How Grace Meng is Trying To End Period Poverty Through the “Menstrual Equity for All” Act

The New York congresswoman explains why universal free access to menstrual products is critical for health justice.

Grace Meng represents the 6th District of New York in the United States Congress. She recently reintroduced her Menstrual Equity for All Act, which aims to dramatically expand free access to menstrual products across the country. Meng recently joined Current Affairs editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson to discuss the problem of period poverty and what it would take to solve it. The interview has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

Nathan J. Robinson 

To start, could you familiarize our readers with the problem that your legislation is a solution for?

Rep. Grace Meng 

Yes. This is definitely not a new problem, but I think in recent years, it has garnered more attention. And to be honest, growing up, I never thought about this as an issue—I was always able to afford my period products. A seventh grader in my district in Queens, New York, actually wrote a letter to me one day and said that people in homeless shelters were unable to get pads and tampons because of the way that the federal grants were structured. That’s how I learned about this problem.

As I delved more into it, I realized that this wasn’t just a problem affecting people in underdeveloped countries, but that many girls—for example, in schools right here in America—skip school every month when they get their period because they can’t afford these products. And so, that’s how I started working on this issue.

Robinson 

In 2021, you co-authored an article in Ms. Magazine explaining some of the problem. You cite some extraordinary and disturbing facts about the reality of what is called “period poverty” in the United States, of women choosing between buying food and spending money on menstrual products. You write about homeless people improvising with rags, paper bags, and newspapers. You describe it as one of America’s “alarming and often hidden inequities.”

Meng 

Periods in general have very much been a taboo topic in our society. You can ask any person who gets their period: we all share the experience of hiding the product in our sleeves, of making sure no one around us knows that we are at that time of the month, even though it’s a natural part of our bodily functions. We just really haven’t talked about this enough. I’m pretty sure that some of my colleagues have signed on to my bill because they wanted me to stop talking about periods on the floor of the House.

A huge part of this is to raise public awareness and public education. This is not a luxury product; it is a medical necessity. And so, some of what we’ve worked on just makes sure that people have what they need.

Robinson 

It is strange how the issue is often discussed with a kind of nervousness, embarrassment, or discomfort. There’s a kind of nervous laugh people do when they bring this up. And of course, that taboo that you mentioned prevents us from being able to lay out these really disturbing facts that you cite in the Ms. Magazine article.

Meng 

We want to remind people that this is a normal part of our bodily functions, and just like how bathrooms provide free paper towels, toilet paper, and hand soap, we want them to provide these products as well so people who need them don’t have to go through embarrassing moments, or worst case, skip school or work and have missed economic opportunities.

Robinson 

I want to get to the piece of legislation and how you designed it to respond to the problem. But first, I just want to mention one other injustice that you documented in that article, which is the situation facing people who are incarcerated or in immigration detention.

Meng 

We have heard stories. My bill obviously only addresses federal facilities, but we’ve heard cases, from local to national facilities, where people have to ration their pads, share them, or kind of barter for them. Depending on how their commissary funds are funded, they may have to barter food or a phone call from their loved ones during that time of the month so that they can get enough money or resources to get a pad or two. This is something that’s truly embarrassing and humiliating, and no one, including people detained in a facility, should have to endure that.

Robinson 

Let’s talk about the legislation. You have described the situation in a number of different contexts, everything from young girls in schools to people in homeless and detention facilities. So obviously, in designing a piece of legislation, you’ve had to think “How do we guarantee access in all of these different places governed by all of these different authorities?” Could you discuss the basics of how your legislation tries to be comprehensive here?

Meng 

Yes, and this is really a product of so many different organizations, from advocates for menstrual equity to the companies that literally manufacture, produce, and sell these products. It’s trying to be a whole of government approach to be able to help everyone regardless of where you fall in terms of your income level, and hopefully, it will help millions of people. And we want people, whether they are homeless or in a federal facility, a public federal building, schools, or a large company, to be able to have these products. And so, we’ve tried to touch upon everyone.

Robinson 

What are some of the components of this legislation? What would change if this were passed into law?

Meng 

We want, for example, states to have the ability to use their federal funds that they may receive to provide for kids who may need these products in schools. We want people who are lower income to be able to get these products on Medicaid. In the place where I work, we were able to do that just administratively, but we want federal buildings to be able to provide these products, as well as higher education institutions, many of whom are actually doing it on their own. Whenever I visit a different college, for whatever reason, I do see that more and more institutions and companies are actually doing this on their own.

Robinson 

But I assume that oftentimes, these are colleges and companies that are prosperous. And your legislation, the Menstrual Equity For All Act, aims to make sure that it is not just that you have to have the good fortune to work at an employer that actually takes this seriously. You are targeting it so that it covers and reaches our most marginalized and vulnerable populations.

Meng 

Exactly. You said it very eloquently. We don’t want to leave anyone out. We don’t want anyone to feel any sort of shame about this very natural biological process. 

Robinson 

I suppose nothing can entirely solve a problem, but it has enough requirements and guarantees to where it looks like it will make significant progress.

You recently reintroduced this piece of legislation. Where are we in the process toward it becoming law?

Meng 

Stories like this are incredibly helpful. I can tell you when I’m talking about this issue, most people—men or women—do not necessarily prioritize this issue, and many are even surprised to learn about it. This is not the first year I’ve introduced the bill, but every year, we’ve made a little more progress. We’ve been spending so much time tweaking the bill, trying to get as many people as we can onboard. There has been some sort of bipartisan support in the past as well. So, we have more co-sponsors than ever. I think the first time I introduced it, we had less than a handful of co-sponsors. I’m really heartened at the progress, and hopefully, we can get this across the finish line sooner than later.

Robinson 

Members of the public who hear you discuss this, and read the material that you put out, and agree that this is a problem, or will face this problem in their own lives, may then think “What do we, as individual members of a democratic republic, do to help push this legislation forward?” How would you answer them?

Meng 

Good question. That is so crucial right now because of the lack of public awareness. In a perfect world, we would want everyone to contact their Congress members—Republicans and Democrats—and ask them to sign on to this bill. I’ll tell you, this is not a Democratic issue only, obviously—people in both parties get periods. We’ve had Republican and Democratic young people reach out wanting to work on the bill and on this issue. Plenty of people are asking their member of Congress to co-sponsor the bill. And I’ve had colleagues who have not thought about this issue say to me that someone in their district approached them about the bill and on the issue, and that’s how they got involved. That public awareness and asking their Congress members to sign on is so important.

Robinson 

It seems like one of those issues where a number of seemingly small changes could make a big difference. It’s a serious problem, but it’s one of those things where you think, “How hard should it be to address?” These are not expensive products to provide. This is something you’d think that should be within the realm of solving, in a functional and wealthy country.

Meng 

Yes, definitely. And actually, some of the steps that we’ve taken in a bipartisan way in the last few years have been, for example, allowing federal grants that homeless shelter providers receive to purchase and distribute these products. So, that’s been very helpful for homeless shelters, and also being able to have these products purchased with people who may have the flexible or health savings accounts through their employer. If you look at the website or the list of items that people with a flexible health spending account can purchase—like crutches, BandAids, contact lenses—it did not include pads and tampons before. But as of, I think, two years ago, we were able to work in Congress to change that law, and now people can buy period products.

Robinson 

I just want to conclude here by situating this within the broader fight for justice in healthcare. In addition to introducing this piece of legislation itself, in May, you also signed on to Pramila Jayapal’s Medicare For All Act of 2023. So, obviously, period poverty is a very serious health justice issue, but we have many other health justice issues as well in this country. Could you discuss the broader ongoing fight for health justice in this country?

Meng 

Definitely. America is one of the greatest and wealthiest countries in the world, and there is no reason why people, regardless of their income level, should not have their healthcare access taken care of. We just saw under President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris literally life-changing legislation that we worked with them on to lower the cost of prescription drugs, to lower the cost of insulin for senior citizens. This is something that the public, both Republicans and Democrats, have been asking for. It’s an issue that polls well. Now, why does it poll well? Because health care access, the justice of having access to equitable healthcare—regardless of how rich you are in a country where corporate leaders are doing very well—is a human right and should not be a privilege in this country.


Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth.

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