Hayley Gambone is on a mission: the 20-year-old student wants BU to offer menstrual products for free in bathrooms across campus.
But as she learned in a meeting with BU Facilities Management & Planning staffers, it’s a subject that can lead to pretty awkward conversations, even when both sides have good intentions.
The conversation started smoothly. Gambone (CAS’20), a BU student government senator, suggested that the Facilities staff replace the broken and unstocked dispensers with new ones, and the group was receptive and interested in hearing about her efforts. Only when Gambone got more specific and found herself giving a lesson in, well, female menstrual products (like the difference between tampons with and without applicators) did things become uncomfortable.
It wasn’t that her listeners rejected her idea—in fact they supported it. It was just a slightly embarrassing topic. Gambone left feeling confused and frustrated—after all, these are products their own mothers, wives, and daughters use every day. Didn’t they want to know about the products more than half the people on campus use, she wondered.
It turns out they do. But this is one issue that won’t be solved easily.
A growing movement
Blame the gender divide, or a generation gap, or just general squeamishness, but many people would prefer discussing Ebola, diarrhea, or pretty much anything ahead of menstruation. Despite the taboo, and often because of it, a growing number of college and university students across the country are talking about their periods. And like Gambone, an environmental analysis and policy major, they are lobbying for their institutions to provide free tampons and sanitary pads. The University of Washington, for example, is doing it for about $20,000 a year.
Their thinking is this: menstruation isn’t a choice, it’s a bodily function, basic human biology no different than our need to go to the bathroom. Women shed the lining of the uterus monthly, and that biological fact is nothing to be ashamed of. And in fact, groups like FreeTheTampons, an organization dedicated to ending “restroom inequality,” and PERIOD, a group with more than 200 chapters, mostly on college campuses, think every bathroom outside the home should offer free tampons so women don’t have to worry about finding one when their period arrives unexpectedly.
To accomplish that goal, people need to talk more openly about menstruation, and they are. Self-published zines featuring menstruation stories, shared period playlists (The White Stripes’ “Red Rain,” anyone?), and tampon subscription services that offer chocolate are only the beginning. Companies like Ohio-based Aunt Flow, which sells applicator-free organic tampons and bathroom dispensers, also advise college students advocating for free products.
Anne Wiegand, whose official title at Aunt Flow is happiness director, says the company is in talks with students at dozens of colleges and universities, including several in Greater Boston.
“We may have been trained as a culture not to talk about it,” Wiegand says, “but there are quite a few schools moving this conversation forward.”
BU is listening
So should BU offer free tampons?
Bill Walter, BU assistant vice president for operations and services, says yes, but the “devil is in the details.”
The University has tried it before, when coin-operated tampon dispensers were vandalized and the quarters and tampons inside stolen. Facilities staff removed the doors on some machines and restocked them with free supplies, which were also cleaned out in no time. It’s the challenge of an urban campus in a big city, very different from a more enclosed campus where the people walking around are there for a reason.
“It was very problematic,” Walter says. “We’d put product in there, and the next day everything would be gone.”
He’s been researching solutions, he says, but there are tricky questions about how to proceed, such as which dispensers are most effective, their cost, and which bathrooms would get them.
“We haven’t given up,” he adds.
Kenneth Elmore (Wheelock’87), associate provost and dean of students, and Jean Morrison, BU provost, have asked Gambone to enlist the staff and resources available at Innovate@BU, a campus incubator for entrepreneurs, in helping move the effort forward.
“We want to sponsor this idea and are prepared to put some reasonable funds behind it,” Elmore says.
Will it be easy? Not on a city campus with 2,000 bathrooms and 43,000 students, faculty, and staff.
“When I’ve seen ideas that work over time or policies that people really get, they work because people problem-solved as a community, as opposed to a project that a handful of people might have,” Elmore says. “This is one of those issues.”
Other schools have tried
There also is no great model for BU to follow. Other colleges have tried, but where some rollouts have been smooth, others have faced complications. Brown University became a great place to study—for why it worked, and why it struggled.
Students at Brown were among the first to take action on the issue, in 2016. Student government leaders stocked more than 70 bathrooms with discreet baskets containing free tampons and sanitary pads, paying for the effort out of their own coffers. The aim was to get the university to take over the program, known as Project Tampon, so the students committed to restocking the bathrooms.
“Access to these products is a healthcare issue,” says Brown student government member Molly Naylor-Komyatte, who led the effort. “Condoms and safe-sex materials are available for free [on campus], and those are healthcare items. It’s a similar justification for menstrual hygiene products.”
The effort encouraged student government leaders at dozens of colleges and universities to embark on similar campaigns. Students at Emory, Cornell, Syracuse, the University of Arizona, the University of Minnesota, and the College of William and Mary followed suit with student-run programs.
“Students, staff, and visitors can all be menstruating people,” says Tiffany Haas, who led a pilot program that supplied four bathrooms at Emory. “It’s a public good.”
Student-led programs can be difficult to sustain. Haas and other students fundraise to help support that campus’ program, and the effort at Brown sparked a backlash when students put tampons in the men’s bathrooms to accommodate transgender students.
“Even Men Get Free Tampons at Brown University,” read one headline in Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller, while commenters on Breitbart called it “academic insanity.”
Naylor-Komyatte was unphased, and even welcomed the visibility.
The issue of cost
A typical woman could spend $7 to 10 a month on tampons (the most common way women deal with their periods).
Naylor-Komyatte says its a particular concern for students with financial struggles. “It shouldn’t be an additional difficulty of being a low-income student on campus,” she says.
Student government at Brown halted Project Tampon earlier this year, asking the university’s facilities department to take it over. But that hasn’t happened yet, and the idea remains under consideration, according to the Brown Daily Herald.
One need look no further than Reddit to see how divisive “free” tampons, and who pays for them, can be. In the thread “unpopularopinion,” Reddit’s commenters questioned why tampons and menstrual supplies are any different than condoms, food, and other discretionary goods.
“It’s disgusting to think that we have to compensate individuals for every disparity between them and some baseline,” one anonymous Reddit user declared.
Then there is the challenge of convincing men that menstrual supplies are not a luxury item. A 2017 survey by YouGov found that just 46 percent of the 2,000 men it polled viewed access to affordable tampons and pads as a right, not a privilege. And even despite the sweeping activism around menstruation, 40 states still tax tampons as nonnecessities. Earlier this year, a third attempt to exempt tampons from state sales tax in California failed.
“Change is slow,” Naylor-Komyatte notes, even on college campuses.
But conversations about the politics of menstruation are spreading. Three states, New York, Illinois, and California, have passed laws requiring public schools to offer free menstrual supplies for students in grades 6 through 12.
And then there’s the University of Washington.
Gene Woodard, the university’s director of facilities, says he wasn’t paying close attention to the roiling national debates over tampons last year when he met with two students who asked him to stock bathrooms with free tampons and pads.
It struck him as a “no brainer,” Woodard says, especially for students struggling to pay for college, and he knew from buying tampons for his daughters how disruptive menstruation could be to their lives. His department installed free tampon dispensers in more than 800 women’s and gender-neutral bathrooms, at a cost of about $20,000, which came from his budget.
That’s nothing, he says. The University spends $150,000 on soap.
“I would recommend it. It’s not a huge strain on the budget. And I think it’s more inclusive,” he says.
Offering free tampons and sanitary pads is not a new idea, especially on forward-thinking college campuses. Elena Kagan, now a US Supreme Court justice, ensured that menstrual supplies were offered to women at Harvard Law School when she was dean more than a decade ago.
BU’s Gambone isn’t a radical. (“I hate conflict,” she says.) She points out that Scotland passed a law in August requiring every female student to receive free tampons because one in two girls must resort to using alternatives such as rolled toilet paper, socks, or newspapers. That first-of-its-kind initiative reinforces her determination that her campaign is a necessary, and the right, thing to pursue.
She also wishes the existing dispensers on campus could be better maintained and stocked. Her own analysis of BU bathrooms found that out of 322 buildings, 8 have functional, stocked, coin-operated dispensers.
“Does anyone even carry quarters anymore?” she asks.
Gary Nicksa, senior vice president for operations, says the University is continuing to look for viable solutions to the current dispenser problem, but that many of the systems the University has researched cost $100,000 or more. “All of us went home and talked to our wives and daughters and said, ‘How do you think about this,’” Nicksa says. “You hear very different opinions.”
Gambone’s job now is to work with the many students—male and female—across campus who have a stake in the cause. That includes student senator Nehemiah Dureus (ENG’20), who tried unsuccessfully two years ago as a freshman to get student government to spend its budget surplus on free tampons.
“It’s obviously a healthier thing to have tampons than not,” he says. “I don’t think you have to know all the ins and outs of the issue to know that it’s good.”
Samira Saran (CGS’19), who leads the BU PERIOD chapter, is also on board and applauds Gambone’s work. “The conversation is escalating,” Saran says.
According to Morrison, it’s exactly the kind of project Innovate@BU is designed to support. “Access to affordable feminine hygiene products is an important issue around the world,” the provost says. “We are supportive of the efforts to ensure that all BU students have access to these products and are impressed with the initiative this team of students is showing in utilizing the resources available through Innovate@BU to advance their work.”
Gambone has lined up endorsements from a host of student groups, from the Feminist Coalition to the Panhellenic Council and Alianza Latina. She also plans to reach out to a group of engineering students who have been designing tampon dispensers as part of a class project.
It’s been an education, she says.
“I’ve definitely learned about communicating with people who have more power than I do, and how to get my voice heard by people who can easily reject me,” Gambone says. “It helps to get people on your side.”
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.