Nancy Kramer, the Columbus, Ohio, woman behind the movement Free the Tampons, wants to see a world – before she dies – where every women’s bathroom in America is stocked with free tampons and pads accessible to whoever needs them. What drives her in this quest is a desire to prevent women who get their periods unexpectedly from having to deal with the embarrassment and humiliation of not having the supplies they need. When I first looked at her Free the Tampons website and watched her TEDx talk, I chuckled. Sure, free tampons and pads in every bathroom would be nice, since no one likes to shove a wad of toilet paper in their underwear and carry on until they can buy supplies somewhere. But I kept worrying that her argument about women not knowing when they might get their periods might undermine her case. Since women don’t know when they might start bleeding and end up bleeding through their clothes in their office chair (as a woman in one of Kramer’s anecdotes about why free tampons are necessary did), what good would free tampons in a bathroom several feet away do? It’s too late at that point, the damage is done.
Still, Kramer says, free supplies are inexpensive for companies and restaurants to have on hand (she pays less than five dollars annually to stock her business), so why not have them? It’s hard to argue against supplying women with such a simple, cheap comfort, even if it is easy for women to keep a personal emergency stock on hand. After a lifetime of “rolling my own” in the face of emergencies, I finally started keeping a tampon tin in my purse. But what about those moments when you don’t – or can’t – have your purse on you, as is the case with some high school students who aren’t allowed for various reasons. Why make those students travel to the nurse’s office for supplies, Kramer says, when they could just be kept in the girls’ bathroom? After all, a girl with her period isn’t sick, she says.
Kramer’s points are compelling, but while listening to her TEDx talk, I kept thinking of the need for free period products as a luxury issue, rather than a feminist one. That is until I watched this interesting Huffington Post Live chat with Kramer, Jodi Stevens of FreetailTherapy.com and Sheila Hollender of Sustainable Health Enterprises and the co-founder of Seventh Generation. Each of them in turn talked about how the inability to access sanitary feminine hygiene products is a problem in third world countries and amongst the poor in America that keeps women from work and school, as well as causing bladder infections and diseases like cervical cancer. Kramer argues that female inmates need free tampons as well because many of them can’t or won’t use the little money they earn in jail to buy feminine products from the commissary, so they use makeshift pads and end up getting sick as a result, costing tax payers more money than if they were supplied with the products from the start.
But there’s an even bigger issue here, too, and that’s the environmental impact of feminine hygiene products like pads and tampons, as Hollender pointed out toward the end of the HuffPo chat. She says, “I would love to ask these amazing women who are working so hard to get these tampons into the hands of girls and women who can’t afford it, I would really like to have them take the time to think about how a tampon is made, because the tampons that are made by the giant manufacturers are really full of additives that we don’t need inside our bodies. So while you’re having the conversation about tampons, it would be great to think about how tampons are made and what the alternatives to regular tampons are, such as organic cotton tampons.”
In response, several commenters on the HuffPo chat mentioned the environmentally-friendly-yet-hygienic nature of menstrual cups or cloth pads, with one woman chiming in, “Instead of hiding a storehouse of products away so our female children don’t need to feel embarrassed, why can’t we just make this a normal topic of conversation about it not being a big deal? The problem isn’t access, it’s culture. Additionally, products like the softcup by Instead and the Divacup last longer, are safer than most tampons and are easy to rinse and reuse, eliminating the need [for] this entire endeavor. The only obstacle again, is a woman’s comfort with her body. SO LET’S TEACH THIS!” In the end, her anonymous voice may be the most powerful one of all. Is giving women worldwide access to tampons and pads an important feminist issue? Or should we start teaching everyone how to use menstrual cups instead?