Period Poverty

Nelles, Kaleigh

Kaleigh Nelles is a member of the Progress North Community Contributor Team

Thinking about Women’s History Month brings a lot to mind. I think about the way that everyday life for women has changed in the past hundred years, how roles at home and careers have expanded toward equity, and how the dialogue in society continues to grow to include the perspectives and achievements of women. These changes are welcome, and much well overdue – even if we have a long way to go. One area of more-recent changes in Women’s History that comes to mind is menstruation – A.K.A. periods, Aunt Flo, the crimson tide, shark week, and or whatever you call it! It doesn’t get talked about much, but haven’t you heard? Everybody’s* doing it! *Well, not everybody, just about half of the total population for 20-25% of the year for about 35-40 years. That is a LOT of time! It’s important to note too that not all menstruators identify as women. The dialogue about periods and access to menstrual hygiene products has boomed in the U.S. in the past 10 years alone, and continues to grow across the world.

As I look back at my preteen years attending Ashland Middle School, I remember going to the school nurse’s office when I felt ill, and seeing female students coming in to specifically use that bathroom. I didn’t question it much – the school nurse was incredibly kind, and her office was a nice reprieve from the everyday middle school experience. Looking back, I see now that this bathroom was the only one at school with free tampons and pads. I usually brought my own, though I specifically recall being quite worried I’d be discovered with a tampon when teachers made us all empty our pockets during the great rubber band war of 7th grade, but I definitely made use of this resource a couple times as well. Now, I think of the menstruators who had to rely on this resource. I imagine they experienced some anxiety, probably from concern that the teacher would not allow them to go, or would question how often they were going. Concern of how their classmates might view it, worry that now everybody would know it was that special time of the month, or ask why they needed to see the school nurse so often. The concern that maybe one day, they would not be allowed to use these tampons and pads anymore. I can imagine so many ways that this impacted my classmates, and how it distracted them from their education for a week every month. I am not familiar with the access to menstrual products at my old middle school today, but it makes me remember how at the beginning of the school year, each student would bring in a box of Kleenex as part of their necessary school supplies. Maybe, as we became adolescents, all of us should have been bringing in menstrual products too.

The story above touches on the concept of period poverty, which is the inability of menstruators to purchase and access products for menstruation including pads, tampons, and liners. This problem impacts the ability of menstruators to attend school and work, feel comfortable with their bodies during menstruation, and stay healthy – for example, a tampon in place for over 4-8 hours increases the risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS), which is a bacterial infection that can be deadly. Someone experiencing period poverty would be much more likely to use a tampon for longer than recommended, thus at higher risk for TSS. All menstruators, from the most rural areas to the largest cities, of all races and backgrounds deserve access to healthcare, including menstrual hygiene products. Menstruators receiving SNAP benefits (“food stamps”) cannot purchase menstrual products with that form of aid, further limiting access to people experiencing poverty. Additionally, a recent blog posted by the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA) notes that Medicare/Medicaid and health insurance do not cover the cost of these products either, yet may cover erectile dysfunction medications. The blog also reports that 35 of 50 U.S. states tax these items as luxury products, which accumulates a significant cost over the 35-40 years that someone will use these products, and an additional cost to someone at risk for experiencing period poverty. When thinking of a person’s basic needs, menstrual hygiene, an issue that mainly affects women, has been largely ignored by many. Until quite recently in women’s history, it has been seen as taboo and private, and only to be discussed on rare occasions, if at all in certain cultures. 

More examples of period poverty in Wisconsin and Native American communities have been highlighted in the media over the past few years. A 2019 article on by Meghan Holohan highlights the impact of period poverty on Native American high schoolers living on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. It shares the story of a teen who relied on menstrual products from friends in high school during financial difficulties associated with her parents divorce. The article also notes that prices at the nearest store are incredibly high for these products, and only more affordable at the nearest Walmart, which is an hour’s drive away. This example of period poverty in a rural Native American community is not unique to that community in South Dakota – period poverty impacts people who are brown, black, white, and all other skin tones, from every culture across the U.S. and the world. Closer to home in Wisconsin, a group of young women attending 7th grade in La Crosse won a schoolwide fundraising competition in 2020 to aid their efforts to help end period poverty in their school district. It’s hard to imagine these stories being shared so publicly even ten years ago. Thanks to the hard work of women and others throughout history, the dialogue of our society continues to grow to include voices of all genders and skin colors. Our dialogue is also evolving to consider healthcare issues to be social issues, and vice versa, with women and POC involved at the forefront of this effort. I’m hopeful that this is where the solution for healthcare and social issues like period poverty lies.   

Kaleigh Nelles is a member of the Progress North Community Contributor Team

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Melanie E

    Kaleigh, thank you for publishing this. I’ve never thought about this before. I certainly recall being caught off guard at school or work and embarrassingly asking others if they had anything to help me with “my friend” as we called it. So how can we help? Can I call my local district and see if I can donate feminine hygiene products? Middle school is the worst cause kids are mean and girls are certainly too embarrassed to ask.

    I also had no idea there is coverage for ED, but not for supplies NEEDED for menstruation. Do you have ideas in what we can and should do to help. Does this group allow you to share articles on LinkedIn? Maybe an article like this going viral amounts professional women could make a difference. Thank you for your thought provoking article!

    1. Kaleigh N

      Hi Melanie,
      I think it would certainly be reasonable to call your local school district and ask if you are able to donate supplies – a school nurse or medical assistant at the school would be the best contact. LinkedIn allows any link to be shared and Progress North would be very excited to get our message shared! Appreciate your enthusiasm.

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