Menstruation Matters: Challenging The Law’s Silence On Periods by Bridget J. Crawford and Emily Gold Waldman (Hardcover; 288 Pages)
A teacher of young women can only nod with approval when watching a scene from the teen show Degrassi. A girl has her first period in class, which can be a very embarrassing moment. But, a fellow student is there to support her, including assuring her that there is nothing to be ashamed about. Menstruation Matters is about and for those students.
Periods are often seen as shameful events. Women were put in “red tents” in biblical times. The shame and embarrassment help to make menstruation something that is not talked about. This includes as part of the law. The authors wish to change that.
The book Skimmed discussed how breastfeeding is an important legal and social matter. This book follows in the footsteps of that work to address menstruation. Menstruation matters to sexual equality, including in schools, workplaces, and prisons. Menstruation raises class, health, and environmental issues. The law’s silence regarding periods causes a lot of harm.
This book pushes against the silence and shows there is room for optimism. Efforts are made here and abroad to address menstruation. A documentary on periods even won an Academy Award. There is a long way to go. This book is a good introduction to the challenges ahead.
This quote is specifically in a section that is a “note on language” used in the book. Today, there is more effort to have gender-friendly language, including people expressing their preferred pronouns. The message, however, fits the subject of the book as well.
Should I Read It?
I once was reading a book on the history of contraception (not the book reviewed on this website about Griswold v. Connecticut) and someone was like “why are you reading a book about that?” Some people, no matter your preferred pronouns, might feel that way about this book.
Some topics are a bit uncomfortable to read. Many have no problems with such subjects. Either way, this book addresses an important subject that should be of interest to a wide range of people. This includes a discussion of international experiences.
The reading level is also appropriate for non-scholars. Readers who want to learn about various public policy issues arising from menstruation in a collection of short chapters (15-20 pages a piece) will appreciate this book. The authors have a point of view but defend their case fairly.
Sorry, there are no photographs. No photographs and a somewhat small font make the book more academic than some other one on the topic would be. It has professional endnotes and an index. But, again, I think it also works for the general reader. Enjoy.
The authors invite us to consider the many ways menstruation matters.
[The book is not about the actual process of menstruation and does not provide a discussion of the science involved. A helpful summary can be found on this website.]
The authors write with Judy Blume’s (who provides a blurb to the book) beloved book Are You Their God? It’s Me, Margaret in mind. The book Our Bodies, Ourselves was a pioneering resource on women’s health for the masses. It included talk about menstruation.
Menstruation was always an important part of women’s health and well-being. Early activism included addressing the problems of toxic shock syndrome, a menstruation-related illness. It continues to be an important issue for feminists, including the many obstacles still in place.
This book will address the many aspects of menstruation in law and policy, here and abroad.
Menstrual Stigma, Shame, and Period Poverty
The cost and lack of supply of menstruation products cause problems for a range of people. Those who live in poverty (including the homeless) must choose between such products and things like food. Menstruation leads to absenteeism in school. “Period poverty” is a thing.
Periods have been stigmatized and the product of shame since ancient times. Women have been separated while menstruating and deemed impure. (General taboos about blood worsen the situation.) An infamous use of menstruation as shameful was Trump vs. Megyn Kelly.
Menstruation is something so taboo that even mentioning “period” or wearing menstrual products was not avoided in advertising. Menstruation particularly became an issue during the COVID era, including when the supply of products and information (including from schools, often closed down) became threatened.
COVID also did provide a reminder of the important issues involved. The CARES Act, a federal law passed to address COVID, for instance, includes funding for menstrual products.
Further Reading: Quarantine Life from Cholera to COVID-19: What Pandemics Teach Us About Parenting, Work, Life, and Communities from the 1700s to Today, By Dr. Kari Nixon.
The Tampon Tax
Laura Coryton, a twenty-one-year-old British student, protested against the five percent tax for menstrual products. The tax seemed unfair, especially when a range of luxury items were not taxed. A “tampon tax” has been a major issue in the United States and internationally.
The chapter argues that taxes for menstrual products is a form of sex discrimination, especially when similar products such as incontinence pads and band-aids are not taxed. Taxation in this case seems to be partially a matter of shame and unequal concern for the needs of women by policy-makers. The law is unequal both as a matter of intent and results.
The financial costs for individual purchasers (a lifetime figure of under $200 total is cited) are minimal though collectively the taxes bring in sizable funds. The tax is very important symbolically, respecting the fact it is a necessity such as untaxed food and medicine products.
The equality argument has had mixed results (including as a matter of specific laws against sex equality in the workplace) but many places voluntarily have ended the tax.
Schools and Menstruation
Justice Elena Kagan was the female dean at Harvard Law School. She made various efforts to improve student life at the law school. This included arranging for free tampons at all women’s restrooms. This “small thing,” said Kagan later, was an important message to women.
Menstrual products are an important resource to have at schools, including middle and high schools where students spend much of their day. The first city to require free menstrual products was New York City. My state senator recently pushed to expand access.
Many students and other advocates have spoken out to expand access and free supplies in schools. Title IX, a federal law against sex discrimination in schools with federal funding, is one means to promote access. Equal participation requires such resources.
Many students rather stay home than go to school while having their period without a supply of menstrual products. An important thing to address in school as well is teasing and harassment arising from menstruation. Educating students and others here is essential.
Periods in Public
In 2016, New York City passed a three-part piece of legislation that provided free menstrual products in public schools, prisons, and homeless shelters. This shows that menstrual equity involves addressing the many needs of having your period in public places.
An important area of concern, which also has constitutional implications (such as equality and barriers against cruel and unusual punishment) are prisons. Prison officials have used menstruation as a means of shame and control. Immigration centers also are a concern.
Governmental limits can be general in scope. People visiting prisons have been denied the right (as an assumed security threat) to have menstruation products. Public buildings, including courthouses, often lack supplies. Active measures here are necessary for true equity.
Periods at Work
Menstruation has also led to discrimination, including people being fired for having their period, at work. This is a form of sex discrimination, which violates various statutory laws as well as constitutional requirements (when the government is involved). One issue discussed as well is the possibility of “menstrual leaves,” time off, at least in special cases.
Menstruating While Male
The famous author JK Rowling (Harry Potter) received pushback, including from top actors in the films of her books, when she sarcastically responded to an op-ed that “people” menstruate.
We have in recent days increased our awareness of trans, nonbinary, and genderqueer (those with neither a male nor female identity) individuals. A trans person can in fact “menstruate while male.” GLBTQ-friendly language and resources are important matters.
One issue is gendered (such as pink or those with the traditional woman symbol) marketing and packaging of menstrual products. There has been a push to make products gender-neutral. Products are also often not labeled “hygiene” since that implies “dirty” or “problematic.”
Menstruation, Health, and the Environment
Menstrual products raise various regulatory issues.
Tampons, for instance, once were labeled “cosmetics” until changed in the 1970s. Toxic shock syndrome, caused by a certain type of tampon, affected thousands of users in the 1970s and 1980s. This also led to the understanding that just what menstrual products were made of is very important. Full disclosure became an important issue.
Health problems arose in other cases. Certain types of menstrual pads led to health problems in Kenya and South Korea. Legal action and foreign government efforts arose to address them.
Menstrual products also have environmental concerns. At first, they were very bulky, resulting in much waste. Then, slimmer designs still had nondegradable ingredients. Sustainable menstrual products, advanced by legal and consumer efforts, are important long-term efforts.
Worldwide, the market for menstrual products is estimated to be $26 billion. Their marketing is a major matter, including the messaging used, both positively and negatively.
There is an increased use of advertising that promotes the idea that suppliers are gender friendly. Some argue this is a form of “woke-washing” to cover up problematic industrial practices. “B-Corporations” are those that have a record of actual positive social policies.
One up-to-date form of “menstrual capitalism” is the use of Bluetooth technology in actual products (tampons, menstrual cups, underwear) that monitor flow rates. There are special subscriptions to menstrual-related products. There is also an increase in the collection of menstrual-related data (including in apps), which raises privacy concerns.
One tricky area is the surveillance of menstruation in women’s sports. There is some evidence that menstrual cycles are relevant to athletic performance. On the other hand, it can be a violation of privacy and an unnecessary and misused micro-managing of athletes.
(The tracking of medical information, including periods, is also sometimes done in high school sports. A recent controversy arose in Florida, which was aggravated by recent policy debates.)
Menstruation around the Globe
The issues covered in this book arise throughout the world.
For instance, differing results arose when India’s Supreme Court ruled on the right of girls and women between ten and fifty to visit Lord Ayyappa Temple. At first, the “impurity” of menstruation led them to be denied, but then in 2018, it was held to be constitutionally protected. One cultural myth is that if a menstruating woman touches a pickle it turns sour.
Kenya (popuation of almost 50 million) is a global leader in the menstrual movement, including in 2004 being the first country to eliminate the tampon tax. Scotland is also a world leader, passing a law providing free menstrual products to all who need them.
We also learn about the practices of Australia and New Zealand. Australia eliminated its goods and services tax on menstrual products while New Zealand retained theirs. Nonetheless, New Zealand did address period poverty in various ways including supplying free products in schools.
Each country (the above cited areas are highlighted) has its own special needs and approaches. Menstruation equity is a worldwide concern with governments, religious institutions, schools, businesses, and community organizations all playing an important part.
Two men in 2021 promoted the idea of “pinky gloves” to be used for the removal of menstrual products. It did not go down well. The product was not necessary, resulted in needless environmental waste, and promoted shame about menstrual. We have learned a bit about things.
There has been a range of successes. Many cities and states have ended taxes on menstrual products. Legislative policies have provided means to promote the supply of products, including those in need. Problems still are in place, but the issue is emerging from the shadows.
There is room for optimism as well as a lot more to do. Since menstruation matters.
Points to Ponder
The U.S. Senate recently had a hearing discussing the possible ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). An important issue for sexual equality as much as other types of equality is to recognize the specific needs of different groups of people.
Humans according to the Declaration of Independence are “created equal.” This does not mean we are the same in all ways. This book shows how menstruation is a specific need for certain people. And, inequality results when so-called “neutral” policies do not address that fact.
The same basic concept arises in other contexts. Hair, for instance, is an important issue for many people, including specific types of hair worn by different groups of people. Discrimination laws have been passed in recent years to promote “hair equity.”
The path to equality here is often at least partially symbolic. I personally question how much the limited amount of tax spent on menstruation products matters economically for most people. Nonetheless, symbolism is quite important. Symbols matter a lot. What do you think?
LEARN ALL ABOUT MANY DIFFERENT KINDS OF SYMBOLS.
Bridget J. Crawford and Emily Gold Waldman are both law professors at Pace University.
Prof. Crawford is the co-editor of Feminist Judgments: Rewritten Opinions of the United States Supreme Court and Feminist Judgments: Rewritten Tax Opinions. These are two examples of a series of works that reimagine Supreme Court opinions through a different lens.
Prof. Waldman is also an Associate Dean for Faculty and Development.
Is Menstruation Matters A Reliable Source
This book is an example of legal advocacy. The authors carefully not only discuss the state of the law but also argue where it should lead. The law’s “silence” means there the final answers still are often open. This includes potential policies and laws yet to be made.
The authors write about what they know. If you check their websites, links helpfully supplied above, you can see that they study and teach such subjects as employment law, taxation, and sexual policy. The authors pool together their knowledge in this joint effort.
They provide careful notes to show their work. They make their case accurately, noting when appropriate when the law currently does not match what they deem to be fair. It is reliable.