Photograph by Nicole Lyons
Over the summer, free pad and tampon dispensers were installed in six Berkeley High School (BHS) bathrooms. Following a new California state law and push from students at BHS, these feminine hygiene necessities are now free and accessible. On October 12, 2017, Governor Jerry Brown approved a bill proposed by Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia. This bill, AB-10, states that “a public school maintaining any combination of classes from grade six to grade 12, inclusive, that meets a 40% pupil poverty threshold specified in federal law to stock 50% of the school’s restrooms with feminine hygiene products.” Although BHS just misses this threshold, the new law inspired students and administration to install the dispensers.
The issue was brought to the attention of BHS administration by Rachel Alper, a BHS junior. “Pads and tampons are as necessary as toilet paper, soap, and paper towels, which are of course provided in public bathrooms,” said Alper. She approached BHS Principal Erin Schweng with her frustrations with the lack of availability of menstrual products, and explained why she felt this would be a beneficial choice. “Toilet paper [also] costs money, but [most people] would say the benefits of toilet paper outweigh the financial burden,” said Alper.
Schweng proceeded to talk with the district, the custodial staff, and the facilities director in an effort to get as many dispensers installed as possible.
According to Schweng, there were financial obstacles because there was no money budgeted for them. The cost of the dispensers themselves totaled to a couple thousand dollars, and the first batch of supplies cost around six hundred dollars. This first batch of supplies lasted for around three weeks. Schweng says that the exact cost of maintaining supplies is unclear, given that “until we do this for a while, we won’t know what it takes to keep them regularly filled.”
Alper has noticed that the student body seems very grateful for the new dispensers. However, Schweng and others expressed that the biggest concern would be that students would take more supplies than they needed in order to stock up for the future, or even resell the products.
“I doubt that anyone would take anything they didn’t need,” Alper said in response to this. She added that she trusts that they will be used “if someone needs a pad or tampon, either because they can’t buy one themselves, or just forgot one that day.”
To add to her earlier comment, Schweng said, “[I hope] that [the pad and tampon dispensaries] are being used like they’re meant to be, which is for an emergency.”
BHS isn’t the only place fighting for these bathroom necessities to be made available. One organization advocating for bathroom equality is Free The Tampons, founded by Nancy Kramer, an entrepreneur in marketing and technology.
In her 2013 TED Talk, Kramer called out the fact that “while toilet paper is free in all restrooms, tampons and pads are not.”
She drew from personal experiences and the stories of other women to show how often people get stuck in a public restroom without the supplies they need. In a large scale survey, 92 percent of women said that even in bathrooms with tampon and pad vending machines, they were empty or broken most of the time.
Additionally, in many school bathrooms, girls must go to the nurse’s office to get supplies, like they are sick. “The thought that my daughters and her friends could be subjected to the kind of embarrassment and humiliation that would come without them having access to supplies when they needed them, was more than [I] could bear,” said Kramer. As she started looking for a solution, people became concerned about how expensive it would be to provide free feminine supplies. Kramer found the cost of stocking the restrooms at a school or business with sanitary supplies works out to $4.67 per girl per year, which in her mind is “a worthwhile investment.”
Following her TED Talk, Kramer founded Free The Tampons with the mission of educating people on the issue of restroom inequality and getting laws passed requiring free sanitary supplies in schools.
Tampons and pads are now provided in New York, Illinois, and a few other schools around the country. Kramer said that one of her team’s biggest achievements is that “[they] have catalyzed a movement,” but also said that she still feels there is more work that needs to be done.