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On New Years Day in 2015, feminist, writer and activist Jennifer Weiss-Wolf and three friends put on Wonder Woman costumes and took a polar bear dip in the Atlantic Ocean.
Later that day, Weiss-Wolf logged into Facebook and saw a post about a local family’s drive to collect tampons and pads for the low-income patrons of her community food pantry. Channelling the feminist superhero, she began what would become a Wonder Woman-esque fight for equitable menstruation policy in America.
Since that day, Weiss-Wolf has written articles on policy for the New York Times, Washington Post, Time and Cosmopolitan, catching the attention of lawmakers. She also became the co-founder of Period Equity, the first United States legal and policy organization committed to menstrual access, affordability and safety.
Now, Weiss-Wolf is pushing periods further into the public consciousness with her new book, Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity (Arcade Publishing, $ 24.99). This book recounts her own experience fighting for period equity as well as those of other activists in North America and around the world.
Weiss-Wolf spoke to the Star from New York about her book, menstruation products and profits, and why public bathrooms should carry tampons as much as toilet paper.
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Why is it important to speak publicly about periods?
When I started to learn about the issue in 2015, I really wanted to be part of a systemic solution. So I started thinking about it in terms of a policy agenda that would zero in on the economics and equity issues involved in managing menstruation. The tampon tax seemed like a good testing ground. It was a way of getting people use to talking about periods, use to saying the word tampon, use to speaking about and admitting that there are actual economics to menstruation.
So my goal wasn’t solely to destigmatize menstruation; my goal, really was to focus in on populations where menstruation posed a barrier to participation in society, but doing so required creating a discourse.
Meanwhile, other activists started stepping into the ring. In a way that wasn’t prefabricated, none of us knew each other. We started to find each other and, by the end of the year, we became this strong network for social change.
In the book you talk about travelling to southern India to learn about the “Make your own pad” revolution — a DIY pad production model for local women. Can any of the lessons learned abroad be applied to rural and/or vulnerable populations here?
I’ve been able to travel to both Kenya and Nepal since writing the book, so I’ve been able to study this and similar models in three very different cultures
The model is rather extraordinary. It’s focused on this completely micro model; as local as it can be, right down to the wood fibre used to create the pad. The idea of women creating affordable menstruation products themselves and through networks that support women as family members, educators, entrepreneurs — there’s something quite radical about that. It was amazing to me that everyone, from the people who created these models, to the women who make and sell the products, to the women and girls who receive the products, everyone involved understands that products alone aren’t the solution.
It depressed me a little, too. This model seemed too small for America’s big economy and that seems wrong. It would be really neat to see something like this be embedded in a job-training site or something because the benefits are extraordinary. The stories that women told about the autonomy they felt in learning how to do a job, earning an income, educating and being thought of as a leader to their communities and to other women, that stuff is all part of women’s empowerment and economic empowerment.
What is the relationship between menstruation activists and the companies that produce menstruation products?
You can tell from my book that I have some mixed emotions.
Over the past few years, a number of small companies, women-run, have started to emerge that produce menstruation products and espouse profound feminist values. Luna (period product company) is one here in Canada.
It’s interesting. I’m thrilled to see women forging ahead with entrepreneur spirit and creating products that are better and provide more choice. I do worry about how a profit-yielding industry can be part of devising a social agenda. The advocacy is not intended to create profit; the advocacy is intended to create a social good. I’m reminded of Andi Zeisler’s book, We Were Feminist Once, about marketplace feminism. I don’t want someone to think that because they’re wearing a T-shirt that says “nevertheless she persisted,” or because they donated 30 per cent of their purchase to a cause that that equates to the hard work that needs to be done.
How can people get involved in menstrual activism?
The first step toward action is acknowledging that menstruation matters and is a viable political issue. Changing our law will improve the lives of many who are marginalized — the incarcerated and homeless — it’ll improve the lives of low-income people who struggle to afford these products, and it’ll improve the lives of all women when our bodies are treated as normal.
Activism takes many forms. Some people like to write, some are poets, some are musicians, some are athletes and some are just really good on Twitter. Everybody has something to contribute. It’s not hard to be an activist.
In terms of making policy change, it doesn’t have to involve speaking to your government officials. It can be as simple as going to your local school board, or your gym, or your local library and saying, “hey, you know if you provide menstrual products in your bathroom you’d make it more useful to half the people who use it.”
I’m going to go off on a slight tangent here, but it’s important: Bathroom laws sound sort of silly — how much social change happens in bathrooms? Well, right now public bathrooms provide certain products and we treat that as very normal. We expect there to be toilet paper, hand soap, some way to dry our hands after we wash them, not because we were born feeling entitled to toilet paper, but because our laws made that the norm. Who decides that toilet paper is free, but tampons are not? And to all those people saying “who’s gonna fund this? Just carry your own tampon” it’s a fairly quick retort: “Yeah, well, what about all that government-funded toilet paper you’ve been wiping you’re a— with your whole life?”