When Andrew Cuomo released his 2018 Women’s Agenda for New York last month, the Governor announced proposed legislation to require free menstrual products in school restrooms for girls in sixth through twelfth grades. His move not only signals the importance of pads and tampons to a just society, but underscores how rapidly the menstrual equity movement has become politically favorable and mainstream.
“What’s exciting about what’s being done in New York is… that the Governor has elevated the issue by including it in the 2018 agenda,” said Jennifer Weiss-Wolf—a lawyer, Ms. contributor and leading #MenstrualEquity policy advocate. “Coming from the top down, this has different significance than when it’s coming from the bottom up. It gets to fast track some of the [legislative] benchmarks, and highlights that [menstrual access] is good for women as economic participants in the state.”
Governor Cuomo’s proposed legislation will be included in his 2019 budget, scheduled for approval by April 1st. A 3 percent increase in state funding to schools will offer unrestricted operating aid for items including menstrual goods. Building menstrual equity into the budget allows New York state’s legislation to avoid the fate that befell a toothless Washington D.C. tampon tax repeal that died because there was no money to enforce it.
“New York leads the nation in fighting for women’s rights in every area of their lives, and that mission begins when women are girls,” Governor Cuomo said. “By providing these essential products free of charge, we are once again breaking down barriers to equality and helping to equalize the playing field for young women across the state.”
Right now, public support for menstrual equity measures is strong and bipartisan: Last month, a Justice Action Network poll revealed that 85 percent of Republicans, 91 percent of Independents and 94 percent of Democrats support providing free feminine hygiene products to women in prison. New York is not the first state to introduce policy like this, nor is it the first or only state where a menstrual equity movement is booming.
While New York City was the first place in the nation to offer free pads in schools, Illinois and California have already implemented similar laws of their own, both of which took effect on Jan. 1. These laws are the latest in a cascade of period activism that’s rippled through our nation over the past few years. What started with niche sub-cultures and with the international aid community about a decade ago recently bubbled up to Hollywood’s red carpet, mainstream TV and pad donation campaigns in cities and towns across the country. NPR called 2015 “The Year of the Period.” Newsweek ran menstruation as a 2016 cover story. Even two Presidents have gotten into the period fray of late—President Obama, in conversation with YouTube personality Ingrid Nilsen about the tampon tax, and Donald Trump, with an infamous comment that Fox News host Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever.”
America’s legislative victories toward menstrual equity can generally be categorized into two waves. First, states and municipalities began eliminating the sales tax on menstrual goods; women pay high premiums for products to manage Aunt Flo, even when “essentials” such as beef jerky, Pop-Tarts and gun club memberships are exempt. Then came a wave of access laws—like Governor Cuomo’s proposed New York state rule—expanding women’s ability to access menstrual care goods in schools, prisons and homeless shelters.
In her 2017 book, Periods Gone Public: Taking A Stand for Menstrual Equity, Weiss-Wolf outlined a detailed legislative plan she conceptualized toward achieving menstrual equity progress. “The tampon tax issue paved the way for these [access] bills,” she told Ms. “The tampon tax was a benign opening salvo, way to get legislators thinking about the economics of menstruation. Even just getting them to say words like ‘tampons’ and ‘pads,’ it had never been done before.”
So far, the battle toward menstrual equity in America has followed close to the pattern that Weiss-Wolf predicted. Periods have entered America’s cultural conversation. Laws are being passed. What’s more, Weiss-Wolf herself is quoted in the media with startling regularity. But still, she says, this is still just the beginning.
“For my part, I’m starting to think about the next generation. The tampon tax and access bills are the generation 1.0,” Weiss-Wolf said. “I’ve already got 2.0 and 2.5 mapped out.”