How Milwaukeeans Are Addressing Period Poverty
If you’re in Milwaukee, you may have heard of the Milwaukee Diaper Mission, especially after their high-profile partnership with Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo and his partner Mariah Riddlesprigger. Founders Meagan Johnson and Jessica Syburg created the organization in 2020 to help bridge the gap between local service agencies and families in need of supplies.
Local photographer Jamie Robarge has been volunteering her photography services for Milwaukee Diaper Mission since early 2022. “Before my son was potty trained, there were many times when I didn’t know how I would be able to afford clean diapers for him,” she said. “After my son was out of diapers, I learned about the Milwaukee Diaper Mission. I felt strongly connected to their mission and wished they existed when I struggled to afford diapers. I knew I wanted to give back and spread the word.”
Last fall, Robarge learned through a friend, Nicole Dachs, that the Milwaukee Diaper Mission’s advocacy also extends to menstrual care.
“As a weekly volunteer for Milwaukee Diaper Mission I primarily pack period product kits,” Dachs explained. “Each month following distribution day the shelves containing period products are basically bare; that is what moved me to want to host a period product drive. Overnight, I decided that a drive wasn’t enough but that I wanted to host a Period Party to not only collect donations to supply and support Milwaukee Diaper Mission’s period program, but to celebrate menstruation and raise awareness about period poverty and period stigma.”
“Throughout my life, I have also been one of the four menstruators that could not afford tampons,” Robarge said. “It was embarrassing to ask for them constantly or feel like you’re stealing when you see tampons out for free in a bathroom and feel the need to stock up on a few, just in case.”
It was embarrassing to ask for them constantly or feel like you’re stealing when you see tampons out for free in a bathroom and feel the need to stock up on a few, just in case.Jamie Robarge
The inability to buy menstrual care products such as tampons or pads is known as period poverty and has been identified by nonprofit organizations and medical institutions as a major public health issue. When menstruators are lacking the products they need to get through their period, they are left having to use alternative products such as toilet paper or paper towels, or to risk infection by wearing menstrual products beyond the recommended window of time.
Reusable period products, which help solve the issue of insufficient supplies, come at a steep up-front cost: prices for period supplies at a Milwaukee-area Target are $29 for a reusable menstrual cup from Saalt and $35 for a reusable menstrual disc from Flex, compared to $6 for a store-brand variety pack of 50 tampons.
What Makes Period Care Inaccessible?
In a 2018 study conducted by menstrual product brand U by Kotex, three out of ten respondents said they had been unable to afford menstrual care products. When the company conducted the study again in 2021, the number had increased to four out of ten respondents.
Trying to understand the root causes of what makes period care inaccessible to so many menstruators can feel like untangling a knot–there’s no one answer, but multiple systemic injustices leading to the issue. Here’s just one explanation for what causes period poverty.
First, there’s the issue of wages. Have you heard of Equal Pay Day? It’s the estimated amount of time a woman would have to work to earn the same wage that a white man in the same kind of job earned in one calendar year. In 2023, Equal Pay Day was on March 14, indicating that women, on average, earn 84 cents to a white man’s dollar.
But this date is an average of women from various backgrounds. When you break the category down by race, women of color experience an even greater gap. Per the American Association of University Women, Asian women earn approximately 92 cents to the dollar, Black women are paid approximately 67 cents to the dollar, and Latina and Native women are paid approximately 57 cents to the dollar.
We also must acknowledge that not all menstruators are women; accordingly, the Human Rights Campaign estimates that trans, non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, and two-spirit individuals earn between 60 to 70 cents on the dollar.
On top of that, there’s the issue of the cost of menstrual care products. Whereas everyday necessities like food are generally exempt from sales tax across the country, menstrual hygiene products are subject to standard sales tax in 22 states (including Wisconsin) according to the Alliance for Period Supplies. Food stamps and WIC subsidies do not include menstrual products as eligible purchases.
There’s also the unofficial “pink tax,” a phenomenon in which products–especially in the personal care category–marketed toward female consumers cost more than similar products marketed toward male consumers. A savvy shopper might be able to save some money by opting to buy a so-called men’s razor over a women’s razor, but the same can’t quite be done for what are still highly single-gendered products, like tampons.
Menstruators across a variety of backgrounds are hit with the double impact of earning less money and having to pay for a recurring expense that non-menstruators are largely spared from.
All together, this means menstruators across a variety of backgrounds are hit with the double impact of earning less money and having to pay for a recurring expense that non-menstruators are largely spared from. In fact, the Harvard Radcliffe Institute reports that the lifetime cost of period supplies for a menstruator (from pads and tampons to pain medication and other peripherals) can range from $7,000 to $18,000.
Destigmatizing Period Care And Taking Action
Robarge and Dachs teamed up to host their Period Party, a multi-site supply drive culminating in a celebration at Robarge’s photography studio. “We planned this party and drive in just 4 weeks. I learned so much in such a short amount of time,” Dachs said.
“I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, but now I can proudly say it was one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had,” Robarge recalled.
The team set up collection boxes at local businesses across Milwaukee, including all four Cafe Corazon locations, the Sherman Phoenix Marketplace, multiple yoga studios, and more. While promoting the event, Dachs and Robarge were both learning more about the issues affecting menstruators.
Although more than 50% of our population are menstruators, people are still very uncomfortable with all things surrounding menstruation.Nicole Dachs
“A couple things that stood out to me were that although more than 50% of our population are menstruators, people are still very uncomfortable with all things surrounding menstruation,” Dachs said. “I reached out to The WAC to host a collection bin and although they agreed, they chose what signage to post that they deemed ‘appropriate’ and they set up the bin in the women’s locker room. There were a few other businesses who I never even heard back from.”
“We talked a lot about how not only women menstruate,” Robarge said. “I wanted to highlight how important it is that people understand trans men and non-binary people can be menstruators too. Using gender-inclusive language is so important when talking about menstruation and reproductive rights.”
At the Period Party at Robarge’s studio, attendees celebrated by writing kind notes to be sent to local menstruators, getting butt portraits drawn by artist Rachal Duggan, and dancing to music spun by DJ 4000. By the end of the event, the team had collected 5,362 pads and 4,148 tampons, enough to help supply 475 local menstruators. “We also raised $972, estimated to be 6,075 pads and 4,050 tampons,” Robarge said. “Our event alone brought in over 21% of Milwaukee Diaper Mission’s tampons for 2022.”
“We are planning another Period Party for May 2023,” Robarge added. “To stay in the loop, you can sign up for my mailing list at jamierobarge.com.”
Ways You Can Help
The most concrete and immediate way you can address period poverty is to help get supplies to people who need them most. The Milwaukee Diaper Mission accepts donations of both cloth and disposable diapers as well as reusable and disposable period products at various sites across the Milwaukee area–Dachs noted that open packages are accepted as long as items are individually wrapped. Interested individuals can sign up to host their own supply drive, as Robarge and Dachs did. The Milwaukee Diaper Mission also accepts monetary donations and purchases made from their Amazon wishlist.
“Businesses can also help by providing menstruation products inside bathrooms and for free,” Dachs said. “This would go such a long way and you’d never know who you can help!”