Jennifer Weiss-Wolf remembers the moment she first became interested in period justice.
It was January 1, 2015, and she’d just come from her annual Polar Bear Plunge on Coney Island, wearing her Wonder Woman swimsuit as she always does “because it makes me feel powerful”.
She logged on to Facebook from her Park Slope home to share her Polar Plunge photos, and saw she was tagged in a post where a local mom was collecting period products.
“As a lawyer dealing in the core issues of democracy and justice, I was riveted why our laws would not be addressing this,” Weiss-Wolf said.
“Why would a mom and her two kids be asking people for tampons and pads?”
The moment set Weiss-Wolf on what has so far been a six-year journey into fighting for period equity free and accessible menstruation products for all, as a right.
Weiss-Wolf started to research and by January 28, she had a column in the New York Times thinking aloud about how to tackle the lack of access to period products. “The possibilities are endless,” she wrote.
At the time, she noted that for the more than 40 million women living in poverty or on the brink of it the cost of feminine hygiene products was yet another burden on an already stretched budget.
She pointed out that a years supply of tampons and pads costs upwards of $70 (more if you need to buy them on the fly from a convenience store), and that the situation was particularly bad for women who were homeless.
Lawmakers starting contacting her, she began working with then-Councilmember Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, and by June 2016 Weiss-Wolf was penning another New York Times column on what they’d achieved.
New York City had just made history with the passage of the nations first legislative package sponsored by Ferreras-Copeland to ensure access to menstrual products in public schools, shelters and corrections facilities.
It was a huge win, but Weiss-Wolf was just getting started. Fast-forward five years and access to pads and tampons is still a problem she’s as passionate about as ever, co-founding the Period Equity organization and working to drive legislative change.
The stigma, the silence
Due to the stigma around periods, attention on the problem around access to period products has been a long time coming.
“[Periods] are so universal, but somehow were all trained not to discuss it,” Weiss-Wolf said.
A 2019 study found that one in four girls aged 13-19 across the country reported having missed class due to lack of access to period products.
The study, done by by period underwear company Thinx and non-profit PERIOD also found that 20 percent of teens struggled to afford period products or weren’t able to buy them at all.
And the pandemic has only made the problem worse, Weiss-Wolf said.
Even prior to 2020, implementation of NYC’s period product laws was “uneven at best,” she said, pointing to two Brooklyn Girl Scouts’ investigation of 23 Brooklyn public schools.
Over two years, they found that only 18% of the schools had both sanitary bins in the bathrooms and free, working dispensers, and took action to remedy it. With schools and other pad-and-tampon pick up points closed during the pandemic, even that lifeline was gone.
“During the pandemic, people’s safety nets were really stretched,” Weiss-Wolf said. “If the laws in NYC were not being implemented well in the first place, you can only imagine how much harder it’s been this last year.”
Six years after the Polar Bear Plunge that led to her passion for period equity, Weiss-Wolf is still doing the annual plunge in her Wonder Woman swimsuit, and the work of Wonder Woman by day.
Right now, she is imagining a United States where federal, state and city laws are all working in concert to make period products accessible, affordable and safe.
This means tackling all the levers of government, including tax law, education, and public benefits.
“I now look at our laws with a critical eye,” she said. “And quite often they’re stacked against us, when I would have thought they were neutral.”
Other countries like Scotland have been leading the way, last year becoming the first country in the world to make period products free for all.
While Weiss-Wolf says the United States is a more difficult place to do the same thanks to its sprawling layers of government, she’s committed to the fight.
Today, she’s considered a leading voice for equitable menstrual policy in the country, and has been called the “architect of the U.S. policy campaign to squash the tampon tax.” And there’s a personal payoff, too.
“Before I started doing this I never talked about periods. I have kids, and I told them what they needed to know, but it wasn’t a conversation about the social and political issues,” she said.
“My life is infinitely better from talking about this all the time.”
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