A menstruating runner makes a social-media splash after “free bleeding” without protection through an entire marathon. An Indian villager turns pulverized wood pulp into sanitary napkins that are comfortable for his wife—and launches an international business selling affordable machines to make them. A former inmate rattles cages with her essay “Prisons That Withhold Menstrual Pads Humiliate Women and Violate Basic Human Rights.” Activists like these form the “lifeblood of the movement” described in Jennifer Weiss-Wolf’s account of the battle to give menstruation the dignity and deference it deserves.
Flowing with wry wit through its lively chapters (each, from “Code Red” to “Shark Week,” named after a euphemism for menstruation), Weiss-Wolf’s compelling book Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity is part memoir and part social analysis. It’s also a loving homage to 2015, which National Public Radio dubbed “The Year of the Period” and which brought period panties, the rise of tampon-themed games and other cutting-edge products to the mainstream market while simultaneously heralding major shifts in menstrual politics. It was in 2015 that Weiss-Wolf began spearheading the grassroots campaign to eliminate the tampon tax in the U.S. Though nations from Canada to Kenya have eliminated sales tax on menstrual products, most American states still subject such goods to levies of 4 to 10 percent. “Why are pads and tampons still taxed when Viagra and Rogaine are not?” actor Ashley Judd demanded in a firebrand speech at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., in January.
To explain why sanitary products are still taxed—and not routinely offered in prisons, shelters or schools, nor covered by food stamps, Medicaid or Flexible Spending Account allowances—Weiss-Wolf examines the shame and stigma surrounding the essential biological process that makes women (and also many transgender and gender non-conforming people) bleed for an average of five days per month. From rules prohibiting menstruating Jewish women from having sex to strictures barring their Muslim sisters from entering mosques, prohibitions surrounding menses have endured for centuries. At the dawn of the 20th century, Weiss-Wolf writes, “instability caused by menstruation was among the reasons touted to discredit universal suffrage.” And in the first leg of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump maligned Fox News correspondent Megyn Kelly for having “blood coming out of her wherever.”
Weiss-Wolf argues that change is not just a matter of making menstruation more manageable with innovations such as commercial pads (first sold in 1896), tampons (first patented in 1931) or the newfangled “smart” menstrual cup “that uses Bluetooth technology to monitor, measure, analyze and track flow.” We need not just better products, but better politics. As unapologetically subjective as it is progressive, her book wins over readers with the same can-do optimism she shares with her colorful subjects, including archivist Harry Finley (the “unlikely steward” of the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health, assembled in his Maryland basement) and actor Amy Schumer, who quipped on the Emmys red carpet that she was wearing “Vivienne Westwood, Tom Ford shoes and an o.b. tampon.”
Anyone inspired by Weiss-Wolf’s work can join her cause, adding their names to the 67,000-plus signatures on her Change.org petition, funding nonprofits that bring menstrual products to developing nations and supporting Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) in her two-decades-long battle to pass legislation that addresses tampon safety and research. This is an issue whose time has come. In the words of one political placard held high at the D.C. Women’s March: “Watch out…our cycles are synced up!”