A Conversation with Holly Seibold about her fight against the injustice of menstrual inequity.
By Jessica Berg
Holly Seibold was sitting in Virginia Beach, preparing for a presentation at a State Convention for all the Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs in the state. She had been invited by Fairfax County Sherriff Stacey Kincaid, one of only a handful of female sheriffs in Virginia, to talk about implementing a law requiring female inmates have access to feminine hygiene products without cost and without rationing.
Some jails were only allotting two pads for a female when she was on her period, which, as half the population knows, is ridiculous. Holly remembers that she was going to go with her normal presentation of ‘this is the law, you follow it’. But she changed course.
She said, “At midnight I get this idea, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt maybe they have no clue what a period is about.” And it was true. Many of the men in the audience didn’t understand the amount of blood a woman loses on her period and why they would need more than two pads, or why they would need tampons, which commissaries were up-charging, for situations like the shower. And it is not just males that are lacking education about menstruation, females are as well.
So we are going to break down the issue and talk about the work women like Holly Seibold and her organization BRAWS (Bringing Resources to Aid Women’s Shelters) are doing to combat menstrual inequity, and what you can do.
Everything starts with Education:
Here is a brief rundown of terms:
- Period Poverty is a term that refers to the lack of access to menstrual items, the lack of education in how to deal with menstruation, and the lack of hygienic facilities. Females most affected by period poverty are those living in shelters, teen girls, and women living at or below the poverty line. Food stamps do not cover menstrual items.
- The ‘tampon tax’ is the tax menstrual items, like pads and tampons are subject to. This tax is similar to a luxury tax because these products are deemed non-essential. Other items that are taxed as luxury items include yachts, jewelry, and expensive furs.
- Menstrual Equity is a term that was coined by Jennifer Weiss-Wolf in 2015, and it has come to encompass the idea that menstruation products should be accessible and affordable. Equity, however, is not just abut the products. It is about education, safety, reproductive health, the conversation around menstruation to decrease stigmas, and trying to counteract the far-reaching ramifications that exist when there is menstrual inequity.
Understanding the link between period poverty and the larger inequities females face in education and opportunities helps us understand how to tackle the issues.
Combating Period Poverty
Period poverty greatly affects women and teen girls living in shelters or living at or below the poverty line. As PeriodEquity.org states, “Many in the U.S. are forced to make a terrible choice between buying food or menstrual products.” This problem exists EVERYWHERE globally and in the United States.
BRAWS is based in Fairfax County, Virginia, and does a lot of work in neighboring Loudoun County. These two counties are often cited as some of the most affluent in the country, but as Holly states, “We have so many pockets of poverty. Those are the ones that get forgotten the most. Their needs need to be addressed.” BRAWS is addressing the issue.
Holly Seibold did not necessarily plan on starting a non-profit organization dedicated to menstrual equity, but after reading Huffington Post article about the ways young girls are taught to deal with their periods worldwide, and the shame and stigma that is associated with menstruation, a piece of the puzzle fell into place.
While volunteering at a Dress for Success in New Jersey, Holly recalls having clients say it is ‘great that we have suits, but we don’t have any way to manage our periods, and we don’t have undergarments.’ Dress for Success is an organization that ‘that empowers women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire,’ but when women can’t manage their periods, opportunities for employment and advancement can be impacted.
Something else clicked for Holly, and she asked herself, “As a feminist and involved politically since 15, how did I miss this?”
In 2015, during Madi Gras, Holly decided to host an even at her house and call it ‘Mardi Bras’ (a tradition that has continued every year). Holly asked guests to bring a package of unopened menstrual products, or undergarments with the tags still on. Holly’s friends came through and when she contacted places to donate the items, she found that there were more than a few in her immediate area.
“The problem wasn’t finding a place to donate them, the problem came when some of the establishments asked if I could bring more,” Holly remembers. And BRAWS was born.
The organization started in Holly’s garage with her asking friends to host parties similar to ‘Mardi Bras’ in order to expand the network of people willing to donate items. As the network expanded and the awareness of the need increase, she moved to a storage unit, and eventually found an office in Vienna, Virginia.
On the BRAWS website it states:
The majority of individuals in homeless shelters are women and their children. They are typically victims of domestic violence fleeing from abusive homes or are single mothers who have lost their jobs due to unforeseen circumstances and need help getting back on their feet. They need physical and mental support to transition to better lives for themselves and their children. Our mission is to provide them not only with tangible items they need, but to empower them to gain independence and stability.
The organization and the mission have grown. In 2018, BRAWS was ‘able to serve over 80 shelters and schools, help 6,000 women and girls, reach 21 counties, 10 school districts, 6 states, and distribute over two million new and unopened pads, tampons, underwear and bras.’
The work that BRAWS is doing is providing a much-needed service to women facing period poverty, but another element of the battle in fighting the inequity comes from existing taxes. The increase cost on these products adds up for all women, let alone women struggling financially.
Advocate to Ax the Tax
When you think about some females forced to make the decision between managing their period, or buying food, it is hard to fathom that in states tampons are still taxed as a luxury item.
Here in Virginia, a bill just went into effect in January of 2020 to reduce, not repeal, the tax on menstrual items. This progress is thanks to the hard work of people like Holly, who testified in Washington DC and Richmond advocating for the repeal of the ‘tampon tax’, and lawmakers like Senator Jennifer Boysko who began to understand that she needed to use her voice on the senate floor to fight for menstrual equity.
It is progress, and it has taken a lot of people and a lot of advocacy to even get this far, but we still har further to go.
“It’s not a priority. Not a priority in the budget,” Holly states, and the longer this imbalance occurs, the longer females will suffer, and the gender equity gap will continue to increase.
The tax on menstrual items brings in approximately $150 million dollars a year nationwide. The burden for covering this source of revenue for states is solely placed on females because items like condoms and Viagra are not taxed as non-essential items the way menstruation products are.
We need to be vocal about this. Periods have a stigma surrounding them. Whether culturally or because it is a ‘woman’s issue’, the silence surrounding the problem is doing all females a disservice.
As it states on PeriodEquity.org:
Since launching the national petition in 2015 to end the tampon tax in the U.S., at least 32 states have introduced measures to eliminate the tax. Ten have seen success—CT, FL, IL, OH, NV, NY, RI, UT, WA, and CA* (through July 2023).
That means that 30 states have NOT introduced any measures to acknowledge the existence of period poverty and the ‘tampon tax’. These factors combined lead to menstrual inequity because not only are periods an economic and political issue, but they are also a societal issue.
Menstrual Equity for All
In her book, Periods Gone Public, Weiss-Wolf states, “In order to have a fully equitable and participatory society, we must have laws and policies that ensure menstrual products are safe and affordable and available for those who need them.”
Holly mentions that the age at which most females drop out of recreational sports is 12-13. Lack of education about their developing bodies, the start of many female’s menstrual cycles, the lack of access to pads and tampons, and the lack of sports bras for support affect participation rates. “Think about it: running and swimming are hard sports to participate in if you don’t know how to use a tampon,” Holly states. That is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to missed opportunities due to period poverty and menstrual inequity.
We want young females to have every opportunity to participate in academics, athletics, and society without the stigma that is associated with their periods and not being able to manage it. We are doing a disservice to every society in the world when we lose the full participation of over half the population.
So, BRAWS started partnering with local school systems to install dispensers that would provide free tampons and pads in schools to help decrease the amount of class time and opportunities missed to manage periods. The response of female students has been overwhelmingly glowing, but it wasn’t an easy path to get there.
If we can get rid of the stigma, we can’t address the need.
Holly recalls that when she first started going to schools to address period poverty issues in adolescent females, she was often met with the phrase from school counselors, ‘we don’t have that problem here.’ Holly’s thought was, “You do you just don’t know it.”
And she was right, but Holly continues to question, “If we can get rid of the stigma, we can’t address the need. How do we get them to ask for help?”
If we continue to stigmatize a natural occurrence that over half the population experiences, the menstrual equity divide will become egregiously expansive, so we need to end the stigma.
Eradicate the Stigma
No female should be suffering through the management of their period or lacking necessary items like bras and clean underwear because of the stigma surrounding menstruation. As Holly emphasizes, “A core piece of the mission is dignity and empowerment,” and she wants all females to be able to ask for help when they need it, especially young women.
Periods didn’t stop just because of the pandemic.
But, as most of the world knows, COVID has presented unforeseen obstacles to our daily routines, and this is true for the work BRAWS is doing. “Periods didn’t stop just because of the pandemic,” said Holly, but schools did close. This presents a problem.
Schools were a place to reach a large population of young females in need of menstrual items, but with students at home, it has been harder to get the products to the right people. The supply is there, and Holly says the ‘Loudoun County government has been amazing; they gave us two grants to help residents,’ but ‘we have lost the communication with students, and they are embarrassed or afraid to ask for help.’
So here is where you, reader, come in.
Call to Action
If you want to help young women achieve their full potential and be able to manage their periods with dignity, you can:
- Contact me if you are an LCPS employee and would like to help facilitate a safe and socially distance product pick-up station at your middle or high school to serve the surrounding area and student population.
- Spread the word about the availability and resources that BRAWS is still providing, even during COVID. Students: Post it. Tweet it. Share it. Let your peers know that menstrual products are available. End the stigma so we can help one another.
- Make an impact by visiting braws.org to see what items are in high demand, where you can donate money, or where you can drop off products. BRAWS is a 501c3 organization. Your donations are tax deductible:Federal TAX ID: 47-3961191.
- Just start talking about periods. Start educating yourself on the issues of period poverty and menstrual inequity. Sign petitions and write your legislators to repeal the ‘tampon tax’ in your state.
- Stop being embarrassed when you get your period! It’s natural, it’s normal, and as females we have enough obstacles to surmount, our periods shouldn’t be one of them.