Nitya Patil, an organizer with Bleed Shamelessly, believes that even in progressive areas like Dane County, a lot of work remains to destigmatize menstruation.
“Bleed Shamelessly is one of those organizations that takes that first step forward to really educate and bring awareness around the fact that, no, periods are not a bad word and they affect everyone,” Patil said.
Bleed Shamelessly is a Madison-based grassroots organization founded by Maggie Di Sanza with a mission to create a future where no one is inhibited by their period. To meet this goal, the group engages in community outreach, legislative advocacy and hands-on volunteering.
In Wisconsin, period products such as pads and tampons are taxed as luxury items. Menstruators around the state are taxed over $2.7 million annually. Hygiene items are also not an eligible item under SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps.
Historically, pads and tampons are some of the least-donated items to homeless shelters, yet women are 20 percent more likely to experience homelessness than men in the state of Wisconsin.
As a result, historically marginalized menstruators, such as low-income, BIPOC and transgender individuals around the state are not able to use necessary products and must settle for clothes or rags instead.
Before the pandemic, Bleed Shamelessly focused on advocating for free period products in middle and high school bathrooms and ending the tampon tax, but since the pandemic, they’ve also turned their focus towards more tactile help for the wider community.
“We’ve been working with various shelters, health groups like Planned Parenthood and other organizations like Freedom, Inc. to distribute products into the community that aren’t necessarily school-centered,” Amira Pierotti, a lead organizer, explained.
With the help of their volunteers, they’ve packaged 5,000 period kits since the beginning of the pandemic and donated them to local homeless shelters. Each kit can care for one menstruator through one period cycle. In total, around 90,000 individual products were packaged since they started last March.
“The support systems that are supposed to be helping us simply aren’t, so the community is stepping in to fill that need,” Pierotti explained.
To spread the idea of community-centered care, Bleed Shamelessly also helps people in Wisconsin and Iowa establish their own local menstrual justice organizations.
“[We give] them tips on how to do different types of organizing such as fundraising, putting on events, all to help reach their end goal,” Pierotti explained.
Last year, Bleed Shamelessly worked with Rep. Melissa Agard, who now represents Madison in the state Senate, to drum up support for her bill to abolish the period tax in Wisconsin. It would have ended taxes on period products, diapers and other health products deemed as luxury items.
To spread awareness and gain support, they reached out to community leaders and health organizations so they could educate their communities on the bill. They circulated petitions to support its passage and held other events to bring about public support. In the end, the bill did not pass the Republican majority legislature.
On March 2, Agard re-introduced the bill and said, “Ultimately, this is about equality in our tax code and respect. It is about supporting families and making these products affordable for everyone in Wisconsin.”
For organizer Amy Yao, education will be key to passing such a critical bill. When she was researching for a period poverty project, she heard a story that encapsulated her thoughts.
“A student asked their history teacher to use the bathroom and he went, ‘Wait 10 minutes, wait 10 minutes,’ until the class ended. She knew this was unacceptable and talked with him and he went, ‘I thought people could just hold in their blood.’”
The student ended up with blood-soaked pants. In the activists’ view, we have a legislature and government filled with men who, just like the teacher, are not only deeply uneducated around the topic of periods, but afraid of them and vaginas in general.
“We simply don’t talk about this because, ‘Oh no we have to talk about periods which equals blood that comes out of the vagina,’ which is too much for some people to handle … It is so incredibly frustrating that the people [government officials] that are supposed to look out for us and make sure everything runs smoothly are so terrified of vaginas, uteruses and periods that they’re not willing to educate themselves so they can best serve us,” Pierotti added.
Pierotti explained the most common pushback they’ve received on Twitter to the idea of free-period products.
"Well, no one’s ever died from having a period." That is absolutely not true. One of the most common causes of period-related deaths is getting an infection from using unsafe means to manage your period.”
According to Bleed Shamelessly, this all culminates in a culture and society where periods are stigmatized and period poverty is a hidden issue. Where menstruators die from lack of access to clean tampons and pads, legislators continue to allow taxes on those necessary products.
Bleed Shamelessly organizers and volunteers are hopeful and work to create tangible change. In the meantime, they try to make sure that at-risk menstruators have the products they need to survive.