At midnight the day before fall classes began at Brown University, Viet Nguyen and six other student government representatives crept through campus, looking for bathrooms.
In their hands they held small baskets of feminine hygiene products to stash inside, name-brand tampons and sanitary pads that the next day students would be encouraged to take and use, all free.
They hit 30 buildings and an estimated 70 bathrooms — men’s, women’s and gender-neutral — in two hours.
“We were really efficient,” Nguyen told The Washington Post early Friday. “It was kind of fun.”
Their late-night deliveries marked the launch of a campuswide initiative to promote tampons and pads as not a luxury item, but as much of a bathroom necessity as toilet paper or hand soap — the latest iteration of a national movement sparked earlier this year when debate over the “tampon tax” emerged.
Some states, including Rhode Island, home to Brown, introduced bills to repeal the tampon tax, which labeled feminine hygiene products as luxury goods or nonnecessities, and this summer, New York City officials announced plans to distribute tampons and pads free throughout public schools, homeless shelters and jails.
These efforts motivated Nguyen, student government president, and his executive board to make Brown one of the first — if not the first — higher education institution to follow suit.
“We thought we could be the tipping point,” Nguyen said, “pushing conversation to action.”
Beginning this week, the Undergraduate Council of Students at Brown will take responsibility for stocking all bathrooms in academic buildings across campus with the products. Once a week, student government representatives will return to replenish supplies.
They hope, eventually, the university will take on that responsibility.
The launch comes on the heels of a months-long effort, organized mostly online between UCS executive board members scattered across the country for the summer. They allocated funds in their budget, provided by the Undergraduate Finance Board, and talked logistics with university officials.
Tuesday, the day before classes resumed, Nguyen, a senior studying education policy, sent a letter to the student body, notifying them of the new program.
“We hope that this step, making Brown one of the first institutions in higher education to implement such a program at this scale, will motivate other universities and student governments to take similar actions to address this issue of equity,” the letter read.
And after just two days, Nguyen said they have received a dozen enthusiastic calls and emails from other universities, coast to coast, seeking guidance on how to kick-start their own programs.
But along with the positive feedback, Nguyen said, there has been plenty of opposition.
Almost all of it has centered on one element of the program — the decision to stock the men’s room, too.
“We anticipated it,” Nguyen said of the backlash, “but it’s a different thing to anticipate it and then get the hate mail coming in.”
Several conservative news outlets led with that information, prompting reactions like this on social media:
“Only at a liberal cult university, would you find tampon dispensers in the men’s room.”
“STOP THE MADNESS!”
In its headline, Breitbart wrote “Brown University Providing Tampons in men’s bathrooms because ‘both sexes menstruate,’ ” though the quote was unattributed and did not appear in the text of the story. Mediaite, in a similar headline, wrote “Brown Univ. to Put Tampons in ALL Bathrooms: ‘Not All People Who Menstruate Are Women,’ ” though, that quote was unattributed as well.
Nguyen, for his part, said the decision was not about redefining who does and doesn’t biologically menstruate. The UCS simply wanted to promote an environment of transgender-inclusivity.
In the letter to the student body, Nguyen wrote that the executive board hopes “to set a more inclusive standard for this issue moving forward, both in terms of the language used and how future initiatives will be implemented, keeping in mind that menstruation is experienced by more than just those who identify as women and that not all people who identify as women menstruate.”
Someone can identify as a transgender man and still biologically resemble a woman, so just providing tampons to those who use the women’s restroom would not serve all students who require the products, Nguyen said.
It’s unclear how much the new initiative will cost UCS, Nguyen said, and he declined to provide estimates. He did, however, say that the products were not generic, but name brand — and that they chose tampons with sleek plastic applicators.
The debate over the “tampon tax,” and whether women should be penalized for products they cannot biologically help but need, has been raging for nearly a year. California was one of the first states where a bill was introduced to slash taxes from menstrual products, with State Assembly Member Cristina Garcia (D) leading the fight.
In a news release from January, Garcia wrote that women in California pay over $20 million annually in taxes on tampons and pads — an additional, unnecessary price on products that are already expensive, especially for poor women.
After the bill was introduced in California, similar bills in other states followed. Lawmakers passed them in Illinois, New York and Connecticut. In Rhode Island, where Brown University is located, state legislators introduced a bill but it stalled in committee, reported the Associated Press. State lawmakers vowed to revisit the issue in the upcoming legislative session.
In a statement to the AP about the Brown University initiative, National Organization for Women President Terry O’Neill praised the effort, echoing that tampons are as necessary as toilet paper.
“Students’ participation in school should not be hindered by insufficient access to this basic necessity,” O’Neill told the AP. “Universities around the country should follow suit.”
Nguyen hopes that one day, the program will become “an institutional part of Brown.”
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