Karen Houppert is associate director of Johns Hopkins University’s MA in Writing Program and the author of “The Curse: Confronting the Last Taboo, Menstruation” (1999).
Periods are interesting to me.
For 22 years, I’ve been thinking about them, reading about them, collecting trivia about them, boring folks at dinner parties about them and writing articles about them — beginning with a 1995 cover story in the Village Voice about the menstrual-products industry. The alternative newspaper scandalized sophisticated New Yorkers by putting on its cover an image of a tampon string peeking from between a woman’s thighs.
After two decades, I remain obsessed with menstruation as a window on our culture’s lack of respect for women’s bodies and reproductive rights, and its misunderstanding of consumerism and advertising.
So it was with tremendous pleasure that I heard of Jennifer Weiss-Wolf’s new book, “Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity.” Weiss-Wolf argues that menstrual equity is a gateway issue for feminists. “In order to have a fully equitable and participatory society,” she writes, “we must have laws and policies that ensure menstrual products are safe and affordable and available for those who need them.”
Weiss-Wolf, a lawyer who works at the Brennan Center for Justice, is the force behind the fight to eliminate a sales tax on tampons. She has also drawn attention to the plight of homeless women, girls in developing countries and female inmates, all of whom have difficulty getting the menstrual products they need.
Weiss-Wolf contends that the tampon tax amounts to a “pink tax” on women. Some states that charge sales tax exclude necessities such as food and medicine. Tampons and pads, by comparsion, are taxed 4 to 10 percent. Thanks in part to Weiss-Wolf’s efforts, 13 states have scrapped the sales tax on tampons, and legislatures in many other states are weighing similar action.
Weiss-Wolf has joined with other activists in advocating for better Food and Drug Administration oversight of menstrual products. For instance, manufacturers are not required to list components on packages. While they must record “adverse events” related to product use, Weiss-Wolf points out that since “they don’t have to share internal studies or research with anyone outside the FDA, we’ve got no recourse for getting a second opinion.”
“Periods Gone Public” catalogues almost everything on the menstrual landscape, making the book an invaluable resource, if not a riveting read. However, Weiss-Wolf stumbles in places. Her discussion of efforts to provide disposable products to women in developing countries overlooks some environmental concerns and the blatant market-driven motivations behind some social entrepreneurs. And her embrace of a movement that she believes will improve the workplace ignores some scary implications. The Red School movement offers what it thinks is a visionary approach to menstruation. In this brave new work world, Weiss-Wolf writes that employees would be “offered an opportunity to chart their cycles” and “assess its impact on work habits and best practices.” She suggests that this knowledge, including insights like “I am lethargic and irritable for two days before my period,” could “provide guidance for customizing scheduling and assignments.”
In July 2016, Fast Company wrote about one office that is already doing that. Thinx, the maker of "period panties for modern women," posts menstrual charts indicating where each employee is in her cycle. "Coworkers are aware when a team member is experiencing premenstrual tension or is likely to have cramps," reporter Elizabeth Segran wrote. "In an ideal situation, they can be more sympathetic to one another. They believe that this approach actually makes everyone more productive."
Weiss-Wolf describes this as “menstrutopia.” I see it rather as a menstrual dystopia of “Handmaid’s Tale” proportions, where women are reduced to the sum of their publicly chronicled cycles, hemmed in by predictive notions about their efficacy in the workplace at any given time, their emotional fortitude and their fluctuating value in the marketplace based on the state of their hormones.
Dicey science has long been used to evaluate women's abilities in the workplace. During World War II, the government created instructional films for members of the Women's Army Corps and female workers that cited scientific evidence that periods are "no excuse for absenteeism and self-coddling." Postwar studies purported to show a woman's infectiveness during her menstrual cycles. As recently as 1995, when the nation debated women in combat, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich alluded to the dangers of menstruation and warned about a female soldier's life in a combat ditch, saying that "females have biological problems staying in a ditch for thirty days because they get infections and they don't have upper body strength."
Many programs to foster menstrual awareness in the workplace and elsewhere are driven by the corporate world. Weiss-Wolf casts many small, innovative start-ups in the developing and developed world as allies in the battle to eliminate the stigma and shame associated with monthly bleeding. And large companies such as Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson are seeking major inroads in the developing world. I have little faith in hitching the menstrual wagon to corporate stars in hopes that they will drive an enlightened movement.
“As long as you’re promoting products, you’re not addressing the stigma of menstruation — you’re helping menstruators hide their menstruation more efficiently,” says Christina Bobel, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Massachusetts and president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.
Fortunately, despite its flaws, “Periods Gone Public” is a rich picture of the current menstrual landscape — and a promising call to smart activism.
By Jennifer Weiss-Wolf
Arcade. 308 pp. $24.99