Jill Gaither’s daughter came home sobbing because of an accident only a girl could experience.
Her period started unexpectedly at school and leaked through her pants.
Her mother had given her supplies to deal with such situations. Why didn’t she take what she needed out of her locker?
“Then I have to pull it out in front of everyone,” her daughter said. “There are boys standing by my locker.”
“Oh yeah, that’s seventh grade,” Gaither thought. She asked why her daughter didn’t go to the nurse. It’s embarrassing to go the school nurse and admit something like this, her daughter explained. Duh.
Gaither wondered why the school, in Ladue, didn’t have tampons and pads available for girls in the bathroom. She told her daughter that she was going to look into it.
“She, of course, is mortified because she might be associated with periods, but I was undeterred,” Gaither said. She put together a wish list of supplies that could be purchased for the bathrooms. Then, she emailed her friends who also had middle-school-aged daughters and asked them to purchase what they could from the list. When she had collected enough items, she approached Ladue Middle School.
There was some initial pushback. The school already provides supplies at no cost at the nurse’s office. There are also coin-operated machines in the bathrooms to purchase hygiene products.
Gaither responded that no kid carries quarters on them anymore, and the supplies the machine dispenses are unfamiliar and uncomfortable for teen girls. Also, boys don’t have to trek to the nurse’s office to ask for toilet paper after they use the bathroom. Why make it burdensome for a girl to deal with her bodily functions?
At first, the school put a sign in the bathroom saying there were teen-oriented products available in the nurse’s office. After a few months, they eventually put the tampons and pads in baskets in the bathrooms, like Gaither originally wanted.
“They were worried it would be a disaster with maxi pads stuck on lockers,” Gaither said. Another concern was that students might just take free supplies home instead of using them at school, to which Gaither responded: If they need them that badly, then please, let them take them home.
None of the concerns materialized. Many girls have used the free products available in the bathroom. Gaither attended a parent association meeting and asked if they would be willing to fund the project. They agreed to budget $100 a month to stock the four bathrooms at the middle school.
Much of the attention in the media recently has focused on the negative consequences of “period poverty,” where girls don’t have access to, or can’t afford, sanitary supplies. In some parts of the world, girls drop out of school when they begin to menstruate due to the lack of supplies. The documentary short film “Period. End of Sentence” told the story of bringing a machine that makes sanitary pads to a small village in India and how it changed the lives of the women there. A group of girls at a North Hollywood school raised funds to buy the machine and paid for the film production.
“Ladue is a pretty affluent area,” Gaithers said, and increasing access and availability to products even there helped many girls. She heard about girls who don't have anyone to talk to or to help them once they get their period. Her goal is to “normalize this normal thing and not make it this shameful thing,” and to spread the idea to other schools.
She has a meeting later this month with a teacher who reached out to her because a Ladue student wants to spearhead the same effort at underserved schools in the area. Other cities and states have already taken up the issue of free menstrual supplies in schools as one of basic equality and dignity. It’s disruptive and stigmatizing to send girls to the nurse to access basic hygiene supplies. It’s embarrassing to deal with stains from accidents. And it’s unconscionable that schools would force impoverished families to choose between buying a child’s food or buying period supplies every month.
Using a tampon is just as much a “luxury” as using the bathroom soap to wash your hands.