Origins of “Are You There, Law? It’s Me, Menstruation” (Columbia Journal of Gender & Law Symposium, April 2021)

On April 9-10, 2021, the Columbia Journal of Gender & Law hosted a virtual symposium, “Are You There, Law? It’s Me, Menstruation.” The symposium’s title is inspired by Judy Blume’s young adult classic, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970), soon to be a Lionsgate film of the same name. Over one year before, Emily Waldman (Pace), Margaret Johnson (Baltimore) and I had proposed the program to the student editors of CJGL; we agreed to serve as the faculty co-conveners. As our symposium planning partners, we had the fantastic student editors at the CJGL, including Jenna Lauter and Sarah Ortlip-Sommers.

This is the only symposium (that I know of, at least) that developed out of a tweet (that itself developed out of a hallway conversation that developed out of another symposium that developed out of a different law review article by a different professor – dayenu?!).

This blog post is the back story of a uniquely named conference.

At the end of January 2020, my Pace colleague (and co-author) Emily Waldman casually mentioned that she had just come back from a Virginia Law Review symposium, Tinker at the Schoolhouse Gates: 50 Years After Tinker v. Des Moines, marking the anniversary of that landmark student speech decision.

At the time, Emily and I had been talking about, thinking about, and researching different intersections of menstruation and law. We had recently published The Unconstitutional Tampon Tax, 53 U. Rich. L. Rev. 339 (2019), arguing that the state sales tax on menstrual products is unconstitutional. We were in the process of finishing up an article, co-authored with Margaret E. Johnson (Baltimore), Title IX and Menstruation, 43 Harv. J. Law & Gender 225 (2020). In that piece, we argue that public secondary schools should provide free menstrual products to students, because the failure to address menstruation-related needs could amount to a denial of educational opportunities on the basis of sex under Title IX.

The more Emily and I were thinking and talking about the many ways that menstruation impacts life for approximately half of the human inhabitants of the world, the more we found ourselves asking what law could and should do to eliminate any obstacles to all people’s full participation in public life. (Here, I acknowledge the serendipity of having an office on the same floor as a colleague who took an interest in an early version of a different article on the tampon tax and human rights that I presented at an internal faculty workshop. One conversation led to another, and shortly thereafter, Emily and I were collaborating on a series of articles, drawing on her expertise in Constitutional Law, Employment Law, and Education Law, and my interests in Tax Law and Feminist Legal Theory.)

Right after Emily mentioned her participation in Tinker symposium, I started thinking about what other important fiftieth anniversaries might serve as inspirations for law review symposia. Late that night, it occurred to me. The year 2020 was the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Through that book, many young readers encounter for the first time a frank discussion of menstruation in a context other than a school health class or an awkward conversation with parents. That night, I tweeted (here):

I’m thinking we need a law review symposium on “God, Margaret and the Law 50 Years Later” this year. This YA book by@judyblume was published 50 yrs ago this year + is impt influence on today’s #menstrual equity movement in US. Thank you, Judy Blume!

After 52 likes–what more does a middle-aged law prof need?–and a suggestion from colleague Jessica Dixon Weaver (SMU) (here) (“imagine the panels and the keynote from Judy B. herself!”), the next day I drafted up a symposium proposal with the working title, “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Menstruation.” I had sketched out possible panels focused on constitutional law, employment law, prisoners’ rights, and other issues. I was worried that the title was too tongue-in-cheek to be taken seriously. But Emily liked it. She thought that the title would resonate with Judy Blume fans and that it uniquely encapsulated many of the issues we had been discussing between ourselves: How can and should the law account for the fact that half the population menstruates for a large portion of their lives?

We invited our co-author Margaret Johnson to join our proposal and sent it off on February 5, 2020 to the student editors at the CJGL. Despite the many distractions of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the students received the proposal with enthusiasm and agreed to take on planning a symposium to be held the next academic year. We issued an open call for participation (here) and received a fantastic number of responses from scholars, activists, and students around the globe.

Although we had hoped to hold the symposium in person in 2021, in the end, public health concerns limited us to an all-Zoom format. The format turned out to have many advantages, though. In addition to traditional panels with colleagues from India, Australia and the U.K., there was a unique “lightning round” featuring authors of short-form, menstruation-themed companion essays that the Journal solicited through the open call and then published on its website. The lightning round participants ranged from a pair of high school students to college students, law students and senior law scholars. It was exciting to see and hear so many diverse perspectives represented!

Another highlight of the symposium was the keynote address by menstrual equity advocate United States Representative Grace Meng (D-Queens), the sponsor of the Menstrual Equity for All Act. There also were appearances by author Judy Blume, first in conversation with a Columbia Law student and then in an interview with a 12-year old reader–that’s the same age as the fictional Margaret!

In between the time of the proposal and the actual symposium at Columbia, Emily Waldman and I had began working on a book, Menstruation Matters: Making Law and Society Responsive to Human Needs. It will be published by NYU Press in 2022. The book aptly could have the same name I invented for the symposium: “Are You There, Law? It’s Me, Menstruation.” Our book has chapters devoted to multiple discrete areas of the law in which menstruation matters a great deal to whether and how half the population can participate for large portions of their life in education, employment, religious observances, family life and beyond. Now in the final stretches of manuscript preparation, we grateful for symposium’s introduction of many more voices into the conversation about law’s limitations and potential when it comes to menstruation-related issues. Both the symposium issue of the CJGL and our book tread new ground in legal scholarship.

We’ll post more when the symposium issue comes out and when we have a 2022 publication date from NYU Press for our monograph!

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