February 19, 2024

Professor Period to the Rescue!

Thumbnail_Picture - Lisa SmithBy Lisa Smith, Douglas College, Department of Sociology and Menstrual Cycle Research Group

“Does anyone have a pad? A tampon!? 50 cents?”

I was sitting in the stall of a women’s restroom during the intermission for a concert, when I heard the familiar refrain. As a menstruator (because not all people who have periods are women and not all women have periods), I could relate to the urgency in my fellow menstruators’ voice.

image of feminine sanitary product dispenserMenstrual blood often comes unexpectedly, and despite growing up in a society that has taught bleeders to come equipped and ready for anything, sometimes you forget or don’t have the right bag, or you run out because you’ve given your last pad to a friend! Inevitably, you find yourself in need of a pad or tampon or a pair of new underwear.

As a sociologist and someone who studies menstrual equity—the everyday and systemic barriers facing people who menstruate—the irony of this situation was not lost on me. Like a lighting bolt, I sprung into action ready to help. I raced out of the stall (stopping to wash my hands of course!), “I’ve got you!” I triumphantly popped two quarters into the dispenser and turned the crank where I was rewarded with a thick box. I knew that inside that box would be a pad that no menstruator would choose to employ if they had another option. But necessity calls.

“Thanks so much!” “These should be free,” I said. “And I’m going to write a letter to the administrator.” “Yeah, for sure. I mean who has quarters anymore?!” In the packed restroom, our conversation was public, and people around us shared knowing glances. We knew this was unfair, but there was an activation of shared camaraderie that comes from mutual support in feminine spaces.

So, if we all know that the above scenario is not fair, why are menstrual supplies not treated like necessities, even though they are very much essential to the management of menstruation within a society that expects menstruators to hide menstrual blood?

To understand, it is helpful to consider the ways that everyday spaces like toilets, are shaped by relations of power—such that some people have their needs met, while others do not. Able-bodied cis men for example have toilet paper, soap, regular toilets, and urinals. Everything they need. Of course, menstruation is just one example of the ways that toilets fail to support the needs of marginalized groups, meaning anyone who is not straight, white, a cis man, able-bodied, and not responsible for care.

Because of ongoing stigma, menstrual supplies are treated like a commodity in society, as they are things to be bought and sold—even though they are more akin to medical devices. Menstrual supplies are essential, not something that once can choose to use or not. Gendered power relations shape what toilets look like, but also how men have their needs met, but not women.

There has been a recent wave of change in restrooms across North America, where barrier-free dispensers are being installed in female-identified toilets. While this change is important, it also highlights the importance of an intersectional lens, one that understands the ways identity is complex and includes gender, race, class and gender identity, when pushing for menstrual equity.

For example, trans and non-binary menstruators using men’s toilets would not be able to call out from the stall or request support in the public/private space of the toilet. There are no gendered norms of support around menstruation in male identified spaces, as periods are still seen as a “women’s issue.” To meet the needs of trans and non-binary menstruators for emergency menstrual supplies, dispensers would need to be in all restrooms, not just female-identified toilets.

Overall, periods are having a moment. Many advocacy groups and activists have identified that situations such as the scenario I outlined above are common enough. As sociologists would say, this means it’s a social issue, as opposed to an individual problem; or, as feminists would say, the personal is political.

Individuals and groups have put pressure on decision-makers to make period supplies freely available. Like many menstruators before me, I will write a letter to the administrator demanding that barrier-free dispensers be installed in the toilets. I will say that menstruators should not have to pay for what they need, ask someone in a moment of crisis, or have to leave public space, because menstrual products are not available in toilets. If I catch just the right person, my ask may result in change. In the push to change social inequities, you have to take your wins where you can, and know that you won’t win them all. It also reflects how marginalized groups often have to engage in the labor of changing the very injustices they are facing. Everyone should care about menstruation and menstruators and push for change, even non-menstruators.

This whole scenario is complicated by the fact that I know as a sociologist who studies periods that the problem goes much deeper than the need for a one-time emergency menstrual supply. Putting supplies in toilets is the bare minimum for the broader change that needs to happen.

Menstruation is not just a site of inequity in public toilets.  The kinds of issues that menstruators face go much deeper. We need to shift values and beliefs about menstruation through education to end period stigma. This broader cultural shift takes time. I take heart in knowing that as a sociologist, it means I have a long career ahead of me. At the same time, for tonight, professor period needs to rest for the battles that lie ahead. And now it’s time to replenish my stock of tampons, pads and quarters, so that I’m ready for next time.

image of doll dressed as "professor period"
Professor Period doll in action, created by Rebecca Johnson

Take a look around the campus you are on. Are free period supplies available in all campus restrooms? Does your state or province charge tax on menstrual supplies?

Photos courtesy of the author


This is a fantastic and thought-provoking piece on menstrual equity! I love the way you connect the issue of missing period supplies in restrooms to larger social issues of power and stigma. The call for free, accessible supplies in ALL restrooms is crucial. This is an important read for everyone, not just menstruators!

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