It’s not easy to find a free tampon at the University of Maryland at College Park.
Women generally don’t know they can head to the student union building, where sanitary dispensers are stocked and coinless. (When students hung posters advertising where to find the free products, they were told to take them down. Too many people would squirrel away products for home use, the university said.)
Another option is the library, where there’s a sign on the door to the women’s bathroom: If you need “feminine hygiene products,” it says, please see the receptionist.
“You have to ask the person at the desk, who might be a 50-year-old man,” says senior Lauren Anikis, a journalism major with a pin that reads “Kiss me I’m a senior” attached to her backpack. “Even then, they’re only going to give you one tampon.”
Since September, Anikis and four other Maryland students — freshmen Zoe Weisberg and Hope Kahn, sophomore Hailey Chaikin and senior Claire Mudd — have been trying to change how their university thinks about menstrual products. It started as a class project: In a social entrepreneurship class, students were dispatched to “do something good.” One group tackled over-use of plastic water bottles, another, the refugee crisis. Anikis’s group decided to aim for free pads and tampons in every campus bathroom.
It seemed like a perfectly realistic goal. Largely inspired by debate over the worldwide “tampon tax” — which puts a premium on menstrual products, classifying them as “luxury goods” — some colleges and universities have experimented with widely distributing free pads and tampons. In 2016, Brown became one of the first schools to implement a large-scale program to put tampons in bathrooms. Since then, a few larger public schools — Ohio University, Texas A&M at Corpus Christi, the University of Illinois — have started doing the same thing.
For Anikis and her classmates, who call themselves “Genzennials,” the first step was to understand the nature of the problem. Unlimited paper towels and toilet paper are available in every campus bathroom. Full boxes of condoms are handed out in every dorm. The group wanted to know: What’s different about pads and tampons? When the group put that question to a UMD health center administrator, they were told condoms are a “public health necessity,” Anikis says.
“Menstrual products are a health necessity, too,” Anikis says. “But they’re not thought of that way.”
Many low-income students have a hard time affording pads and tampons, says Chaikin — especially the jacked-up prices at campus convenience stores, where an 18-pack of Tampax tampons costs $7.39. (At CVS, the same box costs $5.99.) Even if students have no problem paying for products, Kahn says, it’s still important to make them widely available throughout campus.
“One girl we interviewed told us she got a yeast infection because she left her tampon in longer than she should have — because she was on campus, and couldn’t get the supplies she needed,” she says.
The team decided to pitch a “phase one” version of their project, asking the university for $18,000 to stock 15 of its most highly-trafficked bathrooms for one year. That request came from a series of trials: The students tracked frequency of bathroom use, and frequency of menstrual product use when they strategically placed baskets of pads and tampons on the bathroom sink. (In the most popular spot, it was precisely 1.6 menstrual products, per bathroom, per hour).
Asked if they had a spreadsheet to show their results, Chaikin laughed.
“Oh,” she said, whipping open her laptop, “we sure do.”
The proposal included an abstract, a detailed budget, letters of support from various campus organizations — the student government, the Period Club (yes, there is a period club) — and photos of the coinless dispensers the students plan to use for distribution. When the school told them it could only be three pages long, they included 14 additional pages of “appendices.”
The group is now waiting on a final decision from the student facilities fund and the maintenance department. They met last week with the executive director of building and landscape maintenance — known to them as “the guy who can actually make this happen.” They arrived at the conference room in business-casual outfits, toting several printed-out copies of their proposal.
The facilities manager loved what they had to say, Weisberg said. He said he couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of it sooner, she remembers. (In a statement, the university’s facilities department confirmed that they are looking into the students’ plan, “to determine a true cost associated with providing free menstrual products in 15 highly-trafficked bathrooms.")
By now, Anikis is used to this kind of reaction: Most people agree that menstrual products should be as readily accessible as toilet paper, she says, but seem to have never seriously contemplated the idea.
“I see this again and again when we tell people what we’re doing,” Anikis says. “They’re like, ‘Oh my god, yeah, that’s so important, oh my god.’ It’s this light bulb moment of, ‘Wow, that is unfair and dumb.”
The problem, Anikis says, is that people don’t like to think about periods.
“People don’t want to think about girls bleeding. It’s a scary thing,” she says. “This school is run by old men. This world is run by old men.”
By stocking bathrooms with free pads and tampons, Mudd says, the school would actually be eliminating a barrier to equal education. The team members read through a series of studies on other colleges and conducted one of their own, asking students how often they struggled to find pads and tampons.
“We found through our research that female students are more likely to skip class or be late to class because they need to run out to get products,” she says. “As a university, we’re supposed to be providing equal access to education.”
“There’s an opportunity gap,” says Chaikin.
Mudd feels optimistic about securing the $18,000 for next year; She’s less certain about what will happen after that. Their social entrepreneurship class ends when school breaks in December, and she and Anikis, both seniors, will only be around for a few more months.
For now, the group is focusing on their smaller victories.
“I mean, we stood up in front of our whole class and talked about blood,” Chaikin says. “And the boys had to comment on our presentation, for a grade.”
That alone, she says, made it all worth it.