On the first day of 2015, lawyer Jennifer Weiss-Wolf dressed as Wonder Woman and submerged herself in the ice-cold Atlantic as part of an annual invigoration ritual with friends. It shook her spirit, as intended, but not with nearly the force she would meet that night while uploading pictures of her costume to Facebook, where Weiss-Wolf noticed a post from sisters named Emma and Quinn Joy. They were collecting menstrual products for a food pantry in her New Jersey community.
"A lifetime of reproductive-rights and women's-health advocacy, and I swear, I'd never given a second thought to periods as part of policy activism," Weiss-Wolf, 48, said. She took to a search engine and discovered that in the United States, most states tax menstrual products as luxury items, creating a disadvantage for low-income women that reinforces period stigma.
Legislators and journalists before her who had noticed damaging economic effects of the "tampon tax" and attempted to call out the injustice had met with little success. Ten years prior, Suzi Oppenheimer of the New York State Senate had tried to introduce menstrual-product sales-tax legislation that saw no real pickup. Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti had made the case for free tampons in August 2014 and in turn received all the whining imaginable.
Weiss-Wolf kicked her research into high gear. At the end of January 2015, she wrote a guest post about menstrual equity on Nick Kristof's New York Times blog. In the surrounding weeks, Al-Jazeera featured a story about bleeding while homeless, and The Nation ran another about reproductive health in the NYC prison system. Then, in April, a woman named Kiran Gandhi purposely eschewed a tampon to run the London Marathon and finished the race with blood streaming down her legs. Attention to the issue blossomed, with some strategic help.
A menstrual-mad Weiss-Wolf crafted a petition, aligned with media to put tampons on magazine covers, and collaborated with lawmakers to push policy change, producing what became known as "the year of the period" with help from a handful of international activists. Since that cold swim two years ago on New Year's Day, she's advised Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, and the White House about the issue. So far in 2017, eight states have tampon-tax bills introduced or in the works. Periods Gone Public, Weiss-Wolf's book about the rise of the menstrual equity movement, is expected in September. She just launched a nonprofit, Period Equity, and the organization's art and design work was done pro bono by the iconic Lenny fave Paula Scher.
For Lenny, Weiss-Wolf detailed her journey from a park bench in Brooklyn on an overcast day.
Alli Maloney: Why are periods having a media moment?
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf: What really kicked this off was Kiran Gandhi's marathon run. She's a young Indian-American woman [who] ran the London Marathon free-bleeding as a matter of practicality. She woke up that morning, had her period, and [not using tampons or pads] seemed to be the safest way to run. She wrote a blog about it, and it went viral.
As I've been doing my research, I'm finding there are lots of ways periods infiltrated the public discussion that just didn't catch on. In 2015, this chorus of voices — whether it was writers, reporters, hashtag activists, bold in-person activists doing fairly rebellious things — converged. We all do now, but none of us knew each other at the time.
It's hard to put the words great and Donald Trump together, other than his own saying, but [he] made his unfortunate comment about Megyn Kelly bleeding out of "her wherever" when he didn't like her line of questioning about his history of sexism during a debate. That became the catalyzing force of the media's real willingness to talk about it. We had already coalesced enough at that point that we were able to take advantage of it as if we were this joined force.