By Shannon Zander
Denver Public Schools has installed free menstrual product dispensers in restrooms across the district. This change is due to relentless advocacy of one in our own community, Caitlin Soch ’24, who was recently interviewed by Denver 9News for her role in advocating for the change. Soch also attended Denver Public Schools.
The initiative began when Soch approached DPS district officials about the need for menstrual products to be free and easily accessible, as she was concerned for those who couldn’t afford them and the toll that not having access to them can take.
“We need to provide for all the basic needs for every student. Obviously, a student who menstruates is going to have different needs than a student who doesn’t,” Soch says.
Soch was motivated to push for the change because she realized that for some students, spending money on menstrual products, which are taxed as a luxury item, may be inaccessible: “If parents can’t afford, or can hardly afford, to put food on the table, then feminine products are not going to be that high on the list,” Soch told 9NEWS.
The easy response is, “why don’t students go to the nurse’s office?” But Soch points out that it fails to acknowledge the complexity of the situation given that menstrual body-shaming can make students feel uncomfortable asking. The privacy and convenience of having products accessible in restrooms sidesteps the discomfort of having to go out of one’s way to ask.
Soch initially brought up the issue with the leaders at her former high school, George Washington High School, but she was encouraged to advocate for an even bigger change. She brought the issue to the district’s attention. “Navigating a deeply bureaucratic administrative system of a public school district was slow-going at first,” explains Soch. “I definitely had to push consistently to get an audience, but once I had their ear, getting my advocacy out there was progressively easier. It’s always that first barrier of having your concerns tabled for a week, or three, that’s the most difficult to overcome. But I knew that what I had to say was important for not just me, but every other person who needed these products.”
The district was initially resistant due to precedent: “Nobody had ever tried this before for Denver Public Schools, and it was like I was uncovering something that was just to the periphery of the agenda.” Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology Tomi-Ann Roberts, who was formerly the president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research and currently serves on the board of directors, attributes the unwillingness of many places to provide free menstrual products to misogyny: “The only answer I can possibly come up with is misogyny. Menstruation is treated as taboo across history, religions, and in secular societies. So being someone who menstruates carries stigma.”
District officials also brought up concerns about the issue of toxic shock syndrome, liability, and cost. “I think it’s difficult for folks in government positions not to be tight with the budget, but I made clear from the beginning that we couldn’t make these decisions on purely budgetary grounds when basic necessities were at stake,” Soch says. And in the arguments about the cost, there was an undercurrent of the “internalized notion that menstruators’ problems aren’t just ‘people problems.’” They’re problems relegated to only a certain subsection of individuals, and therefore less worthy of addressing. “There’s just this nagging preconception that period products are a luxury which underwrites tax policy as well as resource allocation in public facilities like our schools.”
In response to questions about cost, Soch became rather infamous for her “toilet paper pitch.” Of those opposed due to the potential cost, she would ask the simple question, “would you ever cut the budget to exclude the provision of toilet paper in public schools?” The response was always, “no.” So, Soch would push back and ask, “why not?” She’d receive responses about sanitation, public health, and human dignity. “Providing toilet paper was always a given in a way that period products were not. It has always been my position that comparing two basic necessities which have clear ramifications for public health is the best way to remove the issue of sex.”
Allowing officials to make the same argument about toilet paper that she’d soon make about menstrual products proved effective. Although it can be a common assumption that individuals on their period always carry menstrual products with them, many don’t realize the crisis which occurs when that’s not the case. Those menstruating have no choice but to halt whatever they’re doing until the crisis is resolved. Reframing it as such allowed Soch to add on other important points: Improvised toilet-paper tampons are considerably more likely to cause toxic shock syndrome; and lower-income students miss out on more class time by being forced to take a detour to the nurse’s office or to find a peer to ask.
Although DPS’s efforts were put on pause due to the pandemic, all dispensers were installed by Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. Trena Marsal, the executive director of facility management at DPS, worked with the district to find a sustainable source of funding to resupply the dispensers.
“There are so many students who are going to grow up in this system where we have these products provided,” Soch says. “It starts a conversation, having them out in the open instead of hidden away at the nurse’s office.”
While providing free menstrual products is a first step, Roberts points out that there’s still a long way to go in reducing stigma and addressing sustainability issues. “On some level products are still all about concealing menstruation — and in this way providing such products does nothing to address stigma,” Roberts says. Roberts also points out that there’s a sustainability issue with single-use products as well. Most menstrual products are produced by three global corporations, which create immense amounts of waste. The solution going forward, she says, is to push for reusable products such as menstrual cups and reusable/washable cloth pads to be affordable and de-stigmatized. Roberts also adds, “bathrooms can become spaces where people encounter one another at the sink and TALK MORE about menstruation.” We hope this story opens up a conversation.
Note: The terminology in this article is intentionally gender neutral when discussing the experiences of those who menstruate (“feminine hygiene products” vs. “menstrual products”; “women/girls” vs. “those who menstruate”). As Soch points out, “not all women menstruate and not all menstruators are women.” Soch tries to avoid gendered terminology like “feminine” hygiene products when discussing the topic, and in doing so, hopes “to help change this assumption which is exclusionary to trans women, trans men, and nonbinary folks who have a period.”