Aunt Flo, the Crimson Wave, that time of the month: a few of the euphemisms that people use in place of menstruation or period—more identifiable terms for what many female-bodied people experience every month. This stigmatization of a person’s period is exactly what students at Brookline High School (BHS), with the help of a former state representative candidate, sought to address through a new bylaw passed in Brookline set to provide access to free menstrual products in town-owned bathrooms. Toilet paper is provided freely in public restrooms, so why not pads and tampons?
Last May, Brookline representatives voted to pass the bylaw which would make Brookline the first town in the country to freely provide menstruation products in public restrooms of all genders. The bylaw will fully take effect in fiscal year 2021, two years following its passing in a Brookline Town Meeting. And it all started with an op-ed in Brookline High School’s student newspaper The Sagamore.
“Since menstruation is an experience isolated to female-bodied people, it is not normalized in the same way that other fluids and discharges are,” wrote Sarah Groustra, a student at Brookline High School, in April 2018.
“Men hold the majority of positions of power in our country (a separate issue I don’t have the column space to touch). Because of this, female-bodied people continue to experience barriers on their right to much-needed menstrual and vaginal healthcare.”
Groustra’s op-ed caught the attention of Rebecca Stone, who was fresh off an unsuccessful campaign for a Massachusetts state representative election. Throughout her campaign, Stone tied in themes of gender equity and women and children’s rights. Stone served on the Brookline School Committee for almost 12 years, according to Wicked Local. In announcing her candidacy for State Representative, Stone sought to even out the male majority in the Legislature and bring her experience as a woman to the table. Although her political endeavor was unsuccessful, Stone saw potential in Groustra’s article to make policy changes toward gender equity in Brookline.
“I read this article about period shaming and … what it did for people who were female-bodied in the school environment,” Stone said. “And I just couldn’t believe it, it never occurred to me.”
In the original Sagamore op-ed, which garnered the attention of NPR, The Boston Globe, and other prominent news outlets, Groustra describes how the intense stigmatization of periods makes female-bodied people feel awkward about handling menstruation products in public. Groustra used to zip tampons in her boots so she wouldn’t be caught with one in her hand, she said. She went on to emphasize the additional cost of periods, an expense that male-bodied people do not have to account for.
“The Huffington Post predicted that the average woman will spend $1,773 throughout her life on tampons alone, and that the total cost of a woman’s period in her lifetime is $18,171 dollars,” Groustra wrote.
Combine the expense of a person’s period with the shame associated with it and Stone saw an opening for some real legislative action. Though Groustra graduated from BHS in 2018, Stone kept close ties with a group of former high schoolers that helped to shape their campaign to end the stigmatization around menstruation and period products. One of whom was Carter Mucha, now a freshman at Vassar College.
Mucha worked with Stone on her campaign, mostly through phone banking, calling voters to try to win the vote for Stone. With a new idea to support gender equity upon seeing Groustra’s op-ed, Stone decided to partner with the NARAL Pro-Choice chapter of BHS—a non-profit organization that advocates for abortion access, of which Mucha was the co-president—to garner support of the bylaw for free period products in public bathrooms.
“So I diverted some of our NARAL Pro-Choice club time to working on this menstrual hygiene products issue, in addition to our reguarly scheduled programming of supporting our local abortion clinics and educating and such,” Mucha said.
In creating the verbiage of the new bylaw, it was important not only for women’s public bathrooms to be provided with free menstrual products, but all public bathrooms. For Mucha, it was important to include gender neutral language in the bylaw and provide menstrual products in women’s, men’s, and gender neutral bathrooms to accommodate female-bodied people who might not identify as female.
“There was another issue with people who menstruate who do not identify as women having to go to these great lengths to get the products that they need,” Mucha said, “and perhaps risk outing themselves or increasing the level of dysphoria that they already feel by … having to act as a gender that they don’t present as and they don’t identify with in public places.”
Despite the inclusive wording, Stone and Mucha still faced issues in passing the bylaw. Their first hurdle: Brookline’s public schools are not governed under Brookline Town Meetings. Mucha and the women of BHS NARAL Pro-Choice had to run a separate campaign aimed at getting the Brookline school committee to sign onto the same warrant article that Stone and Mucha presented to the Town Meeting Committee. As a high school student, Mucha and the rest of the NARAL Pro-Choice group at BHS worked on collecting signatures from fellow students and faculty members to show support when presenting to the school committee.
Whereas Mucha and her high school peers brought the knowledge of the school setting, Stone had a career background in local legislation—an endeavor that Mucha says she couldn’t complete without her. And though she was on the losing side of a campaign in 2018, Stone still found she could create change.
“You know, running for office … was a wonderful experience. I very much regret that I did not get a chance to, to serve in that office,” Stone said. “But serving in the state legislature is not the only avenue for making a real difference in public policy.”
In actually implementing the bylaw, Stone and Mucha budgeted for dispensers to be built into every public bathroom in Brookline. At $350 a piece, according to Mucha, the machines are a heavy expense. By installing machines, the dispensers will prevent unnecessary theft and promote only taking the products that one needs.
The upkeep of filling the machines is estimated at $1,700, according to Mucha. And though the law presents, at the surface level, to be solely about menstruation products, Stone recognizes that this bylaw is a massive step toward gender equity. For Stone, the lack of availability of menstruation products is a public hygiene issue only associated with female-bodied people.
“It’s so important that we talk about this as public health and hygiene and not as feminine products for you know, a women’s problem, right?” Stone said. “… That’s the example that Brookline set, we raised the bar.”
While the bylaw will not be implemented immediately, Stone, Mucha, Groustra, and the rest of the women in the NARAL Pro-Choice chapter at BHS laid the groundwork for a stigma-free period for people of all gender identities. It might be that time of the month, but these women are making sure that female-bodied people have access to all of the supplies that they need. Aunt Flo won’t get the best of them this time.
Featured Image By Isabella Cavazzoni / Heights Editor