For a campus that’s centered around "The Tampons, there doesn’t seem to be much of a movement for easier access to the real thing.
While many other student-led initiatives at universities and school systems across the nation have begun distributing free menstrual products throughout campus, Penn lags behind.
Emory University launched an experimental program testing the financial feasibility of free menstrual products last September. Following a student referendum in which thousands of students demonstrated support for free pads and tampons, Cornell University began distributing free menstrual products in select female and gender inclusive restrooms across campus . Brown University also made headlines last September after the school began providing free menstrual products for students.
But activism around the issue has been limited at Penn. Director of the Women's Center Litty Paxton wrote in an emailed statement that although she "was aware of some activism around this issue last year, [she] was not aware of any this year."
The Penn Women’s center currently provides free eco-friendly tampons, pads and liners, and tampons are sold in vending machines in select restrooms across campus. Spokesperson for the Office of the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Life, Monica Yant Kinney, also added that Student Health Services provides free menstrual products to students at the SHS offices. Free access to these products is not available in on-campus bathrooms, however.
College junior and Undergraduate Assembly representative Lawrence Perry noticed the movements across other college campuses last year and was inspired to try to expand access to free menstrual products on Penn's campus.
Perry said that Brown students' success in providing free sanitary products motivated his plan. There, senior and Brown Undergraduate Council of Students President Viet Nguyen headed a student-run and funded initiative to provide campus-wide access to sanitary products.
The Brown Undergraduate Council launched their plan at the beginning of the fall semester, using student volunteers to distribute menstrual products to baskets in all non-residential bathrooms across campus. They are placed in men’s, women’s, and gender inclusive restrooms.
“Brown has a very large trans and gender non-conforming population,” Nguyen said. “It sort of sets a tone for other schools to follow so that certain identities won’t be erased.”
Perry said that his plan for Penn was split into a few phases — the first goal was to provide access in college houses. He reached out to Penn Vending and began negotiating to have the products included in college house vending machines for a small fee. But Perry left campus for a program in D.C. this semester and was not able to continue his initiative.
“Going forward I think there are better approaches than I used and hopefully the next UA administration will pick this up,” Perry said.
One of Penn's closest neighbors, Swarthmore College, has also seen success on this front. The aptly named student group “Free Pads for Undergrads” at Swarthmore began providing free sanitary products this semester.
“After reading about Brown’s initiative, I found other schools that were starting similar initiatives, [and] I sat back and just thought that this makes sense,” Shayla Smith, a freshman at Swarthmore, said.
She began working with other undergraduates to create a group that could distribute menstrual products throughout campus — after speaking with different administrators, they eventually received funding from the Student Budget Committee.
Focusing on highly trafficked men’s and women’s restrooms, but also including gender neutral restrooms, the group stocks restrooms on a biweekly basis with free pads and tampons in baskets and in some refitted vending machines.
But for Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, vice president for development at the Brennan Center for Justice and an advocate for menstrual equality, this movement is larger than just what is seen on college campuses.
“I’ve worked with tons of college students … lots of them who are creating different sorts of models for providing menstrual products,” Weiss-Wolf said. Her main goals are more focused on pushing menstruation and related subjects into the public discourse and the passage of legislation related to this issue.
She helped to abolish the ‘tampon tax’ in New York among other jurisdictions, and is working to keep the issue on the public mind.
One goal is “to make the products more affordable and accessible, especially for poorer populations, but I think the larger goal is a policy change,” she said. “What would happen if we acknowledged that this happens [to at least half] of these populations?”