For 13 years or so, I took pads and tampons for granted. My family had more than its fair share of economic struggles, but my Mom always made sure I had these feminine hygeine products when needed. When I was on my own, it never occured to me that they weren't a necessity. Yes, I'd use coupons or buy generic when necessary, but accessibility was just not an issue.
When I was 25 years old, I was working in social service ministry for an interfaith group of churches in a rural Western Kentucky town. Think no red lights, no restaurants open on Sundays and no social service programs to speak of. No buses, lots of decrepit rental housing and poverty of near two-thirds world dimensions.
Part of my work was to run a small community center, including a thrift store. I had developed a volunteer program to allow local women to help sort the clothing in exchange for credits to purchase what they needed. No one took things for free in this community.
One day, I joined the sorters and noticed they had two piles of “rags” — so I asked about it, thinking in my 25 year old naive way that they might be for cleaning. There was some unease among the women sorting so I let it drop. Later, a volunteer in her 40s took me aside to explain. She was blunt. Feminine hygeine products were expensive and not covered by food stamps. When faced with spending precious cash, the needs of the children alway took precedence. I got that, but still didn't see where she was going. What did this have to do with cleaning rags? I assured her it was fine with the organization for the women to do what they wanted with anything we couldn't sell.
So she was even more blunt. She explained that she and other local women used literal rags for their periods. They also used rags for toilet paper when things were really tight. I was stunned into silence. Actual rags? Such a thing had never occured to me, even when I was in my feminist-moon-goddess phase of using reusable pads that had been pretty damn expensive and came with a “moon jar” which shows how oblivious I was back then.
I remember staring at her and hearing an almost click on my own emotional maturity as I realized how important my next words would be. I thanked her for explaining it to me and told her that I wanted to help with as much dignity as possible. I asked her to take the lead on this special project since I assumed the other women would feel more comfortable. She agreed. So we began a little pile of menstruation appropriate rags that quietly helped local women.
Then, she apologized to me for exposing me to something uncomfortable as if I was somehow tainted by this glimpse into the real world of rural poverty (and urban poverty I learned later). Admittedly, I was shaken. I kept thinking of how awkward and uncomfortable it would be, as well as messy. I was young enough to feel especially bad for their daughters. I wanted to run out and buy scores of pads, but I knew somehow it was better to go with the plan the women themselves created.
But I was upset. I tried to play cool (I'm sure she saw through me), but it was the sort of systemic eye-opening moment that radically transformed me into a real social worker. How could this happen? What about the rest of the world? What about my high school friends — did any of them have these experiences? Mind you, I'm an 80's baby which meant much more poverty and financial struggle than neon hair scrunchies and mall rat experiences.
The women who worked with me identified a need and crafted a solution. They weren't embroiled in existential angst because they had bigger issues to face. But I wrestled with this for years. When I returned to Pittsburgh, I learned about similar experiences at food pantries and among women experiencing homelessness. I can say with ease that the initial conversation was a defining moment for me as a social worker and a woman.
I was thrilled when I learned about On The Spot which raises funds to provide feminine hygeine products for high school students in partnership with Planned Parenthood. They have awesomely fun fundraisers featuring homebaked cookies and have done a great job of bringing this conversation into progressive circles.
So, yeah, when I learned about this project, I went right back to that 1996 conversation and still my jaw dropped to think about young girls in the same situation.
The next event is Tuesday, May 24, 2011 from 6-9 PM at Hough's in Greenfield. The event features cookies, 50/50, raffle prizes and much more. Attendees are asked to bring a box of pads (preferred) or tampons along with a financial donation ($5-10).
If you can't attend, you can still help. Donations are accepted at these spots. You can contribute these items to a food pantry drive in your area. You can talk with the Administration at your local middle and high schools to see how prepared they are to help young girls.
And you can help reduce the stigma of asking by making sure the men and boy in your lives can buy a box of tampons without flinching.
On The Spot's website is here. Click to learn more and hope to see you at Hough's on Tuesday.
UPDATE: I forgot to mention that inevitably some good hearted person suggests providing reusable supplies for women and girls in these situations. That's a healthy sentiment, but impractical even dangerous when sanitation is an issue. I think those folks should donate those supplies to food pantries so women can choose them if they want them. That's fine. But I do not think we should impose on anyone, especially young women who probably already feel pretty awful about this aspect of their female identity. Allowing them a “typical” teen girl experience in the midst of whatever chaos created the lack of resources is pretty damn important. There's no one right way to experience our menstrual cycles, but we have to recognize that our choices expand as our privileges expand and craft solutions based on the reality of the girls and women we aspire to help.