This op-ed was written in collaboration with Maggie Schmitt and Marni Sommer
The “Great Tampon Shortage” of 2022 was just one of the latest challenges people who menstruate across the U.S faced. This issue, compounded by the pandemic and discriminatory tampon tax policies, only further exacerbates period poverty, which is the lack of access to menstrual products, bathrooms, and period education.
In recent years, there has been a growth in city and state-level “menstrual equity” policies aimed at ensuring equitable access to period products. These policies often gain bipartisan support despite the divisiveness of U.S. politics. In 2021, following Michigan’s tampon tax repeal, Ann Arbor became the first city requiring all public bathrooms to provide free menstrual products. Los Angeles County, the largest county in the U.S., introduced a similar motion in 2022, mandating that all government facilities, including libraries, provide free period products. Recently, Utah passed monumental legislation, making it the first U.S. state to offer free period products in all K-12 schools and state-owned buildings. Since 2019, many libraries have introduced free products via city-funded pilot programs, like in Dallas, Texas, and Brookline, Massachusetts. Such measures demonstrate that libraries are becoming crucial community players in the fight for menstrual equity.
Libraries have long played a central role in American communities as centers for delivering community development programs. Libraries offer critical social services such as assistance for housing, employment, training, after-school programs, and internet access. They serve as trustworthy centers for accessing health education or telehealth appointments, which was especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic. Libraries offer a haven for vulnerable community members, such as undocumented and immigrant populations, and operate as community shelters during natural disasters.
Recognizing libraries’ broad commitment to community, it is not surprising to see their emerging role as menstrual equity champions. Julie Perrin, a Library Director from New Hampshire, further elucidated this trend: “We have addressed period poverty in the same way we address other social issues like food insecurity and the digital divide, by seeing the need and acting on it.” Such sentiments highlight libraries’ desire to play a tangible role in addressing menstrual equity issues within their communities.
How are Libraries Addressing Menstrual Equity and Period Stigma?
Many libraries are currently distributing free menstrual products. Providing free products benefits a range of community members such as mothers with children, students, people experiencing homelessness, or anyone experiencing an unplanned period. Ms. Perrin described what led her library to partner with Aunt Flow, a certified women-led, sustainable menstrual product company, for product distribution. She noted how teen library users served as catalysts, explaining: “Our teens were the first ones to ask for help with their periods… before learning about Aunt Flow dispensers, our staff would discreetly provide their own period products to our teens.” Such stories illustrate libraries’ responsiveness to the very real needs of their patrons.
Beyond products, libraries are also addressing menstrual health education gaps. Many U.S. girls lack sufficient period information, often viewing school-based education as inadequate. A recent survey found that 76% of students believed they are taught more about the biology of frogs in school than the actual human female body!
As trusted sources of information, libraries offer books, electronic resources, and educational workshops on puberty and menstruation. The Brooklyn Public Library launched Cycle Alliance, a pro-period youth workshop series providing education and combatting period stigma. Another important resource includes A Girl’s Guide to Puberty & Periods, developed by Grow & Know and the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health through participatory research with adolescent girls across the country.
Librarians are also well-positioned to help youth overcome health literacy challenges, including assisting them with searching for and using health information. Jill Martinson of Elkhart Public Library in Indiana reflected on the role of libraries in navigating sensitive topics like this, including suggesting strategies to help youth seeking support: “If you’re embarrassed to ask for help about your period, you can go to the recreation desk, or checkout desk, and ask for books on ‘moon cycles.’” Hopefully, such approaches can help empower youth to more proactively access this essential reproductive health knowledge.
The Next Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Equity
Library-led initiatives highlight a growing commitment to tackling period poverty at the community level. As this movement grows, we advocate for the following four recommendations:
- Reframe menstrual products as “essential items,” like soap and toilet paper, to normalize the routine budgeting and availability of these materials by libraries, schools, and other public and private sector organizations.
- Prioritize menstrual health education through workshops and mandating the inclusion of menstrual health in school curriculums or by stocking puberty and period books in libraries.
- Expand the evidence on the impact of period poverty on the lives of those who menstruate, including evaluating new programs and policies. This learning can motivate and inform future programming and advocacy efforts.
- Pressure local, state and federal lawmakers to pass menstrual equity legislation by contacting elected officials, garnering local and national media attention, and organizing rallies!
Periods don’t pause for national tampon stockouts, inflation, or global pandemics. Fortunately, libraries recognize this and are rising to address these unmet needs throughout these unprecedented times. Libraries may just be our secret weapon in the fight for menstrual equity.