since the summer of 2017. You can contact her at mbrinsley [at] msmagazine.com.