Lessons learned in the U.S. from the passage of New Hampshire’s new pads-in-school legislation
Written by Aika Riguera (IMHER Research Assistant)
Edited by Rachel Florman (IMHER Research Assistant)
New Hampshire – the home state of Dartmouth College and IMHER – became the 4th U.S. state on Wednesday to guarantee free disposable menstrual pads and tampons to girls in its public middle schools and high schools (and the 3rd state to guarantee it to all schools, rather than just to those with high levels of poverty, as in California.)
A local high school student, Caroline Dillon, brought the idea to New Hampshire State Senator Martha Hennessey. Senator Hennessey then partnered with cosponsors from the House side (Representatives Polly Campion, Mary Jane Mulligan, and others) to usher the bill into passage.
With bipartisan support, Governor Chris Sununu – a Republican – signed the bill into law on July 17, 2019, stating that it “will help ensure young women in New Hampshire public schools will have the freedom to learn without disruption — and free of shame or fear of stigma.”
IMHER’s Deborah Jordan Brooks testified about the bill during the Senate and House hearings on S.B. 142. As part of her testimony, she argued that poverty and female empowerment are not just global issues happening “over there,” but rather that they are issues happening in New Hampshire as well.
Through her observations of the process, she notes several aspects to this bill’s passage that may be of relevance to others considering legislation focused on pads in schools, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere.
This bill passed without much data available on the need or costs (…but not all will)
Without solid data on how many girls or women in the U.S. struggle due to a lack of access to menstrual products – and without data showing the cost implications for schools, or the cost of what some schools currently provide through school nurses offices and other sources – there are few hard numbers to turn to in order to justify interventions.
Without state income or sales taxes, school issues are locally funded in New Hampshire. In practice, that meant that no budget needed to be submitted or approved for this measure to pass. But in places where a budget has to accompany legislation, legislators may insist on better data than what currently exists. And that could result in possible barriers similar bills in other states.
Legislation can sometimes move faster than expected
First introduce in mid-January 2019, the bill’s first public hearing was at the end of March in the New Hampshire Senate Education and Workforce committee, and was signed into law by July. Moreover, it passed under a divided government (i.e., a Democratic legislature and a Republican governor), reaffirming the relatively bipartisan nature of menstrual health issues.
Of course legislation can also sometimes backtrack almost as quickly as it is passed (the recent retraction of the V.A.T. tax elimination on menstrual products in Tanzania just one year after passage is an example of that), but that tends to be rare. In general, once a piece of legislation has passed, it tends to be difficult to eliminate.
The pros and cons to narrow vs. wide scope legislation
In New Hampshire — as in most places considering legislation around menstruation — there was a question early on as to whether the bill should address just school-related issues or whether it should instead incorporate a wider range of other menstrual equity issues (i.e., pads in prisons, government office buildings, for homeless populations, etc.)
Most who do MHM work would agree that more comprehensive change is better. But in practice, a wider scope will often present more hurdles — and more potential opponents — along the way.
In this case, the sponsors of the legislation decided that a focused approach on one issue stood a better chance of passage than would a more comprehensive bill. In the process, they were able to introduce the topic to their colleagues in a manner that may open up doors to a wider range of discussions and changes later.
Like many school pad distribution proposals, this one focused on disposable, rather than on reusable, products.
With lower long term costs and benefits for the environment, a good case can be made for washable pads and menstrual cups. But given that most women in the U.S. currently use disposable pads or tampons — and given that the start up costs of providing reusables and education about how to use them would be much higher in the short term — including reusables in the proposal did not seem like a viable option, and almost certainly would have killed the bill in this case.
Providing free disposable pads may paradoxically help to nudge the U.S. forward on the benefits of reusables in the long-term, however. After all, giving governments a financial stake in reducing the use of disposable menstrual products may be the best possible incentive for encouraging schools to provide education around the benefits and use of menstrual cups and washable pads.
The power of a high school girl to make adult legislators listen more attentively.
Caroline Dillon was a notably outstanding speaker and spokesperson for this issue as a high school student, which certainly helped the bill progress. But the committee members also seemed eager to hear her perspective as did journalists, and many asked her thoughtful questions about the measure. Her words seemed to carry a power that those of political insiders could not. People with power were listening closely to what she had to say.
Even if they may not actually initiate legislation themselves like Caroline did, consider that students could be key partners in these kinds of legislative efforts. They often have a unique perspective that adults do not, and a way of connecting with people on these issues that can resonate with those who might not pay attention to other types of messaging.
The ability a group of energized political women to enact quick change on a rarely-discussed issue.
Coming up with the idea for legislation doesn’t go far without the support of well-connected politicians. It is not easy to craft a bill, get it on the agenda with party leaders, and then usher it through the process. There needed to be energetic, well-connected leaders carrying the torch, and putting in the energy and time to make it happen.
That tends to be all the more the case for topics like this one: aside from Caroline Dillon, the public was not actively pressing for change. As a result, the sponsoring legislators needed to create an awareness of the topic and the need for change as part of their work.
In this case, New Hampshire had a group of female legislators who were happy to push the issue, and who were eager to educate their colleagues about it.
Outcome aside, the power of putting menstrual issues on the table
During and after the hearings on the bill, several male legislators indicated that they had not thought about this issue before, and that after having heard about it, now see the need for measures to be taken. Put another way, many were entirely open to the idea. But no one had ever talked to them about it, or asked them to make a decision on the matter.
Many people working on MHM are educators in practice and at heart. With this in mind, it is possible to view testifying on bills as an educational opportunity; the class is simply filled with elite decision-makers, rather than with young students.
Even if a bill does not pass at the time, just getting the issue into the public dialogue can help to facilitate its passage later. As such, exposing decision-makers to menstrual hygiene issues can have power, regardless of the outcome of a given piece of legislation.
Because information exchange on these issues is sorely lacking in the U.S., as it is nearly everywhere else, we will be providing information on IMHER about progress on these issues where useful (usually under the “U.S.” section of the website.) As part of this, we will post the written testimony made on behalf of this bill on IMHER in the coming weeks, so others developing legislation of their own can see some potential talking points for pad distribution legislation.
A good deal of American state politics is idiosyncratic, and not especially relevant to IMHER’s readership. Regardless, many of the points above share similarity with other legislative efforts around the world.