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When you walk into a public bathroom, you expect it to be stocked with toilet paper, hand soap and paper towels or a hand dryer.
But tampons and pads?
Brookline wants to make menstrual products as routine as those other bathroom staples, and in May voted to become the first municipality in the United States to offer free tampons and pads in all of its town-owned restrooms, in places like town hall, libraries and the rec center. The schools are expected to follow suit.
Sarah Groustra is the one who got this all started. Last year, the then-senior wrote a column in the Brookline High School newspaper, calling for an end to what she called period "shaming." She mentioned zipping her tampons into her boots, so nobody would see her taking them out of her backpack in class.
"In the end, no cultural, social or legislative change can come until female-bodied people stop feeling like their bodies are abnormal, or inappropriate, or flat-out disgusting,” she wrote. "I don’t love talking about my period, but until menstruation becomes as normalized as other routine body activities, actively combating the stigma is the only way to end it.”
Brookline town meeting member Rebecca Stone read that, and even for the self-described feminist, it was an eye opener.
"It talked about things having to do with period shaming that ... simply never occurred to me," she said. "And of course once you start seeing it, it becomes more and more obvious what a fundamental issue this is for gender equity and for the dignity of women and female-bodied individuals."
Stone got to work alongside Groustra and other Brookline students writing a warrant article. Town meeting took it up and it passed unanimously on May 23.
Brookline has until July 2021 to install dispensers and stock them with product. It’s estimated to cost the town $40,000 upfront, and about $7,500 a year going forward for the products — a drop in Brookline’s $300 million annual budget, Stone says.
But it’s worth it, advocates say, to end the stigma — and the strain — on those who have periods.
“In the United States, girls learn very early that this is their problem,” Stone said. “You are expected to keep it from other people, to be discreet. And so we tuck the tampons, and if we're in trouble we try to find friends, and we talk about it quietly, and we use euphemisms, and we do not impose this on others.”
Restrooms in Brookline buildings will have menstrual products in both male and female bathrooms — as not all people who have a period identify as female.
What the town is doing is part of Nancy Kramer’s dream. She’s the founder of Free the Tampons, a national organization she started in 2013 after talking about period equity for years. Her husband gifted her the nonprofit’s URL for her 50th birthday.
Kramer has a simple goal.
“I've told my children that before I die, that I hope to change the social norm so that these menstrual supplies are freely accessible in the majority of public restrooms,” she said.
Part of getting there is equating tampons and pads with other bathroom supplies.
“My position all along has been tampons and pads are the equivalent to toilet paper,” she said. “And so wherever there's toilet paper there should be tampons and pads.”
There are other efforts nationwide like Brookline’s.
Earlier, spearheaded by a 2016 vote in New York City, Cambridge began offering tampons and pads in school bathrooms. California, Illinois and New York have similarly passed state laws requiring menstrual products in public schools.
Other statutes have focused on areas of most need — like prisons and shelters — where people might not be able to afford tampons and pads.
In Massachusetts, a bill to provide free menstrual products in schools, prisons and jails and shelters is pending at the State House and has more than 70 co-sponsors.
But to Brookline’s Stone, this is more than just an economic issue — it’s a public hygiene issue. Nearly all of the men she spoke with understood that, she said. Instead, it was some women who seemed uncomfortable.
"A few women were the ones who sort of said, 'I don't understand why this is a big deal. I dealt with it, why can’t everybody?' ” she said.
Groustra, who sparked the conversation in Brookline, is now a student at Kenyon College in Ohio. She says it isn’t just about having the tampon there when you need it. It’s about an acknowledgement that periods happen, a signal of acceptance from your hometown.
“By having the community or that community space provide for you in that way," she said, "it almost sends a message of like, we understand that this is something that happens and we want to be there for you and provide this for you.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the cost of the program. We regret the error.
This story was updated with the Morning Edition feature version.
This article was originally published on May 24, 2019.
This segment aired on June 6, 2019.
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