On the first day of classes, Aug. 28, ASWC President Lily Parker and a room full of interested students gathered to create an action plan addressing the fact that Whitman College does not provide free menstrual products to the general student body.
In the last few years, students nationwide have been drawing attention to menstrual product access as an equity issue. By 2016, Inside Higher Ed reported that schools like Columbia University, Reed College and Grinnell College all saw protests for free menstrual products from motivated student groups. As recently as June of last year, the University of Washington in Seattle began stocking specific bathrooms on campus with free menstrual products after a group of students contacted the administration. Organizations like “Aunt Flow”have published guides for students to use when asking their school to provide free menstrual products. When protesting is successful at larger institutions, the school will often take on the cost of providing the menstrual products by removing the monetary requirement from paid tampon dispensers.
Led by Lily Parker, Whitman College is taking smaller steps toward the same goal. The college now provides free menstrual products in residence hall bathrooms only accessible to underclassmen. A large percentage of the student body is left with an extra financial burden. Parker’s group of students are hoping to alleviate this burden by having student volunteers regularly stock every female, male and gender-neutral bathroom in academic buildings and Reid Student Center with free products. Ideally, they hope to have these products available starting at the end of September and continuing for the rest of the school year.
Parker’s motivation for this project comes from seeing in person what increased access to menstrual products looks like.
“I always had the idea in my head of wanting to do a sort of drive for menstrual products and then distribute them. It’s just always something that I thought was an equity issue on campus that we didn’t do it,” Parker said. “I’m from Seattle, and it’s not uncommon in Seattle to go to places where there are free menstrual products, like at CenturyLink Field, where the Seahawks and the Sounders play … That always just struck me as the right thing to do.”
Sophomore Ethan Treadwell, one of the students who gathered on Aug. 28, expressed similar sentiments about the inequity of the situation.
“I feel like [providing free menstrual products] is something that a lot of schools already do, and it’s something that I think Whitman should have been doing, especially with their cognizance of financial need,” Treadwell said. “I personally think that it’s a little bit backwards to some of the college’s values because it is creating an equity issue that’s super easy to solve, and they do pride themselves on offering every type of financial need-based compensation, but this falls under that.”
The funding for the majority of free menstrual products this year will likely come from ASWC, but in the future, Parker hopes that Whitman College will take on the cost of these products. Parker plans to bring the issue up at the Board of Trustees meeting this May. “We got 100 pads and 500 tampons for $100 last year, that’s not a bad cost,” Parker said. “I feel totally fine about going to the college and saying ‘you need to cover this.’”
Kaitlyn Patia, Visiting Instructor of Rhetoric Studies at Whitman, has been involved in bringing this effort to the attention of the faculty and staff. She spoke positively about student initiative at Whitman around important issues like access to menstrual products.
“The bottom line is that free access to menstrual products is an equity issue,” Patia said. “I’ve been so impressed by the students who have identified a need on campus and have stepped up to do something to meet this need until more long-term solutions can be planned.”