Students Welcomed Back to School with Free Tampons and Pads

Photo: Eric E Castro (CC)
By Amie Newman |

When twenty students from Brown University’s Undergraduate Council of Students, including senior and president of the organization Viet Nguyen, returned to campus last week, they had something important to do before classes began. The group delivered free tampons and pads to academic building bathrooms across the Ivy League grounds.

The initiative was conceived of and carried out by students, and is being financed by a student-led organization as well. As Newsweek reported this week:

Thanks to funding from the student-run undergraduate finance board, Nguyen says he’s ensured menstrual products will be available in approximately 30 to 40 bathrooms across campus for the 2016–2017 school year.

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The students stocked women’s bathrooms as well as gender-inclusive and men’s bathrooms, to be inclusive of transgender people.

Calling menstrual products a “necessity, rather than a luxury,” Nguyen wonders why they aren’t treated by the university like other products it provides, like toilet paper. Tampons and pads aren’t cheap. Paying $7-$10 every month for one or both adds up (to more than $18,000 over a lifetime) and can be prohibitive for some. Imagine if students had to pay for toilet paper, especially low-income students. How are menstrual products any different?, asked Nguyen and his fellow students.

Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, agrees and praised the Brown University students:

Feminine hygiene products are not a luxury. They’re as essential as toilet paper, just ask anyone who has ever struggled to obtain or afford them. Students’ participation in school should not be hindered by insufficient access to this basic necessity. Universities around the country should follow suit.

College students are standing up for their right to “Free the Tampons” across the country. Many campuses don’t provide free menstrual products and students are demanding change. Earlier this year, at Emory University, more than 900 students signed a petition to get free tampons provided in campus bathrooms. Around the same time, University of Arizona students issued a list of demands, according to an article in Inside Higher Ed, including one for access to free pads and tampons on campus.

Nguyen said he and his fellow Brown University students were inspired by the growing public dialogue and policy changes. New York State repealed its “tampon tax” in July. When it did, the state became one of 11 in the country that do not consider menstrual products “luxury items.” New York City piloted a program earlier this year to provide free tampons and menstrual pads to public schools, homeless shelters, and correctional facilities. This fall and winter the program rolls out, over several months, in all public schools in the city.

These kinds of shifts in laws and policies can have a profound impact on the lives of those who menstruate. Period stigma is real and there’s hardly a person who has experienced menstruation who hasn’t been caught off guard by their period, been stuck without access to tampons or pads when they needed one, or felt embarrassed because of their period for one reason or another. When you’re a young student, experiencing homelessness, or in prison, these challenges can be magnified.

New York City Councilperson Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who sponsored the public schools bill, explained:

Providing menstrual hygiene products privately, immediately and for free is also about sending a body-positive message by not perpetuating shame and humiliation, and acknowledging that women’s bodies, even those of women serving time in prison, deserve some dignity during their periods.

At Brown University, Viet Nguyen and his student force of free-menstrual-products providers will continue to stock the bathrooms every week, throughout the year. But they will push for the administration to take on the stocking of the bathrooms; and for the university to build into its budget a line item for tampons and pads for students.

Still, some things are not about money. The students at Brown want to “open up a discussion about menstruation and spur other higher-education institutions to participate as well.” There are a growing number of efforts to end period shaming and reduce stigma surrounding menstruation, and talking about menstruation as a normal part of life — as this Olympic swimmer did — is becoming, well, more normal.  At some point in the near future, embarrassment about monthly bleeding or a phrase like “it’s that time of the month” will seem as outdated as taxes on tampons and pads and needing to pay for menstrual products in schools, shelters, or jails and prisons.  

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13 Comments

  1. jane says:

    “Persons” do not menstruate, only WOMEN. If your conversations about menstruation don’t recognize this, then you’re hardly progressive, rather women-hating and erasing.

  2. Megan says:

    I have been seeing this headline everywhere – and I find these students’ goal a noble one – but, I must give some credit to the staff and students at Birthingway College of Midwifery in Portland, Oregon, who have been stocking the gender-inclusive bathrooms with menstrual products and comforts for decades. They even include items like cramp bark tincture and chocolate!

  3. Amy says:

    Suffolk University is a leader in New England: free tampons and pads in ALL Suffolk women’s bathrooms!

    (Dorms are excluded, under the logic that people buy their own supplies at home.)

  4. Hunter says:

    The government is taxing women something that is completely out of their control. Menstruation isn’t a choice! We can’t help that every month it rolls around, wreaking havoc on our uteruses and wallets. The economic effect is felt by women who have no choice but to buy feminine hygiene products. The cost of these products adds up, and for college-aged students, every penny counts. Universities should step up to alleviate some of the financial pressure by providing feminine hygiene products in the restrooms. We aren’t asking schools to supply Adderall so we can focus better in class. We are asking for a simple necessity. Women face extreme humiliation and shaming when Aunt Flow stops in for an unexpected visit, especially when it is in front of a daydreaming, four hundred person class looking for anything to catch their eye and take them out of their PowerPoint misery. This isn’t to say that women should be provided with free feminine hygiene products at the snap of a finger. Most women have a stock in the bathroom, in a purse, in the glove compartment of the car, and of course women have a stock in their backpacks. But when students are spending eight or more hours a day on campus, sometimes that stock runs low, or even runs out. Instead of having to scurry through campus, praying you make it home before anyone notices or gives you a weird look for tying your sweatshirt around your waist, it would be so convenient to walk into the bathroom, grab a tampon, and get back to studying. We are paying how many thousands of dollars a year to attend college? I think the least universities can do is to budget a little bit of money to make that time of the month a little easier and less stressful for the women on their campuses.

  5. Alli says:

    I think this is a great initiative brought on by the students at Brown. To this day, it still surprises me that campus’ and even public providers are willing to hand out condoms for free, but tampons and pads are not free. In most cases, tampons and pads are an expense that college students shouldn’t have to tack on to their college budget, especially because this would only apply to women (who menstruate) and not men. I’m led to believe that this is getting so much media attention because of the prestigious college campus that it is happening on, but any way to start the conversation on menstruation and tampon taxes is a good way to start the talk.

    I hope to see more colleges supporting this initiative, which will hopefully follow suit in the public school system and beyond. Birth control and STD protection from condoms are just as important as the menstrual cycle, and the world should see that as so. Removing the tampon tax and having affordable, or even free, tampons and pads will help women everywhere. They will no longer have to be concerned with affording tampons and pads, but also it will help take away the stigma that goes along with it. It’s funny that half the population in the entire world menstruates at some point in their life, but there is still a bad image around it. I find that it is mostly due to the fact that menstruation is only affected by women. With the feminist movement at hand, so much can change if enough people are working towards a common goal, and free tampons and pads are a way to get there.

  6. Rachel says:

    This post is phenomenal! As a female college student, I am greatly encouraged by the inclusion of feminine hygiene products such as tampons and pads in university bathrooms. As Nguyen insists, these products are completely necessary. It is completely absurd to refer to these items as “luxury” or to infer that women have a choice in purchasing them. To forgo the use of some sort of feminine hygiene product during a woman’s period is unhygienic, impractical, and very uncomfortable. Therefore, hygiene products to be used during menstruation are completely necessary and entirely unavoidable. Unfortunately, companies who produce such items are aware of the demand of their products and are able to charge high prices for them because they know their products are necessary to women. Comparing tampons and pads to toilet paper is an excellent analogy. One would never insist that a student pack his or her own toilet paper and carry it with him or her everywhere they went, just because they needed to be prepared in the case of having to relieve themselves. In the same way, women should not be forced to supply themselves with required hygienic products and dote them wherever they go. The installation of tampons and pads in university restrooms is an excellent step forward for feminism and for women’s health. Eventually, such products should be stocked and available to women in public restrooms as well.

    It will most likely be a very long while before such policies are implemented into public policy across the nation and across the globe. As such, I think feminine hygiene companies should really consider their prices on their products. For example, Playtex has a particularly popular advertisement showing young girls doing certain tasks “like a girl” and comparing those films with older girls doing things “like a girl”. The point of this ad was to showcase the socialization of what it looks like to be a girl, and how many times, this classification can be rather negative. This ad is powerful, and I applaud Playtex for their efforts. But I would argue that if this company really is for empowering women as they claim while advertising their products, they should advocate for fairly priced products, and should start with their own. If the average woman really does spend $18,000 over a lifetime for such products, Playtex and other similar companies should fight for a far more reasonable number. Think of all the things that could be accomplished with this money if feminine hygiene products were priced more fairly!

  7. Al says:

    This post very eye opening because it made me realize that all public places should offer free tampons and pads. Being a broke college student, it is very hard for me to budget my money when I have so many things to buy that are essentials. That would include food and a box of pads every month. I know that the brand that I get is a lot pricier than the non brand name ones, but that is what works best for me. It is hard watching my money go towards something that I can not skimp out on. I did not choose to have a period every month that gives me cramps and makes me feel how it does. If schools or any public place gave out free tampons and pads it would save girls everywhere so much money. As you said in the article, it should not be treated like a luxury item where only the rich girls can afford the better quality pads. It is a necessary for all girls and should be free. In public bathrooms they should not charge money for it. Although only a quarter may sound cheap, there are many circumstances where a girl in need of a pad or tampon does not have a quarter on her. Because only girls need it, I think that companies jack up the prices on these sanitary products on purpose. If everyone needed it, such as toilet paper, they would not be charging so much for it. Also for homeless people it is already bad enough that they are not able to take showers and clean themselves, but they also do not have access to sanitary products. They do not have fresh clothes to change into either, making it very hard for them to stay clean. Feminine products such as tampons and pads should be readily available in every bathroom for free.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I think this article directly pertains to my college women and gender studies class because it brings up the concept that women are penalized by having to pay money for something we absolutely need to have to survive. Yes, men will say “well we have to pay for condoms”, but do men truly need condoms? If you look at this argument head one, based off of how our bodies were created, tampon use would outweigh the use of condoms. Also, how many times have you heard about heath clinics that hand out free condoms? A lot. How many times have health clinics handed out free tampons? Very rarely, if ever. I also liked this blog because they acknowledge that they also handed out tampons and pads in gender-inclusive and even men’s restrooms to be cover all of the transgender community also. Times are ever fast and changing. Expanding on the idea that the tampons would be beneficial to the transgender community, I think it would also help the standardization of tampons. Men look at a box of tampons like it’s a foreign object.

    Also I liked this article for the political aspect that was brought up. In many states, tampons are considered a “luxury item” and therefor have a special tax on them. Creating commotion to #freethetampon is something that eventually could eliminate the tampon tax.
    There’s so much more to this issue than politics though. It’s the comfort of knowing that you don’t need to budget for tampons each month, or that if you happen to forget about your period, you’re not scrambling around trying to find what you need, or if this is your first few times getting a period and you’re not use to what’s going on, you don’t have to be sent home from school for bleeding through your clothes. Having free access to tampons in every stall in every bathroom would take the stigma out of having a period.

  9. Frank says:

    Apprently they don’t teach math in college.

    If Jane spends over $18,000 on tampons in a lifetime when they cost “$7 – $10 every month” how many years is she menstruating?

    Hmmmmmm

    18000 total / 10 = 1800 months
    1800 months / 12 = 150 years.

    Wow. That’s 150 years of PMS. Give Jane the free tampons, it’s the least we could do.

    • Amie Newman says:

      Thanks for the comment, Frank, and for the opportunity to clarify. This isn’t a math issue (although clearly you enjoyed the opportunity to regale everyone with your fantastic math skills). The post is not ideally worded but the $18,000 over a lifetime is not only for pads and tampons. It’s for all of the other costs associated with menstruation in this country including pain relievers, heating pads, new underwear, panty liners and–the big one (which because of the ACA is covered for many women but far from all, birth control.

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/18/period-cost-lifetime_n_7258780.html

      But, you’re right – we should give Jane (or Joe or whoever else needs them) free tampons or pads.

      • Frank says:

        Hi Amie.

        My math skills are pretty lame.

        We agree on the free tampons and pads. But in an attempt to justify it the article presents an obviously inaccurate number that gets repeated elsewhere and becomes ‘common knowledge’. I got to this article from another article that repeats the same number.

        I read the HuffPo article. It’s hard to take it seriously when they include ‘chocolate’ and it is filled with broad assumptions. Almost 2/3 of the total lifetime expense shown is the cost of birth control pills which is not really a menstruation expense at all. The second largest is “new underwear”. It’s kind of silly.