Maplewoodian by Joe Strupp

SOMA and The New Menstruation Equity Campaign

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, the author of "Periods Gone Public: Taking A Stand for Menstrual Equity," will be at Words Bookstore in Maplewood on Dec. 7 at 7 p.m. Credits: Words Bookstore website

Menstruation, which has long been an awkward topic for most men, and an embarrassing subject for many women, has lately been part of the conversation in SOMA.

Maplewood attorney and author Jennifer Weiss-Wolf's book Periods Gone Public: Taking A Stand For Menstrual Equity was just published.

The South Orange-based non-profit Girls Helping Girls. Period. focuses solely on providing feminine hygiene products to women and girls in need.

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Maplewood Township even has an initiative to stock all the public restrooms with feminine hygiene products.

However, there is still work to be done, especially in the South Orange Maplewood School District.

While New Jersey is among the 34 states that do not tax tampons and feminine pads, we have not followed some other states -- New York among them -- in requiring that they be provided free in all public building restrooms.

Nowhere is that more noticeable than in our local schools, none of which provide feminine products in girls’ restrooms for students. At Columbia High School and in both middle schools, students must take time and go to the school nurse to get these products.

“From anecdotal evidence we have found these are not products that girls steal and there are easy ways to make the products available if only in some bathrooms and allow them to get back to learning,” said Elise Joy, a local mother of two teen girls and co-founder of Girls Helping Girls. Period, a national non-profit group that raises funds to buy feminine products for those in need.

Asked why the district does not stock girls restrooms with free feminine products, District Spokeswoman Suzanne Turner stated via email:

While there is no specific Board policy on feminine hygiene products, Board policy #5561 states “(3)(b) Hygiene care. No student may be denied or subjected to an unreasonable delay in the provision of common hygiene care.”

There is no lack of feminine hygiene products at our schools, nor are there unreasonable delays in providing products, upon request. SOMSD has an ample supply of feminine hygiene products in each nurse’s office for “emergencies” – when a girl gets her period unexpectedly or needs products during the school day. 

Turner also pointed out that the district has partnered with Girls Helping Girls. Period. and other groups that provide free products and directed students to use those resources to stock up.

Joy countered that view, saying, “Nurses have told me they find that some girls come to the nurse and don’t mind asking, but there are other girls who for whatever reason find it easier to leave school and go home.”

Joy’s group launched about three years ago after she asked guests coming to a party to skip the bottle of wine and bring a box of tampons or pads for a donation collection instead. She said 5,000 were gathered that night.

After some other friends held similar parties for a combined haul of 50,000 products they were donated to a food pantry and a movement was born.

“Girls Helping Girls. Period. is proudly partnering with more than 20 schools in Essex County to provide all of the girls in need in those schools with a full year’s supply of tampons and pads,” said Joy. 

But South Orange Maplewood schools have not taken advantage of that offer.

The organization even has a “pad bank” where some 250,000 of the products are stored. Fittingly it’s in the basement of the Bank of America on Maplewood Avenue, courtesy of the building’s owners, Carlo Caparruva and Reed Kean, who donated the space.

While the school district is handling it, or mishandling it, one way, Maplewood Township is implementing a $10,000 plan that will have free pads and tampons in all Township buildings as soon as next month, according to Assistant Business Administrator Sonia A. Viveiros.

“We are in the midst of completing this project,” she said via email. “All of the products and materials have been purchased and received. Installations will commence at the beginning of January where all of our Township buildings/facilities will have fully stocked dispensers of feminine hygiene products.” (Credit outgoing Township Committee member India Larrier for launching that effort years ago)

But should it even be a question? Shouldn't feminine pads and products be as common in restrooms as toilet paper and paper towels?

“Can you imagine walking into any public bathroom and not finding toilet paper?” Joy asked. “You can’t imagine that because a long time ago it was legislated by men that bathrooms had to have it to be clean. These products are not any different than toilet paper. They allow you to take care of a natural bodily function.”

Joy also points out that federal subsidy programs such as Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, Medicaid and WIC (Women, Infants and Children) do not cover feminine products and pads.

As one of five boys with no sisters, I never lived with a female teen in the home whose puberty was likely much more impactful than my sudden hormone challenges and night time surprises.

With just my mother in the house, period whispers, sanitary napkin wrappers and PMS frustration was minimal at best. I learned only what I needed to about “the curse” and had no one-on-one interaction with females of child-bearing years until much later.

Still, had me and my friends been taught that menstruation was as normal and non-shameful as brushing your teeth any awkwardness could have been avoided.

The point made by members of the growing menstruation equity movement is the whisper treatment of periods and menstruation has led to downright unfair treatment of women and girls.

But the tide is turning. Maplewood Township’s planned provisions and groups like Girls Helping Girls. Period. show the equity fight is working.

Another soldier in that battle is local author Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, whom I first came across about three years ago when the Maplewood lawyer was up in arms about the school district’s sexist dress code. 

A prominent attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University and mother of three, Weiss-Wolf was properly outraged when her then sixth-grade daughter was forced to cover-up the shirt and shorts she was wearing to class that resembled those donned by any young girl in warm weather.

Weiss-Wolf took to the keyboard that year with all the subtlety of a flame-thrower, crafting columns in both Slate and Al-Jazeera that eventually helped rewrite the anti-girl dress code that required girls’ clothes to pass some imaginary “fingertip test.” Likely written by a grey-haired man somewhere, it actually stated skirts and shorts must “reach to the fingertips of the extended arm.”   

“The message and actions perpetuated by gender-biased implementation of school dress codes—the blaming and shaming of our girls—has got to stop,” she wrote in Slate.

Fast forward to 2017 and Weiss-Wolf is back with another cause, and this time in book form as she promotes Periods Gone Public: Taking A Stand For Menstrual Equity.

She’ll be at Words Bookstore in Maplewood Village Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. signing copies and discussing the topic of periods, equality and why women are so unfairly treated about this issue.

“I want people to come away with an understanding of the issue, it is written as a memoir, my own experience engaging in this movement,” Weiss-Wolf said. “I want the reader to come away with a little bit of a blueprint and what it still takes to do that. I want our policy makers and activists to read the forward-looking agenda and get behind it.”

The book is broken down into three parts: A look at the history of the cultural, religious and societal views of menstruation; the recent activism explosion and media attention and product innovation; and the forward-looking policy agenda for improvements.

“We have decided that toilet paper is a right and should be provided in all public restrooms, why not related to menstruation?” Weiss-Wolf said. “Because it affects women, because you don’t talk about menstruation.”

A lot of people are talking now and hopefully a lot more will be listening.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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