Bridget J. Crawford recently spoke with Jennifer Weiss-Wolf of Period Equity, a non-profit organization located in New York City focused on all aspects of menstrual fairness. Ms. Weiss-Wolf is a self-described “writer, activist, feminist.” She is an advocate and frequent commentator on all things related to menstruation and public policy.
In this interview, Ms. Weiss-Wolf explains some of her work on behalf of menstrual equity and the relationship between law and social change.
Bridget Crawford: Your Period Equity colleague Laura Stausfeld described you “the most prolific and organized ‘menstrual equity’ advocate.” Can you explain what menstrual equity is?
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf: It is a term I concocted – and I am glad to see it taking hold! What I mean by menstrual equity is this: People who menstruate need affordable and accessible hygiene products to be fully equal players in society, to be productive students and citizens, and to be healthy. Addressing issues of menstruation – access, affordability, safety – is a matter of equitable treatment, even equitable representation in our government.
Crawford: Can you explain what you mean when you say menstruation is related to equitable representation in government?
Weiss-Wolf: President Obama actually said it best when he was asked during a YouTube interview last January why he thought that menstrual products were not exempt from sales tax. His answer: “I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed.” I basically agree. I don’t imagine there has ever been a secret or nefarious plot to purposefully exclude menstruation from policymaking. Rather, it is simply the outcome of too few women at the decision-making table – which, in turn, pretty much guarantees that our experiences are not fully reflected, nor our interests fully represented.
That said, though, stigma and marginalization are squarely part of the equation too. President-elect Donald Trump made incendiary comments about menstruation early in the campaign. When California Assembly Member Cristina Garcia introduced the tampon tax bill there in January 2016, she was nicknamed “Miss Menstruation.” When women are mocked for our biology – in an overt attempt to bully or quiet us down – the ability to promote policies that improve women’s lives is compromised.
Crawford: How did you first get involved in issues related to menstruation and public policy?
Weiss-Wolf: I can pinpoint the exact moment. It was New Year’s Day 2015 … at the Coney Island Polar Bear Club’s plunge. Each year my friends and I join hundreds of other New Yorkers crazy enough to charge into the icy Atlantic. That year we had even upped the ante and dressed up as Wonder Woman! After I got home and shook off all the sand and glitter – I did the natural next thing: posted my pictures on Facebook. And that was when I saw a post by a local parent that she and her daughters were leading a collection drive for tampons and pads to donate to our local food pantry. Their project was called “Girls Helping Girls. Period.”
I was floored that I’d never even considered this before. If periods are a hassle for me – an adult with the means to have a fully stocked supply of tampons and no inhibitions at all talking about it – it seemed nakedly, painfully obvious that for those who are poor, young, vulnerable, it could so easily be a real obstacle and problem. After some preliminary research I wrote an essay describing my reaction to this revelation that The New York Times published later that month. And there began the journey – literally, from Wonder Woman on the beach.
Crawford: Can you describe some of your early work on behalf of menstrual equity?
Weiss-Wolf: Right away I knew I wanted to address the issue from a policy perspective. Donation drives are crucial – they meet a need and engage the public – but, truly, I see this as a matter of societal and public obligation.
In terms of what would make a winning policy campaign, I zeroed in on the tampon tax. I knew that activists around the world were taking it on, and the time seemed ripe to do the same here in the U.S. It is a fairly straightforward public argument about equity and fairness that I thought would be popular and attract a wide audience.
In October 2015, I conceptualized and initiated the inaugural national tampon tax petition on change.org, and was thrilled when Cosmopolitan Magazine agreed to co-sponsor. My goal in creating a national petition was to ratchet up public attention to the issue in order to spur states to take action. It worked. By January 2016, President Obama weighed in, resulting in an avalanche of national media (that still hasn’t subsided). By March, I was called upon by Laura Strausfeld to assess and guide the public and media strategy vis-à-vis the filing of the class action lawsuit she conceptualized for New York State. In June, the American Medical Association issued a statement in support of legislation to eliminate the tampon tax. To date, the petition has more than 60,000 signatures and the advocacy campaign resulted in the introduction of legislation and/or public debate in 15 states during the 2016 session. The tax was eliminated in Connecticut, Illinois and New York, as well as the City of Chicago. The District of Columbia passed a bill last week to eliminate it (now awaiting the Mayor’s signature). California’s bill, passed unanimously in the legislature, was recently vetoed by Governor Brown. More states are poised to introduce and pass similar laws in 2017. Over the past year I provided research and support to lawmakers in states and cities across the country, including California, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, as well as Chicago, D.C. and New York City. I also testified and presented before several legislative bodies.
Crawford: Why do you think the issue of the tampon tax in particular captured the attention of popular press outlets like Cosmopolitan and Newsweek?
Weiss-Wolf: The issue has the benefit of being interesting, under-reported (well, until the past year) and essential to the lives and well-being of half the population! Add in a dose of stigma-busting (and therefore headline-grabbing) and you have a winning combination.
A central component of my advocacy strategy has been to elevate the national discourse around menstrual equity policy – not only as a way to eradicate stigma and educate the public about the plight of those who lack access, but also to motivate legislators to act and ensure they know the public will is on the side of these laws. For example, I write a weekly update for a curated list of media contacts and work closely with many editors and reporters to ensure coverage that is accurate, compelling, timely and effective. I also lend my own voice to the public arena with public writing and have published around 20 op-eds in outlets including Newsweek and Cosmo – as well as The New York Times, TIME, The Nation, Bloomberg, Bustle and Ms. Magazine, among others. [See Ms. Weiss-Wolf’s website here for links to her op-eds and other writings. -ed.]
At the close of 2015, NPR coined the oft-quoted term “The Year of the Period,” noting that the number of times the word menstruation was mentioned by national news outlets more than tripled from 2010 to 2015. Cosmo named 2015 “The Year the Period Went Public.” As you mention, in April 2016, for the first time ever, Newsweek featured period activism as a cover story. These are among the many hundreds of high-profile headlines and hits over the past year on the policy aspect of this work.
Crawford: You played a role in the New York City Council’s decision to make menstrual hygiene products available in jails, homeless shelters and public schools. How did that come about?
Weiss-Wolf: One of the best moments of this advocacy campaign was the day I was introduced to NYC Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland. An interview in Glamour with the two of us highlights the amazing partnership we have forged. Julissa is a force of nature. I first met with her in March 2015 to talk about how the City could be a leader in advancing menstrual policy. She jumped right in and made it a major priority. She coordinated a roundtable of activists from across the City who engage with low-income populations – from the shelters, to after-school programs, to food pantries, to legal services providers. We got a great deal of feedback and support. Within a year’s time, Julissa ensured that the Council introduced and saw signed into law a legislative package that ensures provision of free tampons and pads in the city’s public schools, shelters and corrections facilities. My proud moment: For “catapulting menstrual equity into a national conversation,” I was awarded a proclamation from the City. Next up is a national effort to help other major cities and states replicate New York City’s success. Julissa and her office are serving as mentors and partners. We’ve worked together to create a “best practices” webinar for interested educators and legislators.
Crawford: When you are not doing menstrual equity work, you have a full-time job at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Did your work at the Brennan Center inform how you started thinking about issues like the tampon tax?
Weiss-Wolf: The Brennan Center is an amazing institution. It is fair to say I have had the benefit of working alongside some of the nation’s experts on winning social and legal change – and adopting and adapting those strategies for advancing menstrual equity. At the Center, we often say that it is not enough to win in the court of law – and that winning in the court of public opinion is equally vital. For an issue like menstruation and related policy – where the conversation has been stifled for hundreds, thousands of years due to stigma and shame – that strategy is doubly important. Interestingly, when people start talking about menstrual policy, and when the media normalizes the subject, I find there is shockingly little discord or disagreement.
Crawford: Now that the tampon tax has been repealed in New York, the plaintiffs in the New York law suit have voluntarily dismissed their case. Were you disappointed?
Weiss-Wolf: I would like to see one of the lawsuits go the distance, and to have the muscle of a court ruling on our side. That said, I had always viewed the lawsuit as a tool to help advance the policy agenda – and so the unanimous passage of legislation, and the governor’s proud signature on the law, was my ultimate goal.
Crawford: What’s the likelihood of repeal of the tampon tax in other states?
Weiss-Wolf: This campaign had an amazing first year. Every victory had bipartisan support and leadership. I expect to see more wins on the map in 2017. The goal this year is to really make it feel inevitable that eliminating the tax on menstrual products is the fair, equitable thing to do, and that the public overwhelmingly supports it. And that those who veto or don’t get behind such laws are the outliers.
Crawford: Any thoughts yet on what a Trump presidency and a Republican Congress will mean for women’s issues?
Weiss-Wolf: Clearly a Trump-Pence Administration means some very dark days ahead for women. Both the President- and Vice President-Elect have horrific records on women’s health, bodies and well-being. And, oddly, both have even found themselves in the midst of period-focused controversy. Trump’s accusation early on in the presidential race that FOX News moderator Megyn Kelly was menstruating while moderating (the infamous “blood coming out of her wherever” line) spurred a viral hashtag campaign #PeriodsAreNotAn Insult. And as governor of Indiana, Pence signed an abortion bill so restrictive and controversial, a powerhouse social media campaign called #PeriodsForPence also made headlines. I’d written a piece for Ms. Magazine dubbing them the “Tampon Ticket.”
But given that they will create the need to fight all kinds of defensive fight for reproductive and women’s health, it may well be that menstrual policy – with its rare glimmer of bipartisan interest – remains a viable option for affirmative advances. I will certainly be fighting for that.
And there is an already-existing – though quiet, still – federal agenda. Whether it will have any teeth in the new Congress is still unknown. Thus far it has been led by U.S. Rep. Grace Meng, a Democrat from New York, who has quickly emerged as a strong champion for menstrual equity in Congress. After I had proposed in a New York Times essay that the tax laws be adjusted so that menstrual products could be included in Flexible Spending Account allowances, Representative Meng introduced a federal bill to do so. She also spearheaded a rule change enabling FEMA to add menstrual products to the list of items that homeless assistance providers can purchase with federal grant funds. In July 2016, Representative Meng submitted a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch making the case that menstrual products be made available to federal inmates and detainees at no cost. She also introduced three menstrual equity bills. The Menstrual Products Tax Credit Act provides a $120 refundable tax credit to low-income individuals (income below 200% of the federal poverty level) who regularly use menstrual products. The Accurate Labeling of Menstrual Products Act requires ingredient labels to be placed on commonly-used menstrual products. The Menstrual Products for Employees Act directs the Secretary of Labor to promulgate regulations that mandate large employers (with 100 or more employees) to provide free menstrual products to their employees).
Crawford: It sounds like there is a lot to watch in this area. Thank you so much for speaking with us. Thank you for your advocacy on behalf of girls and women!