SITTING ON THE TOILET of the second floor bathroom stall, my face hot with embarrassment, I looked down at my blood-stained underwear. I had already been gone from class for over five minutes, but couldn’t go back now with blood soaking through my pants.
With no tampons in the girl’s bathroom, out of desperation I balled up some toilet paper, stuffed it in my underwear, and hoped that it didn’t fall out from my shorts the next time I stood up.
This is the unspoken truth of menstruating students all across the country.
Bathrooms are stocked with toilet paper, soap, and paper towels but rarely, if ever, tampons or hygiene items. Even if you’re lucky enough to find a tampon dispenser, it is likely to be coin-operated, like a gumball machine, and almost certainly empty. And if you don’t have any change on you, you’re out of luck.
A national study sponsored by Free the Tampon found that 86 percent of women have started their period unexpectedly in public, and 79 percent of women have had to MacGyver some alternate method to absorb their blood flow. On top of that, some menstruating students can’t afford tampons, so 1 in 5 female students have missed school as a result.
While menstruating students suffer in silence, non-menstruating students never have to worry about this distraction while focusing on their education.
In her doctoral dissertation on the subject of menstrual hygiene management in US public schools, Dr. Charlotte Powley noted that this issue extends far beyond just menstruation. Menstrual hygiene management in schools is about belonging and equity. We have to examine the messages that are being implicitly sent to menstruators when they show up to learn and our educational spaces are not prepared to meet their biological needs.
Powley’s 2019 research at a Massachusetts high school revealed that approximately 27 percent of students either disagree or strongly disagree with the statement “I can get free pads, tampons, or other sanitary items while at school that are provided by the school.” An additional 30 percent said they were not sure whether the products were available.
Some suggest that students can simply go to the nurse for menstrual hygiene products. But that only serves to teach students that their period is an illness, rather than a normal bodily function. Relying solely on the nurse’s office for hygiene products can also lead to additional lost class time. One study found that 80 percent of female students have missed all or part of a class, or know someone who did, because they did not have access to a pad or tampon.
Why not just ask a teacher, you might ask? (As if we don’t ask our teachers for enough already). Fifty percent of students from Powley’s study had trouble identifying an adult from whom they would feel comfortable asking for a sanitary item if they needed one.
Furthermore, over one quarter of low-income students from Powley’s study reported that they either strongly disagree or disagree with the statement: “I can get free pads, tampons, or sanitary items while at school that are provided by the school.”
This is startling.
No student should be worrying about where their next tampon will come from when they are trying to take notes in history class.
And for those who suggest that menstruators bring their own products to school, I wonder how many of you carry toilet paper, soap, and paper towels in your pockets.
Looking for a way to fix the problem. I shared my story with Rep. Jeffrey N. Roy of Franklin. One simple solution: why not provide pads and tampons in schools, just like toilet paper?
Together we wrote the Menstrual Product Access in State Schools Act (H.690), which requires all public schools in Massachusetts to provide menstrual products in bathrooms at no cost to students.
California, Illinois, New Hampshire, New York, and Washington have already turned this policy into law and Massachusetts should be next. Passage of this legislation is essential for Massachusetts to maintain its reputation as a leader in education and public health.
Until this legislation is passed, the message is being sent that our schools are not meant for girls. We can change that. Call your legislator.
Caroline Williams wrote this piece in association with Dr. Charlotte Powley and Rep. Jeffrey Roy. Williams is a junior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Honors College studying political science and public health. She wrote the MPASS bill with Roy in high school, and has been committed to the cause ever since. Powley recently completed her PhD in social policy at The Heller School at Brandeis University. Roy is the House chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities & Energy.