If you’re a menstrual activist, you probably already know the name Jennifer Weiss-Wolf. For the unfamiliar, Jennifer is a writer, activist and policy warrior leading the charge in the U.S. movement to eliminate the “tampon tax” on menstrual products.
After our own tampon tax victory here in Canada, we’ve been cheering her on and watching the movement in the US grow and bring about real change. In fact, just yesterday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law that menstrual products will be available free of cost at public schools, homeless shelters, and prisons! It’s super inspiring!
Following their meeting in New York in February 2016, Lunapads founders Madeleine Shaw and Suzanne Siemens reconnected by phone with Jennifer, to discuss how she became a menstrual activist and what’s next for the movement.
Madeleine Shaw: You coined or popularized the term “menstrual equity”. What does it mean to you?
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf: For starters, it’s not about free stuff. It’s not that everybody who menstruates deserves these products for free (although I might argue that they do). Menstrual equity is the idea that to have a fully equitable and participatory democracy, the ability to access and afford [menstrual] products is necessary for half the population. And if that accessibility is compromised in any way, it is in our societal interest to ensure that those needs are met so we can have a fully functioning electorate.
MS: It’s so inspiring to me the way you have elevated this to a policy level where most people just think of “me and my period” as opposed to asking ‘what does this mean for low-income women? What does this mean for students? What does this mean for girls in the global south?’ It’s really broadened the whole conversation from just solving a personal need to something that is so much bigger than all of us.
JWW: The same goes for education. Whether it is girls in any part of the world or here in Canada or the United States, if they’re not able to fully engage in school because they’re concerned about their ability to manage their menstruation, they’re not actually getting an equitable shot at an education and that’s bad for all of us. Adults, too! When was the last time you had your period in a meeting and you couldn’t even pay attention to the meeting because you’re so worried you’re bleeding on the chair? That happens to me frequently enough and I’m 48 and I can talk about periods with anybody. But, for a 12-year old in school, that’s just downright mortifying.
MS: I wanted to ask you about your experience with ZanaAfrica in the global south and how your experience with that organization has influenced your perspective here?
JWW: My global perspective is rather limited. I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of understanding both the problem and the scope of the solutions. I’ve had two meaningful experiences: engaging with folks in Kenya through ZanaAfrica, and when I travelled to India last summer and met with menstrual innovators like Muruga [aka Menstrual Man] in Southern India who created the technology by which women are making the pads and selling the pads to their neighbours and fellow citizens. When I came back from India, I had a very deep visceral reaction and I was so motivated by the completely grassroots, way of addressing this vast problem. In a land where nearly 90% of the women don’t have access to menstrual products they were really taking it to the streets, and I found it incredibly inspiring.
ZanaAfrica has a very distinct social enterprise model where they produce pads and distribute them in schools. In Kenya, they’re far ahead of us in terms of their commitment to policy. They abolished the tampon tax there in 2004. Since 2011 it has been considered a matter of policy to include sanitary pads in their school budgets, or at least partly in the school budget. That’s a hard thing for most Americans, with their American Exceptionalism, to swallow. That these nations, with problems that certainly look deeper than ours, have solutions that are more innovative, more progressive and more creative. I think we have a lot to learn in understanding the depth of the problems here.
MS: You’ve had this incredible success with policy which has been amazing, and yet we’re up against this culture of outright shame — I’m curious what you see as the next level? For example, the efforts to get manufacturers to disclose the ingredients, and beyond that, and this is very much what Suzanne and I are about, changing social behaviours so that people are willing to consider using reusable products and not just sort of go, “Oh hooray! There’s no more tax on my tampons anymore.”
JWW: It’s really hard when you have a policy agenda, and it often means you have to take it step-by-step. So you can’t just win the whole lottery all at once.
MS: It feels like you have, though!
JWW: You can’t start with a place that disrupts or otherwise upends the current societal structure — that’s way too scary for people and you’ll lose them straight away. The tampon tax is the easiest place to start because most people agree that it’s not fair. You get right, you get left, you get Republicans, you get Democrats, you get anti-tax folks, you get feminists, you get everybody on board. But it’s true you’re helping big business and not doing anything to address the fact that these products are or they seem to be virtually unregulated, or that the current array of regulations don’t address the problems that they pose. Part of the success of the tampon tax wasn’t just to get rid of the tax, but was actually to get people talking about periods in public and acknowledging things that are very common-sense. We all know people who menstruate and that these products exist and how they’re used and why we pay for them but we’ve been secretive and shameful about that. So that was not a baby step, that was actually a pretty big step and it was the tampon tax here in the United States and other countries too, that the media was willing to bite on, they were willing to step into the ring.
Over the past year, 2015: “the Year the Period went Public” and “the Year of the Period” there’s lots of other stuff to point to. Kiran Gandhi’s marathon run, Rupi Kaur’s instagram photos, or the Thinx subway ads, there were other ways that periods were becoming part of the national discourse. So the policy fit right in! In terms of reusable products, it’s not just because it’s about women’s health, although it should be, but it’s also about what makes for a good society. A good society takes care of the Earth, takes care of people’s bodies and ensures that those things can be done in concert. So I think that’s part of the longer term policy agenda. There’s not necessarily a policy incentive for using reusables but maybe there could be. Certainly there could be policy goals ensuring that products are as environmentally friendly and safe as possible.
Suzanne Siemens: And as transparent as possible, as in the case of the Women’s Voices for the Earth campaign, right?
JWW: Transparency is always a goal, but the goal shouldn’t just be to let us know how bad the products are for us, but to make them better.
MS: Indeed, this is why we created Lunapads. But tell us Jennifer, what was your first step in all of this? When did the penny drop for you?
JWW: The long version of the story is that every year on New Year’s Day, I do the polar bear swim here in New York City at Coney Island with a group of friends, and we take it really seriously. It’s almost like a spiritual event for us — it’s a way to set our goals and determine what our reality is going to be for the year ahead. We truly do run into the water, holding hands, as a way to affirm our resolutions for ourselves for the year. And so 2015 was no different. The only thing that was different, about the polar bear swim that year was that we felt like we were getting a little bit slow and we wanted to up the ante and we all decided to dress up as Wonder Woman.
MS: That’s so cool!
JWW: So we bought these Wonder Woman bathing suits and I had a Wonder Woman winter hat and a cape and we had a lot of glitter on, and we paraded around the boardwalk. Four middle-aged women dressed as Wonder Woman and swimming in our Wonder Woman get-ups! So I was feeling really great and inspired, and I had made a goal of publishing one piece a month. When I got home I was immediately editing my pictures so I could post them, and while I was putting them up, I saw this Facebook flyer from some kids in my community who were doing a collection drive for tampons and pads for our local food pantry, and they’d made a fact sheet explaining why these products aren’t included in food stamps and why it’s hard for the pantry to get them. As soon as I heard it it was like a weird light bulb had gone off in my head and I was obsessed with the thought from the get-go. I started reading and Googling and I had three very distinct reactions stick with me. The first is that I read about all the innovation happening about Africa and India and I was really motivated, it was so inspiring. I would never have guessed that I’d find myself in India with these people just a few months later. It was riveting to me that the problem was so clearly identified and that solutions were being so boldly forged.
The second thing I came upon was Jessica Valenti’s essay in The Guardian in August of 2014 where she raised many of the questions that we’re talking about now in the policy arena: government subsidies and tax exemptions. What was remarkable about her essay was not that she wrote it, but that it was the subject of so much attack in right-wing vitriol. It really brought out the awful in that community, a real hatred of poor women and poor women’s bodies. And then [the third thing I noticed was when I did research] in to whether this was a problem in need of addressing here in the United States, there was just nothing, there was absolutely nothing. Zero. I mean maybe I would come across the occasional food pantry or shelter that would include tampons or pads in their list of things they needed donated, but that was about it. So that for me was it, it was about learning about the problem, because these kids posted a flyer on Facebook for a collection drive. Mostly, at the time, I was excited because I made this New Year’s resolution, to write an essay a month and I knew I was going to write something about this. It was a story that needed to be told and it really wasn’t being told at that time, or certainly not from a U.S. perspective.
So I wrote this piece and shared it with Nicholas Kristof, the columnist at the New York Times, and much to my surprise and delight, he liked the piece and offered to run it. At the same time that it was published, two other really powerful reports and articles came out: Lisa De Bode, who’s a journalist here in the United States, wrote this really devastating, high-impact piece about the plight of homeless women and menstruation for Al Jazeera. And then the New York State Correctional Association released a study about the top reproductive health crises for incarcerated women in New York, and among the top issues was lack of access to menstrual products. So these three things came out at the same time and seemed to spark a conversation here in the U.S. media in a way that was much more pragmatic. And as we all know, the year continued to pick up momentum with different acts of rebellion and activism. Once you know this, you can’t un-know it. I have not been able to turn my brain off since January 1st, 2015. This has occupied a huge corner of my mind for a year and a half and I realize that a year and a half is hardly anything compared to how long you all and so many others have been in the game.
MS: It does feel like there’s been a sea change in consciousness around the whole issue that we’ve been watching for a while now and it’s broadening and showing up in art and in political protest and policies and all these things. So it’s great! And we’re pumped!
SS: Yes, we’ve been doing this for a long time but it takes some really brave people to write stories like Jessica Valenti, as it inspires and spurs others to capture the minds of people in a way that feels accessible to them. If the media and the public are more open to talking about a tampon tax instead of the social stigma around menstruation, that’s fine. We are just to happy to see whatever channels people are using to amplify the conversation.
MS: Where are you at with feminism these days? How do you think it’s changing and what does it mean to you?
JWW: I’ve always been a feminist. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a feminist. Ever since I’ve been old enough to know what a feminist is I’ve identified as one. But it’s interesting because I’ve always been deeply involved in pro-choice activism and legal work and all of that throughout my career as well. I remember reading and trying to understand that being pro-choice was about much more than access to abortion. And it was harder to believe in the late 80s even the early 90s when abortion rights were so squarely under attack after the Reagan administration and the Supreme Court to the series of cases in 1989 to 1992 and really were doing damage to the infrastructure that was Roe [v. Wade]. And now it’s interesting that my feminism has deepened as I’ve gotten older, partly because I’m raising kids and I want to ensure that my children are ingrained with notions of equity and equality. But my idea of reproductive justice has certainly become broader as people told me it should be back in those days. For example, trying to understand and embrace new gender norms is something that I’m working at because I was not raised in a society where that was part of the dialogue. So my feminism has become more textured and richer as I’ve gotten older and more experienced. But all of this work is obviously fully rooted in feminism. And even as I try to be more fluid about the notion of gender, this is all an extension of a lifetime of feminism.