Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
This summer, the ACLU announced it is taking on the case of Alisha Coleman, a woman who was fired for bleeding onto her office chair while menstruating at work. The case effectively brings the ACLU into a broader movement known as “menstruation activism,” which includes a number of writers, lawyers, artists and speakers who are campaigning in many ways to change the conversation around women’s periods. The overall goal is to remove barriers that disadvantage and even punish women simply for having a basic biological function.
The ACLU decided to take on the case in the spirit of its women’s rights project, founded by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which has been involved in all major Title VII cases, including those involving pregnancy discrimination. “The court found in Coleman’s case that heavy menstrual period is not covered under Title VII,” said Galen Sherwin, a senior attorney at the ACLU. “That just seemed so wrong and outrageous. It’s a case of essentially being penalized while female. The workplace needs to make space for women’s bodies, including having a period, having babies and breastfeeding.”
“Workplaces pretend that women don’t get their periods,” Sherwin added. “It’s not talked about. There have been pushes over time to have workplaces provide free sanitary products for example, but it’s never taken off. It’s still very taboo.”
Not surprisingly, those most affected by menstruation discrimination are women of color and poor women, who often work at places that force their employees to take a limited number of bathroom breaks at fixed times throughout the workday. Access to often pricey sanitary products can be a major barrier for women who don’t have much disposable income. Tampons and pads have historically been taxed as luxury items, a practice activists have pushed to end. New York City has made some progress, as have other states and cities that have repealed the “tampon tax.” Women in prison, who often make a few cents per hour, are some of the hardest hit by these prices. On the legislative front, the movement is getting traction: Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris introduced a bill this summer that would provide incarcerated women with free menstrual products.
The menstruation activism movement has attracted such diverse figures as artist Jen Lewis, who used her own menstrual blood to paint her “Beauty in Blood” project; musician Kiran Gandhi, who gained notoriety after running a London marathon while bleeding freely; and entrepreneur Miki Agrawal, who launched Thinx, a period-safe underwear company that donates reusable pads to poor women.
But the movement was largely spearheaded by Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, lawyer and vice president for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, and author of the new book Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity.
Weiss-Wolf agrees that the time is ripe for true change in the realm of menstruation activism. “NPR called 2015 the ‘year of the period,’” she said. “In the year that followed, menstruation activist groups collaborated more regarding media coverage, legislation that’s passed, and the involvement of the ACLU, which has brought high-profile status. It’s sort of the perfect opportunity to talk about these issues.”
Weiss-Wolf feels the movement is finally coming together through this collective yet separate work. “There are groups that have been collecting menstrual products for women in disaster zones, like during the recent hurricanes. Some have incredibly high impact. There are entrepreneurs coming out with products that are healthier, reusable and safer. There are activists who are truly radical and grassroots, providing music, art and poetry that have contributed to this discourse. We all have a shared vision.”
There is even bipartisan support. As of June 2017, of the nine states that have successfully passed laws eliminating the tampon tax, five were signed by Republican governors. Even Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department issued an advisory to encourage prisons to provide menstrual products. “It feels like the issue is global and universal enough that it’s not seen as toxic or politically polarizing,” Weiss-Wolf said.
“It matters especially in our political climate right now,” Weiss-Wolf added. “As progressive women, we have an administration that is so hostile to our bodies and our wellbeing. This issue is the one place where there’s an understanding that this is a biological function. If we can remove the stigma and create policy around this, we can create change that will be otherwise be hard-pressed to see in the Trump era.”
Liz Posner is an associate editor at AlterNet. Her work has appeared on Forbes.com, Bust, Bustle, Refinery29, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @elizpos.