- Around the world, at least 500 million people don't have access to safe and affordable period products.
- The average person can spend more than $6,000 on period products in a lifetime.
- An American University junior is working out of her dorm room to collect and donate thousands of products.
It’s Wednesday morning, and instead of sitting in a classroom, Taylor Whittington is hauling bags of period products up the steps of a shelter in Friendship Heights in Washington, D.C. She is making a delivery for her one-woman organization, the Menstrual Mission.
Whittington stands out as she walks into the shelter, a mere 20-year-old among older men and women playing cards around a table. She wears black-rimmed glasses and seems surprisingly mature for her age, with a calm demeanor as she searches around for where to leave her donations. It’s clear she’s done this before. After turning toward a small office she introduces herself and hands over the bags. The exchange is quick, but the impact long-lasting.
The Menstrual Mission is Whittington’s contribution to period poverty — a global issue impacting at least 500 million people worldwide concerning the inaccessibility of safe, affordable sanitary products and ways to deal with periods. As a senior in high school, Whittington, a New Jersey native, began collecting donations after watching the Refinery29 video, "Is Menstruation a Social Justice Issue?" Now a junior at American University studying Women’s, Gender, Sexuality Studies and Film and Media Arts, Whittington has expanded her organization to the D.C. area and has collected more than 16,000 products to date.
Whittington says she tries to communicate that period poverty is a public health concern. The average menstruating person in the United States spends more than $6,000 on period products in their lifetime. For those who can’t afford this near-lifetime expense, which is subject to sales tax in most states, period poverty becomes an issue. Aside from a loss of personal hygiene, a lack of adequate menstrual products can also increase risk of infection.
“Menstruating is something that just happens to you once a month,” Whittington said. “It’s not something you can turn on and off; it’s not a kitchen sink.”
Whittington is constantly on the job — running events with clubs and organizations, hosting a donation box in The Bridge Cafe, a coffee shop on American University’s campus, and meeting donors whenever they have a spare moment. She periodically holds “Collection Drives” where she ramps up the fundraising for a larger, bulk donation.
“For the three or four weeks I run it for it’s just me always being on campus and always being on-call to run and get products from people who decide they are able to donate,” she says.
The Menstrual Mission hasn’t always been this structured, however. The project began Whittington’s senior year of high school when she asked her family for money to buy period products to donate instead of Christmas gifts. She then turned to students in her high school for donations of extra tampons and pads.
“I think that kind of describes who she is,” says American University sophomore Megan Long, a friend of Whittington’s. “Even though she only has collection drives at the end of each semester, there’s still an ongoing process.”
Even at home, Whittington’s mission to combat period poverty continues. Whittington’s closet is stockpiled with bins of hand-sewn cloth pads, assembled period kits and homemade buttons and cards with colorful uteruses and designs. Across from her bed is a black shelf with boxes of tampons, pads and pantyliners.
Her presence on campus began with social media. Whittington says she messaged her freshman year dorm group chat asking for leftover products and soon her floormates were encouraging her to post her donation inquiry on the “American University Class of 2021” Facebook page.
“It just spread from a text to a group chat and a single Facebook post and it just got shared and shared and shared,” she says. “Now that’s how I communicate and let people know I’m doing this again and need their help.”
Whittington says clubs on campus often reach out to her to host service events with her organization. She’s worked with service fraternities like Alpha Phi Omega, pre-law fraternity Phi Alpha Delta, social sorority Phi Mu, women’s studies honor society Triota, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion and the Health Promotion and Advocacy Center.
Volunteers help Whittington create kits containing five pads, five pantyliners, five tampons, two hand sanitizer wipes, two feminine wipes and a hand-written note. In between assembly-line-style production, Whittington says there’s a lot of room for discussion about the importance of their work.
“I think a lot of times people forget that menstruating is something you have no control over and the way that the government and society treats it is that it’s something that you have a choice in,” she says. “It takes a level of financial and social privilege to have access to items to properly deal with menstruating but you don’t need financial or social capital to be a menstruating individual.”
According to Val Tovar, sexual assault prevention coordinator at the Health Promotion and Advocacy Center, Whittington’s donation of menstrual products has made a positive impact for accessibility.
“She brought up that she just wanted them to be accessible for people, for everybody,” Tovar says. She added, “That was the one thing we were missing.”
Tovar says that the office now houses menstrual products along with other sexual health items for anyone who needs them. Having products open and available normalizes periods, she says, and allows for easy access regardless of identity.
“It’s not just for cisgendered women,” she says. “It’s [for] people that are dealing with this on a daily basis and just having a safe space to actually come in and grab these products without feeling like you have to go into a store and you can’t buy them.”
According to Long, Whittington’s unwavering stamina to fight period poverty is unique. “She doesn’t need something to keep her motivated,” she said. “The thing that motivates her is that she knows what she’s doing is affecting people and helping people.”
Whittington’s room is a telling image of her commitment to the Menstrual Mission. Two copies of “Period Power” by Nadya Okamoto lie side-by-side on her bookshelf and various handwritten notes from volunteers are stuck on her fridge.
“I’ve always been really passionate and interested in feminist issues and I think I always knew that there was this devaluing of issues that impact women,” she says. “There’s more of a hesitance … from society for issues that are deemed feminist and I think doing this project has really been a real life example of that for me.”
Whittington does express her worry, however, about the future of the Menstrual Mission, especially after graduating. She is currently working on registering the organization as a nonprofit, which she hopes will open up doors for donations, grants and renting space for events.
In the meantime, Whittington says her biggest priority is collecting donations and educating peers. Even though she’s received her fair share of pushback and rolled eyes, Whittington is hardly deterred.
“Menstruation doesn’t care if you’re homeless, it doesn’t care if you’re poor, it doesn’t care if you don’t have access to a shower,” she said. “It just happens, and I think it’s crazy that as a society we don’t step in more often and make sure that that’s a basic right that everyone has access to.”
Period poverty is something that everyone needs to care about, Whittington says, and it takes a little perspective to realize that. And whether they decide to pay attention or not, Whittington will still be taking bags of period kits in hand on the Metro, ready for her next donation.