Schools Increasingly Offer Free Period Products for Equity and Accessibility

How Women in STEM are Changing Period Taboos Using Modern Technology

July 2023, Hesse, Kassel: A student holds a menstrual product in front of a menstrual product dispenser. Photo: Swen Pfortner (Photo by Swen Pfortner/picture alliance via Getty Images) (dpa/picture alliance via Getty I)

Thanks to the work of students and advocates, period products are increasingly being offered for free in public bathrooms. As of 2023, half of the states across the U.S. have passed legislation requiring free period products to be available in school restrooms.

Period products have seen little development and improvement since first being introduced. However, periods have seen more attention in recent years, between student organizing and everyday menstruators speaking up about their periods to end the period taboo.

Along with advocacy and conversation about menstrual health, new approaches to managing periods have popularized. New items like reusable pads, period underwear, drug-free pain management devices, and updated period product dispensers have redefined the period space in recent years. These concepts have largely been driven by women in STEM.

Designing a Modern Period Product Dispenser

Claire Coder is the founder of Aunt Flow, a business that focuses on getting free period products into bathrooms at schools and other public places. The company commonly partners with students and community leaders to advocate for free period products in public bathrooms and subsequently, to install the dispensers.

“I started the company seven years ago after attending an event in Ohio, starting my period unexpectedly, going to the bathroom, and finding a coin-operated tampon and pad dispenser,” Coder shares. “Naturally, I didn’t have a quarter because who carries coins? And also, I thought, if toilet paper is offered for free, why aren’t period products?” As an 18-year old at the time, Coder left college to make Aunt Flow a reality.

Aunt Flow doesn’t create just any period product dispenser, though. Aunt Flow dispensers are designed by the company to be free and accessible to menstruators, something that most current dispensers are not. “For a user, [it’s like] why did you put a quarter in and not know what you were getting out?” Coder reflects about traditional period product dispensers. “There is no window for easy viewing [and] the product that came out was really not something that anybody would want to use.”

Along with errors with how period product dispensers function for menstruators, they can also be challenging for janitors and sanitary staff who are tasked with ensuring dispensers stay stocked. “Most coin-operated dispensers today are rusty, challenging to reload, time-intensive to reload, and really complicated to navigate for a janitor,” Coder explains. “[We] really went about the design of the dispenser to make it the best it could be for the janitor, as well as the menstruator.”

The ease of reloading a dispenser is a significant concern when it comes to access to period products. One college found that while 19 campus bathrooms had a free pad or tampon dispenser installed, 47% of them were empty. While it’s unclear whether this was because of challenges with refilling the dispensers or other factors, it’s apparent that a user-friendly process for stocking dispensers is a key part of making period products free and accessible.

To address these issues, Coder and the team at Aunt Flow created a period product dispenser that allows menstruators to see the product before it comes out of the machine and access organic pads and tampons for free. Along with these improvements, the dispenser’s modern design enables janitors to fill the machine in an effective way.

It’s estimated that up to 500 million people don’t have access to period products during their cycle. Aunt Flow is working to combat this by helping to make policy a reality and increase access to menstrual products. Meanwhile, a nonprofit based in California is promoting menstrual equity by engaging in community organizing and period education.

Various menstrual products are seen, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, in Kennesaw, Ga. Georgia’s legislature is joining a nationwide effort to provide menstrual products for public school students in need. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
Various menstrual products are seen, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, in Kennesaw, Ga. Georgia’s legislature is joining a nationwide effort to provide menstrual products for public school students in need. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Using STEM and Advocacy to Increase Menstrual Equity

Chelsea Von Chaz founded Happy Period with her mom, Cherryl Lucy Warner in 2015 to bring a focus on connecting with BIPOC menstruators to the menstrual equity space. “The main thing is about our healing…we’re very much aware of historically how the Black female body has been treated within healthcare systems,” Von Chaz voices. “For the organization, we just really understand why and how there’s such a huge need for this,” she emphasizes.

With so much advocacy about menstrual equity being led by white advocates, Von Chaz founded Happy Period as the first Black menstrual movement to bring more menstrual health education and period product access to BIPOC communities. “When we’re talking about decoloniz[ing] menstrual health education, it’s essentially creating a safe space for Black girls, Brown girls, [and] Indigenous and Native American girls to be able to have these conversations and learn about their periods without feeling any type of shame,” Von Chaz explains.

As a former Hollywood stylist in Los Angeles, Von Chaz has seen firsthand the impacts of menstrual inequity on marginalized communities. “I saw [this woman who I could visually assume to be houseless] crossing the street and she had a period stain on the back of her butt,” Von Chaz shares. “[I thought], damn, what do you do if you are homeless on the street and you get your period? Just seeing that is what made me spring into action,” she recalls.

“It’s About Damn Time”: The History of Menstrual Products

When asked about her thoughts on emerging technology in the period space, Von Chaz states, “I think it’s about damn time!” She adds that since there’s been so little innovation in the menstrual space, she’s excited about out-of-the-box solutions to managing periods. “I love the advancement, I love the technology,” she shares.

Similar to Coder and Aunt Flow, Happy Period decided to design a dispenser in 2021 during the pandemic. “We weren’t able to distribute essentials, products, [and] donations to people the way we usually do. I had to figure out another way to do that,” she reflects.

To continue getting menstrual products into the hands of those who needed them, Von Chaz and Happy Period partnered with the Mayor of Compton at the time and a manufacturer who helped them create a dispenser. They installed the period product dispenser in a local family clinic to ensure people could still access the supplies they needed for their cycle. The pandemic challenged people in all fields to think creatively to continue their work, and in this case, technology and engineering played a key part in allowing Von Chaz’s organization to continue making an impact.

In reflecting on this initiative, Von Chaz recalls that the organization had to create their own dispenser because she couldn’t find an existing one to put in the clinic. “We’ve been bleeding this whole damn time but there’s only been a couple of times where there’s some type of advancement with us being able to handle our periods,” Von Chaz emphasizes. “We’re still dealing with our periods in essentially the same way some of our ancestors dealt with their periods.”

Von Chaz is referring to the limited history in the menstrual space. If you don’t know the history of menstrual products, here’s a crash course. It is speculated that the first record of menstrual products was in Egypt where papyrus was used to manage periods. After the continued use of cloth fabric and the invention of other versions of menstrual pads that weren’t well-received, Kotex launched an early version of sanitary napkins in 1921. The introduction of Kotex’s sanitary napkins marked the start of menstrual products being meaningfully sold in the market.

In 1931, Earl Haas invented the menstrual tampon, now known as the Tampax tampon. While most menstruators used pads to manage their period at this time, the tampon was increasingly used over time. Mary Kenner sought to patent her sanitary belt invention in 1956 and the menstrual pad with wings was introduced in the 1970s. That leads us to the most recent menstrual products to be successfully added to the market like the menstrual cup, pain management devices, and reusable period underwear.

Coder shares that she supports the sustainable options that have become more popular in recent years. “I particularly love the new sustainable products that are launching!” she expresses. “I’ve been really excited about the new innovation around menstrual cups and discs and period underwear.”

Continuing to Redefine What Periods Look Like

With the help of technology, engineering, and advocacy, there is a movement to continue expanding menstrual equity and challenging the stigma around periods. Between modern period product dispensers and new menstrual products, this is an exciting time for new ideas in the menstrual space.

Coder is excited to continue the work to make period products free and accessible in bathrooms, even when there are obstacles. “One of my mantras is it will be hard but it will be worth it and that’s something that I continue to reflect on as I navigate through so many challenges,” she articulates.

As someone who has been in the menstrual space for eight years, Von Chaz reiterates that there has been progress over recent years. “There [are] a lot more women in this space [than there used to be] who are creating period products, there’s more folks in this space who are creating dispensers, I see more [brands] being inclusive to non-binary and trans folks who have periods,” Von Chaz voices.

She adds that while there has certainly been progress, there is still room for improvement in the menstrual equity space. “The menstrual space is not intersectional enough,” Von Chaz states. She cites a lack of representation from gender-expansive identities, as well as a need for more cultural diversity in the space, since the way menstruators handle their cycles can be influenced by cultural values and routines. “We’re really trying to advance the community [and] advance the culture by [doing this work].”

Hailey Dickinson (she/her) is a freelance writer for Built By Girls and has been writing for the publication since January 2023. She is a creator passionate about using writing and digital platforms to build community, make connections, and ignite positive social change. Outside of Built By Girls, she manages communications for organizations in the food education and community organizing sectors. She is a Communications Major at the University of Minnesota and will graduate in December 2023.