The Political War on Periods in Public Schools

From a proposed ban on talking about menstrual cycles until sixth grade to voting down free period products in schools, when did puberty become political fodder?

A school nurse handing a teen period products

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As a 10-year-old in 1984, I learned about my body from three sources: Madonna's Like a Virgin album; Judy Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret; and the much-anticipated, much-buzzed-about fifth-grade movie that gave us the lowdown on the hygiene and physical mechanics of puberty. There was a girls' movie and a boys' movie, and we watched each on separate days grouped by gender to reduce the amount of blushing and giggling.

I remember walking home from the school bus stop the afternoon after watching the girls' movie with the related booklet in my hands, excited to dive in and learn about all the facts of life. I was left a little disappointed by the reality of the mundane details—and, to my frustration, I still didn't understand half the lyrics in "Like a Virgin." But at least I was prepared when the time came for me to experience my own first period a few years later, just before I started eighth grade. Middle school was, as it is for so many, three mostly miserable years of not knowing where I fit in or what I was doing, figuring out bras and boys and braces. I was grateful to be prepared.

Florida Seeks to Ban Discussing Menstruation in School

I am raising a 10-year-old daughter in the same Florida suburbs I grew up in. It is very relevant to me that if new legislation currently up for discussion in our state government passes, Florida's public elementary school children won't be allowed to learn about or discuss menstruation at all before sixth grade. Even in 1984, I knew fifth-grade classmates who had already started their periods by the time we watched "the movie."

According to a 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 10% of American girls start their periods by the age of 10, and that number jumps to 26% by age 11, and 56% by age 12. That's a lot of tweens who would start their periods before they would legally be allowed to talk about them at school in Florida if this law passes. Will they feel as prepared as I did 35 years ago?

In discussions about the bill, Florida Democrat and Rep. Ashley Gantt—herself a former public school teacher—asked, "So if little girls experience their first menstrual cycle in fifth or fourth grade, will that prohibit conversations with them since they are in the grade lower than sixth grade?"

"It would," replied the bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Stan McClain.

The Debate Over Free Menstrual Products in Schools

Florida's proposed legislation comes on the heels of a recent failed attempt in Idaho to pass a bill that would have allowed and funded free menstrual products in bathrooms in the state's public schools. Although Idaho's House Education Committee gave the bill a "do pass" recommendation, it later failed on the House floor with a 35-35 vote.

The issue was not money; the state is expected to have a $1.4 billion tax revenue surplus at the end of its fiscal year. That's more than enough to cover the installation and stock costs for products in schools for grades 6-12. Instead, the conflict was ideological.

"It's not a lot of money in the state's budget," confirmed Republican Rep. Rod Furniss, who said providing free menstrual products would be a step to "preserve womanhood, to give it a chance to start right, to not be embarrassed or feel alienated or ashamed, or to feel like they need to stay home from school due to period poverty."

In fact, according to the Alliance for Period Supplies, 15 states and the District of Columbia already have legislation on the books requiring schools to provide free menstrual products, just as they do toilet paper, paper towels, and soap.

But Idaho Republican Rep. Barbara Ehardt deemed language like "period poverty" and "menstrual equity" to be "woke terms." Republican Rep. Heather Scott added, "Why are schools obsessed with the private parts of our children?"

Why Puberty Education in Schools is Important

On the contrary, it seems to me like schools are trying very hard to put control of their private parts back into the hands of our children—by giving them the knowledge, resources, and autonomy to take care of themselves when they need to instead of relying on others. Why is it "woke" to want kids to understand their own bodies? How did the periods of tweens and teens become political?

"Historically, there's been such horrible education about menstrual health, and it's never been separated from sex education, and that has driven it into this place where it's being politicized," said Melisa Holmes, M.D., FACOG, a board-certified OB-GYN, author, and co-founder and CEO of Girlology, an app that supports both tweens and their caregivers with on-demand health resources to guide them through puberty and adolescence, including information about menstruation. Perhaps most importantly, Holmes is also the mother of three girls herself.

"Until the point of puberty, girls are doing great, they're succeeding in school," she says. "The point of puberty is when their confidence starts to decline. Part of that is because of these body changes that nobody will talk about with them. They're scared; they don't know what's happening or what's ahead. This is when mental health problems begin."

Melisa Holmes, Co-Founder and CEO of Girlology

There's enough things causing anxiety in their lives. Their bodies should not be one of them.

— Melisa Holmes, Co-Founder and CEO of Girlology

Explaining their bodies and the changes they will face helps all children face them with more confidence, Holmes explains. "There's enough things causing anxiety in their lives. Their bodies should not be one of them," she says.

Talking about menstrual health is not about sex and doesn't need to be sexualized, says Holmes. "This has nothing to do with sex education," she adds. "It's a health topic that has been under-taught for generations, and it's the cause of billion-dollar gaps in women's healthcare."

In her work promoting menstrual education, Holmes and her colleagues found that fourth grade was the "sweet spot" when kids are most receptive to the information. "By sixth grade, they're already living it," she says. "But we've learned that if we can give them this information before they start hearing it from their peers or are in the midst of it themselves, they face the changes with more excitement. We can change the entire attitude and culture around first periods if we tell them before it happens and we deliver it in a positive way."

By waiting until sixth grade to talk to girls about menstruation, Holmes says, Florida would be missing an opportunity to build girls' confidence, improve their health outcomes, and reduce health costs.

"That's what the politicians should be talking about, not whether we are going to say the word 'vulva' in schools," she adds. "Menstrual stigma is the root cause of our entire reproductive health crisis in America right now, and what is happening in Idaho and Florida is perpetuating it. It's a crime."

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  1. Martinez GM. Trends and patterns in menarche in the United States, 1995 through 2013–2017. National Health Statistics Reports; no 146. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2020.

  2. Alliance for Period Supplies. Period Products in Schools.

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