Starting this April, Vassar will be supplying tampons and pads to its students at no cost as part of a movement to make menstrual products more available and accessible. Rebecca Pober ’18 founded the program and currently serves as its leader, with help from both volunteers and members of the VSA Health and Wellness Committee. Project Period aims to supply all dormitory bathrooms and the bathrooms of some of the more popular academic or general buildings. For those who live in the Terrace Apartments and Town Houses, the products will be in the laundry rooms. A wide variety of menstrual products will be packed in clear containers. As Chair of the Health and Wellness Committee Natalie Kopke ’17 explained, “The clear box has two functions: one, normalize the use of menstrual products by making them visible and two, make it easy for those tracking the box to keep stock.”
Other schools across the nation have joined the initiative: Emory University in Georgia, Reed College in Oregon and Grinnell College in Iowa (Inside Higher Education, “If Condoms Are Free, Why Aren’t Tampons?,” 3.11.2016). The idea of free menstrual products has grown in popularity across college campuses because many cash-strapped students cannot afford to pay luxury taxes on health products necessary for their physical well-being. In fact, others have argued that paying for menstrual products themselves is unfair—these products should be supplied to public spaces in the same way that toilet paper is. This would relieve financial pressure for the low-income population, encourage sanitary practices and reduce shame surrounding menstruation. Ashley Carey ’18 added, “Access to menstrual products for all low-income students should be a given. Finally being able to provide this service to students across campus is really exciting. Menstruation shouldn’t have to be a stressful and expensive part of life, and any resources that we can provide to menstruating students can make a huge difference.”
National organizations like Free the Tampons fight for more accessibility to menstrual products in public spaces. According to its website, “We think women shouldn’t have to worry about an unexpected physical need becoming an overwhelming emotional ordeal” (Free the Tampons, “About,” 2017). Their efforts have culminated in substantial results. A series of bills introduced in March 2016 by the New York City (NYC) council sought to repeal the luxury tax on all sanitary products within New York state and provide free menstrual products to NYC public schools, prisons and homeless shelters. By June 2016, the council unanimously passed the latter bill, reasoning that menstrual products are a basic necessity (Slate, “New York City Council Approves Free Tampons and Pads in Schools, Prisons, and Shelters,” 7.22.2016).
For some, providing free menstrual products at Vassar aligns with the College’s mission to eliminate financial barriers to those who pursue a full liberal arts education. Financially-strained students may find themselves unable to buy sanitary products without compromising other necessities like food or textbooks. Project Period seeks to address this struggle. Kopke agreed, “This project was conceptualized with that goal in mind. As always, we hope students will be mindful of financial need on this campus and access Project Period products accordingly.” Being a pilot program, there will still be limits on the amount of products available in public spaces and the time taken to restock them. Consequently, students are always encouraged to take whatever products they need, keeping in mind that there are others who are in the same situation.
Vassar will also be providing products in both gendered and non-gendered bathrooms within academic buildings. Recently, Brown University has faced much scrutiny for supplying menstrual products in men’s bathrooms, with opposers trying to argue that males do not menstruate.
However, the leader of this program and student body president, Viet Nguyen, defended his decision on the basis that gender is not physically bound. People who menstruate do not have to identify as women. As Nguyen puts it, “We wanted to set a tone of trans-inclusivity and not forget that they’re an important part of the population” (Newsweek, “Free Tampons and Pads Are Making Their Way to U.S. Colleges, High Schools and Middle Schools,” 9.6.2016). Just like Brown’s, Vassar’s goal of supplying products in all bathrooms is an attempt to address the frequent critique that Vassar fails to be trans-inclusive. It helps to ensure that the needs of a population, which many argue has been routinely ignored, are met and heard.
However, not every college that has provided this service has found great success. Columbia University started its pilot program in March 2016 only to face a lack of general interest. Between March 21 to the end of the spring semester, just 137 students out of approximately 6000 participated in the program—the lack of traction caused the program to end by fall (Columbia Daily Spectator, “Columbia Health Stops Providing Free Tampons, Pads to Students,” 9.12.2016). Problems included the inadequate dissemination of information, the inconvenience of picking up the products at a different location and concerns about privacy and maintaining anonymity. It seems Project Period has avoided some of these pitfalls through the way that the program is structured. Project Period’s ambitions include expanding its services to incorporate anonymous online ordering and delivery to P.O. boxes by the start of 2018. This would allow members of the community who live off-campus to gain access, but is contingent upon a greater availability of volunteers. As of now, volunteers meet on a bi-weekly basis and receive information through a listserve. For access to the listserve and to confirm interest, email Kopke at nakopke[at]vassar.edu. For all other questions, contact Pober at repober[at] vassar.edu.