Period Poverty, Menstrual Equity, Menstrual Justice, or Menstrual Health: Naming the Norms That Legal Scholars Seek

If 2015 was the “Year the Period Went Public,” maybe we’re now in the period periodcatamenial decennary, or menstrual age. Whatever words we use, it’s undeniable that menstruation-related issues have gained new traction in public discourse, academic scholarship, workplaces, schools, and local, state, and national legislation. Of course, the biggest news this year was from Scotland: The Scottish Parliament unanimously approved the Period Products (Free Provision) Scotland Bill, making free menstrual products available for anyone who needs them. Stated a different way, Scotland recognizes a legal right to free menstrual products.

Depending on the context, there are different ways of talking about all of these efforts and the movement that the represent, in aggregate.

In the U.K., it is common to encounter discussion of efforts to end “period poverty.” As Emily Waldman (Pace) and I describe in this article forthcoming in the Washington University Law Review, that phrase gets defined different ways, depending on the context. The phrase might refer to the lack of financial resources to purchase commercial menstrual products, lack of access to material resources, including menstrual products, or to clean water, toilets, and hygienic disposal systems. It might refer to lack of menstruation-related education, or experiences of menstrual stigma and shame. It might refer to some or all of these things at the same time.

In the U.S., the phrase “menstrual equity,” first coined by Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, has become increasingly common. In her book, Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity, Weiss-Wolf defines menstrual equity as “laws and policies that ensure menstrual products are safe and affordable and available for those who need them. The ability to access these items affects a person’s freedom to work and study, to be healthy, and to participate in daily life with basic dignity.” To that, Women’s Voices for the Earth adds (here) that menstrual equity:

is also about education and reproductive care. It’s about making sure that people have the needs, support, and choices to decide how they want to take care of their menstrual health. And it’s about finally ending the stigma around periods that has prevented not only decision-makers, but also healthcare providers, educators and individuals from ensuring that menstrual health is a priority.

Professor Margaret Johnson (Baltimore) prefers the term “menstrual justice” (see her article here).

Add to this mix a new scholarly definition of “menstrual health,” developed by the “Terminology Action Group” of the Global Menstrual Collective:

Menstrual health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, in relation to the menstrual cycle.

Achieving menstrual health implies that women, girls, and all other people who experience a menstrual cycle, throughout their life-course, are able to:

  • access accurate, timely, age-appropriate information about the menstrual cycle, menstruation, and changes experienced throughout the life-course, as well as related self-care and hygiene practices.
  • care for their bodies during menstruation such that their preferences, hygiene, comfort, privacy, and safety are supported. This includes accessing and using effective and affordable menstrual materials and having supportive facilities and services, including water, sanitation and hygiene services, for washing the body and hands, changing menstrual materials, and cleaning and/or disposing of used materials.
  • access timely diagnosis, treatment and care for menstrual cycle-related discomforts and disorders, including access to appropriate health services and resources, pain relief, and strategies for self-care.
  • experience a positive and respectful environment in relation to the menstrual cycle, free from stigma and psychological distress, including the resources and support they need to confidently care for their bodies and make informed decisions about self-care throughout their menstrual cycle.
  • decide whether and how to participate in all spheres of life, including civil, cultural, economic, social, and political, during all phases of the menstrual cycle, free from menstrual-related exclusion, restriction, discrimination, coercion, and/or violence.

Julie Hennegan, Inga T. Winkler, Chris Bobel, Danielle Keiser, Janie Hampton, Gerda Larsson, Venkatraman Chandra-Mouli, Marina Plesons & Thérèse Mahon, Menstrual Health: A Definition for Policy, Practice, and Research, 29 Sexual & Reprod. Health Matters 1, 2 (2021).

I don’t have a stake in one particular definition over another. The ideas are more interesting than the buzz phrases. And in any case, my guess is that if one inquired of anyone involved in menstruation-related activism, organizing, or scholarship if they support the substantive goals associated with “menstrual equity,” “menstrual justice,” “menstrual health,” and ending “period  poverty,” the answer would be a resounding “yes,” by whatever name.  This isn’t to say there aren’t differences among the definitions; it’s just that the differences don’t do much work, or at least not yet.

This leads to the question: What is the significance of the name or phrase that one uses to describe the goals of a particular legal initiative, social program, plan of action, or even overall movement?

After speaking recently with a group of scholars associated with the Menstruation Research Network in Scotland and hearing more about how that country’s innovative legislative sausage got made, I have a renewed appreciation for the relationship between the description of an issue and the likelihood it will gain political/legislative traction (or not). Of course, this is well-trodden territory in other contexts (I’m thinking in particular of the brilliant work of Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro on the campaign against the “death tax”).

In the menstruation context, the definition of “menstrual health” by Hennegan et al. invites legal scholars to pause and consider how we name the norms/goals we prescribe. (I hope it’s still in keeping with Dave Hoffman’s excellent Fair Citation Rule if I don’t repeat all the names of the article above.)

I expect that answers to questions about naming norms can vary. The answers may depend on context and audience (e.g., legislative initiatives vs. litigation, grassroots organizing vs. top-down campaigns, initiatives aimed at employers vs. schools, etc. etc.).  At this point, I don’t (yet) see a utilitarian need for some sort of agreement on One Unifying Term to be deployed in all legal contexts. That being said, I can understand the desire to reach some agreed-upon “menstrual health” terminology; the public health scholars and experts who comprise the Global Menstrual Collective work in an arena that includes global players like the World Health Organization and the United Nations. Terminology may matter in terms of studies, scope of programs, funding and more.

I note with some curiosity, though, the definition of “menstrual health” does not contemplate an explicit role for law. Time for more interdisciplinary collaboration?

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