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May 30, 2024 Feature

Period Rhetoric and Partisan Politics

Emily Gold Waldman & Bridget J. Crawford

Introduction

“The Period Is Political,” proclaims the theme of the 2023 Conference of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research. Numerous newspaper headlines across the globe have conveyed the same message, from the New York Times (“It’s Not Just the Tampon Tax: Why Periods Are Political”) to the Sydney Morning Herald (“A Bloody Revolution: How Periods Got Political”). But what does this actually mean? After all, menstrual periods are not themselves political. Menstruation is a biological, involuntary process experienced by roughly half the world’s population—that is, approximately 1.8 billion people every month around the world. There is no real scientific debate over why menstruation happens. Nor, unlike some other reproductive processes (e.g., pregnancy, breastfeeding, and abortion), is there any potential for disagreement over whether menstruating is a desirable or legitimate “choice.” It just begins—and eventually stops—on its own nonpolitical timetable.

And yet for decades, people have recognized that there is a cultural and political dimension to periods, in terms of both how society views them and how the law treats them. Back in 1978, Gloria Steinem wrote a satirical piece, entitled “If Men Could Menstruate,” that envisioned an alternate universe along those lines. She imagined cultural differences: “[m]en would brag about how long and how much”; “Street guys would invent slang (‘He’s a three-pad man’)”; and “[m]enopause would be celebrated as a positive event, the symbol that men had accumulated enough years of cyclical wisdom to need no more.” And she also imagined political implications: “Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free,” and “Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea.”

More recently, some of Steinem’s political ideas have become newly resonant. Within the past decade, there has been a growing advocacy movement that has pushed for “menstrual equity” on a number of fronts, including accessibility, safety, and affordability of menstrual products. One major front for menstrual equity has involved efforts to provide free menstrual products to students in public schools; such efforts have been successful in numerous states. Another very visible initiative of the menstrual equity movement has been the effort to eliminate the “tampon tax,” i.e., sales taxes on menstrual products. Twenty states have eliminated their sales tax on menstrual products between 2016 and 2023, in direct response to advocacy by leaders of all ages. Other issues of concern for the menstrual equity movement include providing menstrual products in prisons, shelters, and other public spaces; enabling menstrual products to be purchased from tax-advantaged health savings accounts; and drawing attention to chemicals of concern in menstrual products including period underwear.

This article does not provide a comprehensive overview of the movement for menstrual equity (though our recent book, Menstruation Matters: Challenging the Law’s Silence on Periods, attempts to do just that). Rather, here we hone in on one particular issue: the way in which rhetoric around periods is increasingly being used in connection with partisan politics. This article explores several manifestations of that phenomenon, especially in the context of schools.

The first trend, analyzed in Part I of this article, is the invocation—mostly on the political left—of periods as a sort of rhetorical sword against various regressive political initiatives that are not themselves specifically intended to address periods. This is typically done as a way of opposing those initiatives or the politicians connected with them. In 2016, for example, a “Periods for Pence” campaign (directed at then–Indiana Governor Mike Pence) was launched in opposition to an Indiana law that required all miscarried or aborted fetuses of any gestational age to be interred or cremated. The campaign encouraged women to contact Governor Pence’s office on a daily basis to report their periods. A similar campaign was used in 2023 against a proposed Florida law that imposed broad-ranging restrictions on the way public schools provided education about human sexuality, sexual education, gender identity, and the like. Opponents dubbed it the “Don’t Say Period” bill, highlighting that one of its effects was that students would not receive any menstruation-related education until sixth grade, at which point some of them already would have gotten their periods.

The second trend, explored in Part II of this article, involves references to periods in the context of efforts to pass menstruation-specific legislation, such as state-level tampon tax repeals and menstrual product availability in schools. Here, of course, political rhetoric related to periods is necessary in order to discuss and debate the substantive legislative proposals at issue. Some interesting rhetorical tactics come into play in this setting as well. For example, several state and federal legislators who have pushed for menstrual equity initiatives have talked about leveraging menstrual taboos in order to achieve their goals. U.S. Representative Grace Meng, a national leader in menstrual equity, has described how her legislative colleagues occasionally cut her off when she begins to describe her various menstrual policy ideas. Indicating squeamishness, they say, “‘I’ll sign on, and you don’t need to explain anymore!’” In cases like these, some politicians’ desire not to discuss periods ironically helps to motivate their support. Notably, though, while legislation about periods (or any issue) must proceed through the partisan political process, the rhetoric around these sorts of initiatives has not been particularly partisan to date. In fact, elimination of the tampon tax has at times stood out for its bipartisan appeal. In Michigan, for example, the tampon tax was eliminated in 2021 through a pair of bills, one of which was sponsored by Democratic legislators and the other by a Republican legislator. The Republican legislator, Representative Bryan Posthumus, emphasized that repeal of the tampon tax was “not a partisan issue, it is not a gender issue. It is commonsense legislation. . . .” Similarly, a portion of Representative Meng’s Menstrual Equity for All Act of 2019, which allowed menstrual products to be purchased with flexible spending accounts, was passed unanimously as part of the CARES Act of 2020.

In today’s hyperpartisan culture, though, we are starting to see a third trend emerge: the infusion of partisan rhetoric into debates about education-related legislation that specifically addresses periods. Part III of this article explores this phenomenon by looking at the recent debate in Idaho about whether to provide free menstrual products in schools. As with the tampon tax, bills providing menstrual products in schools have often proceeded as nonpartisan issues in states across the political spectrum. Not every state that has considered such laws have enacted them, of course. But the debate over providing menstrual products in schools typically involves practical questions about cost and funding, rather than highly partisan rhetoric. In Idaho in 2023, however, Republican state legislators blocked a bill to provide free menstrual product dispensers for sixth through twelfth grade students in girls’ bathrooms—a bill sponsored by a Republican legislator—and used heavily partisan rhetoric to explain why. One opponent called the proposal “a very liberal policy,” even asking, “Why are our schools obsessed with the private parts of our children?” Another referred to phrases contained in the bill, like “period poverty” and “menstrual equity,” as “woke terms.” It is likely not coincidental that this rhetoric occurred at the very same time—March 2023—as others on the opposite side of the political spectrum were criticizing Florida’s proposed sex education restrictions as amounting to a “Don’t Say Period” law.

This article concludes by unpacking the implications here. On the one hand, it is certainly important to highlight the actual unintended consequences that laws can have for menstruation. Indeed, the “Don’t Say Period” campaign against the Florida bill ultimately yielded a modification. Once the issue was identified, the sponsor stated that his intent was not to prevent menstrual education before sixth grade, and the provision in question was removed. That said, the other provisions of the bill—such as its limitations on education and language about gender identity, which seem to have been the bill’s driving motivation—remained intact and the law was passed. The “Don’t Say Period” campaign was thus successful in its menstruation-specific effect, but not in its broader attempt to bring down the law altogether. And, in the process, the “gotcha” nature of the campaign may have unintentionally framed periods as just another partisan issue, as the Idaho debate suggests. Given the nature of the current political climate, it is important to become aware of this dynamic. Especially in the public school context, menstrual equity has the potential to become a casualty of partisan politics.

I. Periods as a Rhetorical Strategy

The rhetorical use of periods within the partisan political sphere came into clear focus in the aftermath of the August 6, 2015, Republican presidential primary debate. At that debate, hosted by Fox News and moderated by Megyn Kelly, Trump was asked by Kelly about his use of derogatory language toward women (“You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals.’ . . .”). Trump expressed his anger about the question the next day, when he called in to speak with Don Lemon on CNN Tonight. “Certainly, I don’t have a lot of respect for Megyn Kelly,” Trump told Lemon, adding, “she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions, and you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her … wherever.” The comment about Kelly bleeding “out of her … wherever” was taken by many as a thinly veiled reference to menstruation (though Trump later tweeted that “wherever” was supposed to refer to Kelly’s nose). In response, numerous women began to tweet at Trump about their periods. One such tweet said:“@realDonaldTrump—on the third day of my period AND still afunctioning member of society! Who knew?! #periodsarenotaninsult.” Another said: “@realDonaldTrump been bleeding 3 days now, flow is slowing down a bit. soon the blood will take on a brownish hue. #periodsarenotaninsult.” Here, period rhetoric was not invoked to oppose a specific policy, but rather to oppose a politician whose language was (understandably) seen as conveying menstrual stigma and, more broadly, sexism.

Shortly after this incident, a similar rhetorical strategy involving periods was used against then–Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who ultimately became Trump’s running mate and then vice president. In March 2016, Governor Pence signed a law that imposed several new abortion restrictions. (This, of course, was well before the Supreme Court’s June 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which opened the door for states to prohibit abortion altogether.) The Indiana law in question not only prohibited abortions due to fetal abnormalities, but also required miscarried and aborted fetuses to be interred or cremated by a facility having “possession,” regardless of the gestational age of the fetus. One woman created a “Periods for Pence” page on Facebook, explaining:

Fertilized eggs can be expelled during a woman’s period without a woman even knowing that she might have had the potential blastocyst in her. Therefore, any period could potentially be a miscarriage without knowledge. I would certainly hate for any of my fellow Hoosier women to be at risk of penalty if they do not “properly dispose” of this or report it. Just to cover our bases, perhaps we should make sure to contact Governor Pence’s office to report our periods. We wouldn’t want him thinking that THOUSANDS OF HOOSIER WOMEN A DAY are trying to hide anything, would we?

The Facebook page garnered nearly 25,000 likes from March 28 through April 6, 2016, and also featured transcripts of conversations of women calling to report their periods to Governor Pence’s office. Others posted on Twitter with tweets like “@GovPenceIN Been 4 days since last period. Hope I’m not preggo, but I don’t know. U seem to know my body better. Thoughts? @periodsforpence.”

Berkley Conner, a graduate student at University of Iowa, has characterized—with admiration—the people who participated in the “Periods for Pence” campaign as “menstrual trolls.” Conner states that “the goal of the campaign was to mobilize menstruators to persuade lawmakers to make legislative change” regarding abortion. Indeed, it seems clear that those who called about their periods in connection with the “Periods for Pence” campaign did not actually believe that they were required to notify the governor’s office of their periods. (The governor’s office itself also made that clear when answering the calls.) Rather, the activists’ goal was, as Conner put it, to “mobilize menstruators”—i.e., to deploy menstrual rhetoric as a way of challenging the abortion restrictions, by showing that when the law was taken to its literal extremes, it would have absurd implications for menstruation. Presumably, the broader message was that the law itself, as a whole, was ludicrous, misguided, and had negative effects on women. The campaign was not successful, however, in actually prompting any legislative change.

The 2023 “Don’t Say Period” campaign against Florida’s recent restrictions on sex education followed the same playbook. As in “Periods for Pence,” menstrual rhetoric was used to challenge new legislation by highlighting its absurd (and unintended) implications vis-à-vis menstruation. In this case, the proposed legislation, H.B. 1069, related to education about human sexuality and gender identity, and stated that, among other things, “instruction in acquired immune deficiency syndrome, sexually transmitted diseases, or health education, when such instruction and course material contains instruction in human sexuality . . . may only occur in grades 6 through 12. . . .” The proposed legislation also included numerous other provisions. For example, the enacted version of the legislation states that in providing instruction related to human sexuality, “a school shall: (a) Classify males and females as provided in s. 1000.21(9) [i.e., ‘as indicated by the person’s sex chromosomes, naturally occurring sex hormones, and internal and external genitalia present at birth’] and teach that biological males impregnate biological females . . . and that these reproductive roles are binary, stable, and unchangeable.” The enacted legislation also takes aim at pronouns, stating that school employees and students cannot be required to “refer to another person using that person’s preferred personal title or pronouns if such personal title or pronouns do not correspond to that person’s sex.” It even prohibits employees from sharing with students their own “preferred personal title or pronouns if such personal title or pronouns do not correspond to his or her sex.” It also confirms the preexisting requirement that Florida schools “teach abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage as the expected standard for all school-age students. . . .” The legislation came on the heels of the 2022 passage of Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill—dubbed by opponents the “Don’t Say Gay” bill—which had prohibited classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity before fourth grade.

The “Don’t Say Period” campaign against H.B. 1069, an obvious play on the “Don’t Say Gay” critique from the previous year, emerged after a Florida House of Representatives discussion on the bill on March 15, 2023. Democratic Representative Ashley Gantt asked Republican Representative Stan McClain, the bill’s sponsor: “Does this bill prohibit conversations about menstrual cycles—because we know that typically the age is between 10 and 15—so if little girls experience their menstrual cycle in fifth grade or fourth grade, will that prohibit conversations from them since they are in the grade lower than sixth grade?” Representative McClain responded: “It would.” The interchange quickly went viral, and generated national media coverage as well as the “Don’t Say Period” moniker for the bill. Representative McClain then said that prohibiting discussion of menstruation before sixth grade would “not be the intent” of the bill and expressed openness to some changes—and, indeed, the bill was revised within two weeks to remove the sixth-grade limitation in question. The other major provisions of the bill, like the pronoun restrictions, remained. Ironically, though, when the bill passed, the headline was still that the “Don’t Say Period” law had been enacted, and the bill is often still described in those terms.

II. Specific Period-Related Legislation

Although menstrual rhetoric was largely used as a strategy in the “Periods for Pence” and the “Don’t Say Period” campaigns against state laws, menstruation has itself increasingly become the subject of numerous other state and even federal laws. In fact, these two trends—the rhetorical use of periods and the emergence of period-specific legislation—developed at roughly the same time, against a broader backdrop of heightened menstrual awareness. The November 2015 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine deemed 2015 “the year the period went public,” with an accompanying timeline graphic that highlighted events including “4/15: Musician Kiran Gandhi runs the London marathon without a tampon, becomes a free-bleeding, stigma-busting sensation”; “5/15: Nicolle Wallace, former communications director under W [George W. Bush], says on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, ‘Yes, I worked in the White House, and yes, every 28 days I bled, but the country went on”; and “6/15: Apple finally updates your iPhone’s Health app to include period tracking.” In addition to including these cultural developments, the magazine feature also noted Canada’s elimination of its tampon tax in July 2015 and—of course—the #PeriodsAreNotAnInsult campaign launched in response to Trump’s remarks about Megyn Kelly in August of 2015. In that same issue, Cosmopolitan joined forces with leading menstrual advocate Jennifer Weiss-Wolf to launch a Change.org petition that sought repeal of the tampon tax in various states across the country.

The efforts to repeal the tampon tax quickly gathered momentum. In May 2016, shortly after a lawsuit was filed to challenge New York’s tampon tax, the New York legislature passed a bill repealing the tax; the bill was signed into law on July 21, 2016. The same sequence of events—a class action lawsuit ultimately addressed by legislative reform—played out in Florida over the course of 2016 to 2017. Other menstruation-specific political developments in 2016 included New York City’s passage of legislation to require free menstrual products in public schools, jails, and homeless shelters, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) policy change to add menstrual products to the list of essential items that homeless assistance providers could purchase with federal funds. These developments helped to spur more action in the menstrual equity movement. In 2017, for instance, California assemblywoman Cristina Garcia successfully sponsored a bill for California to provide free menstrual products in schools, specifically citing New York City’s example. Since then, the number of states that have passed laws eliminating the tampon tax and requiring public schools to provide free menstrual products has grown each year.

In the push for menstruation-specific legislative changes, two rhetorical dynamics stand out. The first is the harnessing and subverting of menstrual stigma to achieve results. Assemblywoman Garcia, for instance, challenged expectations of menstrual silence as she campaigned for her bill by carrying around a “Tampon Barbie” doll (a Barbie holding a tampon) and embracing her nickname as the “Tampon Queen.” She explained that her goal was to “have a little bit of fun” with the idea that tampons were a taboo topic, and to “take the rhetoric back and make it mine.”

Subverting menstrual silence and stigma by engaging in frank talk about periods helps effectuate the passage of menstruation-specific legislation in several ways. First, of course, talking about periods is necessary to get them on the legislative agenda and to explain why change is needed. Moreover, tactics like Garcia’s can help lighten the mood and humanize the issues in question. And, on the flip side, if the tactics do not make legislators feel more comfortable talking about menstruation, that unease can itself be useful. Representative Meng has noted that she finds it “hilarious” that some of her colleagues will agree to sign on to her menstrual equity proposals so that she will stop describing the details to them, saying, “However I can get them to be a co-sponsor . . . I’m fine with that.” Similarly, Ohio representative Brigid Kelly described how, in the course of garnering support for the ultimately successful repeal of the state’s tampon tax, she found that it was “definitely not something they [her colleagues] [were] eager to discuss over the lunch table.” Caroline Dillon, who, as an 18-year-old student, helped launch the legislative push to provide free menstrual products in New Hampshire, masterfully deployed discomfort around menstruation to make her point. She recalled that when she met with lawmakers to discuss students’ need for menstrual products in school, the legislators felt so awkward that “[t]hey would say ‘the thing’ or just try to avoid saying it altogether. . . . I would say to them, ‘If this makes you uncomfortable, think about how uncomfortable it is to be in this situation yourself.’”

The second dynamic is that the rhetoric about various menstrual equity initiatives has generally not been very partisan in nature. In fact, Weiss-Wolf has explained that when she began her menstrual advocacy work in 2015, she saw the tampon tax as an “ideal starting place” precisely because of the tampon tax’s “promise for cross-party appeal: for every person who saw the tax as unfair to women, discriminatory, or an outgrowth of menstrual stigma (read, Democrat), there were potentially as many others who would be eager to get on board to support a potential tax break (Republican).” This has largely proved to be correct, with states across the political spectrum eliminating the tampon tax. Although the legislators raising the tampon tax issue have more commonly been Democrats, they have often been able to garner bipartisan support. When the tampon tax was eliminated in Michigan, for instance, it was the result of a bipartisan effort: Two related bills were passed, one sponsored by Democrats and one by a Republican, with the Republican sponsor describing it as “not a partisan issue.”

Most recently, the Texas Tribune reported that the tampon tax repeal “emerged as a bipartisan priority” during the 2022–23 legislative session in Texas, with Governor Greg Abbott’s support. And indeed, this push was successful; a bill eliminating the tax became law on September 1, 2023. To be sure, such bipartisanship can have concerning dynamics of its own; there, the Texas Tribune suggested that it was because Republicans were seeking to “shore up support with women after the near-total banning of abortion” in the state. We view menstrual equity efforts as part of a broader agenda to protect and ensure the dignity and autonomy interests inherent in being able to manage one’s own body. That agenda includes abortion rights. That said, we do recognize legislative progress on menstrual equity efforts as a bright spot in an otherwise dark time for reproductive freedom.

As with the tampon tax, the political rhetoric around providing free menstrual products in schools has also not been particularly partisan. This is not to suggest that every legislator supports such laws. But over the past five years, the discussion around them tended to focus on pragmatic concerns about funding and logistics. When New Hampshire passed a law in 2019 requiring that its public middle and high schools provide free menstrual products, for instance, the bill was sponsored by Democratic state senator Martha Hennessey and signed by Republican Governor Chris Sununu. Since then, there has indeed been some discussion in New Hampshire about amending the law, but it has centered on funding issues (i.e., whether the state or school district should be bearing the cost of the products) and, so far, the law has remained in place. By contrast, a new type of “period rhetoric” emerged in the spring of 2023 when Idaho considered similar legislation, to which we now turn.

III. A New Era: More Partisan Than Ever (Especially in Schools)

In the spring of 2023, two Idaho state representatives—Republicans Rod Furniss and Lori McCann—attempted to get through the Idaho House of Representatives their co-sponsored bill providing for free menstrual products in Idaho public schools. Representative Furniss used frank language (reminiscent of the “subverting stigma” strategy described above) to describe the bill on March 20, 2023:

Boys and girls have two Ps: peeing and pooping. . . . We know that the proper role of government is to cover the two Ps. Well, surprise, we just figured out [in] 2023, that girls have three Ps: they have peeing, pooping, and period. . . . Now we can hold the first two Ps, peeing and pooping. We can take care of that. But the third P, the girls don’t have a muscle down there. When that happens, it happens. It’s an emergency every time that happens. It’s a basic biological function. Is the proper role of government to cover a basic biological function? I submit to you that it is.

The approach, however, did not go over very well. Another representative—Republican Julianne Young—said “the P-word that’s in my head right now is patronized.” But Representative Young’s objections went beyond feeling condescended to. In opposing the bill, she implicitly invoked the “parental rights” movement that has become increasingly salient in politics, saying: “There’s another P-word, and that P-word is parents. And if the schools get between the daughter and the parents, then there may be some important conversations that don’t take place.” She did not explain how making menstrual products freely available, rather than, say, providing them in the nurse’s office, would affect conversations between students and their parents.

Representatives Barbara Ehardt and Heather Scott, also both House Republicans, used particularly partisan rhetoric in opposing the Idaho bill. Representative Ehardt called out the phrases “menstrual equity” and “period poverty” as “woke terms.” Representative Scott described the bill as a “very liberal policy” that was “embarrassing,” and even asked, “Why are our schools obsessed with the private parts of our children?” With that last question, Representative Scott essentially demonized supporters of providing free menstrual products in schools, implicitly analogizing them to pedophiles. The bill did not progress.

The extreme nature of this rhetoric may be an isolated incident, and we certainly hope that is the case. Nonetheless, it is important to take note of it, because if rhetoric like this takes hold, it threatens to stymie future progress for menstrual equity. Legislation making menstrual products available in schools had been successful because of the shared recognition of those products as basic necessities. If that is lost—and, worse, if proponents of such legislation are accused of improper or deviant motives—the growing momentum for menstrual equity in schools will be stalled or even reversed.

So, what happened here? It does not seem like a coincidence that the above incident occurred a mere five days after the Florida discussion between Representatives Gantt and McClain about whether H.B. 1069 prohibited menstrual education before sixth grade, which prompted the viral “Don’t Say Period” meme. Indeed, the Idaho representatives’ comments here can be seen as an aggressive pushback against that rhetorical strategy. In today’s hyperpartisan political climate—where almost nothing seems off-limits—it is hard to tell whether they genuinely believed that those who want to ensure students’ access to menstrual education and menstrual products were “obsessed” with children’s “private parts,” or were just saying that to score political points.

IV. Concluding Reflections

The Idaho incident represents somewhat of a cautionary tale, in our view. It was absolutely appropriate—and, indeed, critical—to point out that the proposed Florida bill would have the unintended effect of prohibiting menstrual education before sixth grade. However, the “Don’t Say Period” campaign implied that the bill’s central goal was to prevent students from talking about their periods, and this was an exaggeration. It was an unintended result of the bill, and the bill was quickly amended to omit the provision in question. Once that had been resolved, the continued use of the “Don’t Say Period” label had some real costs. It led to continued confusion; some of the reporting suggested even months later that menstruation-related restrictions were part of the bill. The “Don’t Say Period” moniker also may have crowded out discussion of the provisions that did still remain in the bill, such as its approach to gender identity and abstinence education. And, as the Idaho incident suggests, it may have promoted the idea of periods as just another partisan issue, to be weaponized by either side. This is particularly unfortunate when the bipartisan progress on issues like the tampon tax and free menstrual products in schools had been so encouraging. Our hope is that when talking about periods, menstrual equity advocates will be strategic in their rhetoric, in order to cast a net that is broad enough to attract as many supporters as possible to the cause.

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    Emily Gold Waldman

    Pace University

    Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Faculty Development, Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.

    Bridget J. Crawford

    Pace University

    University Distinguished Professor of Law, Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.

     

    Thanks to Katherine Keating and Vibha Sanjay for helpful research assistance.