If toilet paper is provided for free in public restrooms, why shouldn’t tampons and pads be, too?
That was the logic behind the passionate column written by Massachusetts teen Sarah Groustra— and what proved to be the winning argument behind a local lawmaker turning her idea into a reality. Now, Groustra’s hometown of Brookline, Mass., is the first town in the country to offer free menstrual products in public buildings.
“No one feels self-conscious putting toilet paper, tissues, or ibuprofen in their shopping cart,” Groustra tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “So why do tampons and pads still make so many people squeamish—even the people who use them?”
Groustra wrote about feeling fed up with the stigma around menstruation last year, as a high school senior, in her Brookline High School newspaper, The Sagamore.
“I realized I was afraid to be caught holding a tampon in the hallway,” Groustra, now finishing up her first year at Kenyon College in Ohio, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The shame was so deeply ingrained into the way I acted, and I didn’t want to feel that way anymore.”
In her piece, she wrote, “If I had the privilege of missing out on the sight and smell of menstrual blood, I would avoid it like the plague. But urine is not politically divisive, so here we are.” She argued that because of the “pervasive stigma” around periods, that “female-bodied people continue to experience barriers on their right to much-needed menstrual and vaginal healthcare.”
Further, Groustra argued that the cultural barriers to normalizing periods were just as harmful as the the high costs and added taxes on menstrual hygiene products.
“Many female-bodied people feel awkward handling sanitation products in public,” Groustra wrote. “I used to zip tampons into my boots so that I would not have to take them out of my backpack in class.”
She added, “I don’t love talking about my period, but until menstruation becomes as normalized as other routine body activities, actively combating the stigma is the only way to end it.”
While Groustra’s intended audience was the BHS student body, the column wound up catching the attention of Brookline Town Meeting member Rebecca Stone, who regularly reads The Sagamore.
“I was really struck by the article,” Stone tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “When I read it, I realized that, even though I was a lifelong feminist and worked professionally on reproductive rights advocacy, that this was an issue that I had never thought about.”
Inspired by the column, Stone got to work with other BHS students involved in the local NARAL Pro-Choice chapter to draft a proposal that would provide free tampons and pads in all of the town-owned restrooms.
“We had to insist that these products be in all bathrooms, regardless of gender designation, because not all people who menstruate present or identify as female,” Stone explains, adding that the language in the bylaw pointedly reads “menstrual hygiene products” instead of “feminine hygiene products.”
According to Stone, the bylaw was surprisingly well-received and had very few obstacles to getting passed. She said when the idea was first presented to male legislators, she was gratified when they recognized it as “an obvious thing that the town should do.”
“The men that I talked to had just never thought about it — quite literally,” Stone says. “When it was presented to them, they understood that this was a public health and hygiene issue that was the equivalent of having toilet paper for the public bathrooms.”
With the help of BHS students Carter Mucha, Alison Keenan, Eva Stanley, and Era Laho, elected officials passed the plan unanimously on May 23. Brookline is the first municipality to provide free period products in its public restrooms in the United States.
Brookline has until July 2021 for the law to go into full effect. According to Stone, the most expensive cost of the endeavor will be the purchasing and installation of the machinery that will dispense the period products, at an estimated $40,000. Moving forward, the cost to provide free tampons and pads will be about $7,500 a year— a “drop in the bucket” of Brookline’s $350 million annual budget.
Stone says that she hopes that Brookline’s public policy will inspire other legislators to look at menstruation as a universal, natural human body function that is treated not just as a women’s issue, but a public health and hygiene issue.
“By making this a municipal law, we broke a huge taboo around menstruation that is part of reinforcing women's second class status,” Stone says, pointing out the importance of this measure while states across the nation pass some of the most restrictive abortion bills in history. “It's especially important to me that we do this during a time when we're facing attacks on women's rights and autonomy.”
Although Groustra had already left for college by the time Stone began drafting the proposal with her former classmates, she says she is honored to have inspired tangible change in her community.
“I hope this legislation will help girls feel less ashamed. Periods are scary because you live in fear of being caught somewhere without a tampon or pad,” Groustra tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “To hear the words ‘menstruation’ and ‘tampon’ said aloud in a government meeting might not seem like a huge step, but it is. With this new legislation, menstruation is openly acknowledged, and that fear is understood.”
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