Sandwiched between the high-profile leak of the Dobbs v. Jackson draft and the official overturning of Roe v. Wade, the Austin City Council passed a resolution to provide free menstrual products in public-facing city buildings. Pritika Paramasivam, a student at University of Texas at Austin and organizer with Texas Menstrual Equity Coalition, spoke at a press conference last May about the policy. Paramasivam urged council members to take action to decrease reproductive health inequities by providing free products to the public. “In light of the recent news we have heard about the leaked draft and the threat placed upon the fundamental reproductive rights, such as abortion, Plan B, and sex-ed, I think it’s very important to understand that people across the United States have fear not only about their lack of access to reproductive health but also…menstrual equity,” said Paramasivam.
Texas was lockstep with several states, including Alabama, Nebraska, Hawai’i, and Colorado, passing bills that expanded access to menstrual products. Given the political landscape of 2022—the rollback of abortion rights, emboldened attacks on birth control, and a heightened misogynistic culture—bold advocacy for menstrual equity might seem ill-fated at first glance.
But across the country, youth and student organizers have played an important role in achieving meaningful policies, and this year is shaping up to be a landmark moment for menstrual equity. In January alone, lawmakers in two dozen states introduced around 100 menstrual equity bills. The proposed legislation builds on an intersectional framework. One bill, for example, would mandate the provision of free menstrual products in Ohio state prisons. Another bill, in Virginia, would prohibit police from obtaining search warrants for a person’s menstrual health information.
Texas menstrual equity activists laid the groundwork for these recent wins during the previous legislative session. “We tripled the amount of sponsors for the tampon tax bill, which at that time was HB 321. We got the bill voted out of committee for the first time in legislative history, because it has always been filed but never voted out of committee,” said Andrea Elizondo, a cofounder and the lead organizer of the Texas Menstrual Equity Coalition. Organizers from the coalition provided nearly two hours of public testimony during a legislative hearing in support of the bill. HB 321 died in committee at the conclusion of the session, but the coalition’s advocacy for the bill helped it create and foster relationships with lawmakers. “[The 2021 session] is the session we first introduced ourselves to everyone. We created a name for ourselves and people know us now. We are considered stakeholders for many offices, and they reach out to us for press release quotes and our input on certain legislation that they are drafting,” said Elizondo.
The Texas Menstrual Equity Coalition, a youth-led collective that advocates for systemic solutions to menstrual inequities, has utilized its newfound political clout to successfully push for local menstrual equity policies. “I began working with Austin City Council member Vanessa Fuentes and City Council member Natasha Harper-Madison in 2021 to implement a citywide policy of providing free menstrual products,” Elizondo said. The coalition encouraged people to testify in support of the policy, and Austin successfully passed those measures in the summer of 2022. But it was not the only city in Texas that passed menstrual equity policies. Fort Worth adopted a similar policy soon after, and Dallas initiated Period Access Dallas, a pilot program that provides free menstrual items in public buildings like libraries and recreation centers.
Although Austin, Fort Worth, and Dallas are liberal enclaves in a deeply gerrymandered, conservative state that has served as a laboratory for attacks on reproductive and bodily autonomy, Republican politicians, most notably Texas Governor Greg Abbott, have recently vocalized support for repealing the tampon tax. This bipartisan support might seem shocking, given taboos surrounding menstruation, but some menstrual equity advocates are less surprised. “Tax cuts are supported by Republicans,” said Laura Strausfeld, the founder and executive director of Period Law, a nationwide group of menstrual equity attorneys. Michela Bedard, the executive director of PERIOD, a global organization that distributes menstrual products to those experiencing period poverty and trains and educates youth menstrual equity activists, agreed with Strausfeld. In Michigan, the campaign to end the tampon tax was “pretty enticing to Republicans who care about lowering taxes.” Advocates’ reproductive and economic justice messaging helped cement further support. “We were able to talk about this issue not just as a reproductive justice issue, but as a nuts and bolts issue that unfairly burdens women and people who menstruate,” said Bedard. “It became a kitchen-table economic issue.”
Bedard argued that these conversations occur because menstrual equity has not yet become politically polarized, while Strausfeld emphasizes the state budget surpluses that allowed these affirmative menstrual equity policies to finally advance in 2022. “States were barreling into 2020 and then the pandemic hit. There was a real shutdown in considering fiscal issues for a while.… States are under pressure to distribute surpluses to their citizens. There are a lot of discussions in state capitals on how to support those who are struggling economically. That’s why menstrual equity is high on the list and should continue to be,” said Strausfeld.
As a result of the pandemic, Illinois had a massive budget surplus. Activists immediately took action, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the state later passed legislation allowing menstruators to use SNAP benefits to purchase menstrual products. “A lot of what we did was calling and emailing representatives and getting people to fill out witness slips which really helped. We partnered a lot with organizations in the area, like SheVotes Illinois,” said Ruba Memon, the PR and marketing chair of Northwestern Menstrual Equity Activists, a student organization that works toward addressing and raising awareness about menstrual inequities.
Furthering menstrual equity is not the only goal for advocates, according to Bedard. “As there have been more battles over reproductive justice, people have opened their eyes to all angles of the reproductive justice movement, which includes menstrual equity. We are a paired movement.” Elizondo remains optimistic that the tampon tax bill will pass at least one chamber of Texas’s legislature this session. “It’s mostly about these small wins that get you through the day and the season,” she said. “Advocacy is a marathon.”