Every person who has ever menstruated has at least one story, an embarrassing, only funny in hindsight tale of the time—or times—when they were caught Without. Forced to improvise with a stack of paper towels or yards of toilet paper; a tied jacket around the waist like the latest in period fashion; bang fruitlessly on an empty dispenser until a good samaritan arrives in the ladies’ room, recognizes the all-too-familiar plight, and reaches into the depths of their handbag for that holy grail, the tampon; these are the times that we look back upon and shudder to remember while similarly praying that they do not happen again. Similarly, any menstruating person will recognize the clues: the urgent head tilt or hand signals followed by the discreet handoff of sanitary pad or tampon from one pair of cupped hands to another. It’s not simply the lack of access to sanitary products, but the shame and embarrassment associated with freely asking for, talking about, and displaying them that has kept menstruation and its accouterments in the shadows for so long.
Menstrual shame is linked to an abundance of serious human rights issues around the globe. Where period products are not freely available or prohibitively expensive, not far behind can be found a proliferation of misinformation, taboos, and stigma surrounding this most basic of bodily functions, along with a dearth of comprehensive medical information and treatment for period-related disorders and symptoms. As the United Nations Population Fund discovered, such an environment exacts a physical and emotional toll upon already vulnerable populations. “Some studies from Kenya find that schoolgirls engage in transactional sex to pay for menstrual products,” the UNFP noted, while the cost of menstrual products further contributes to “the perception that daughters are economically burdensome,” leading to higher rates of child marriage.
If this sounds like something that only happens Far Far Away, consider the recent midterms elections in the United States. In November of 2018, Nevada became only the tenth state to eliminate the so-called “tampon tax” when voters approved Ballot Question Two, which, when it goes into effect, will allow consumers to buy sanitary products without the state’s 6.85% tax. (If you do the math, which I looked up for you because I am not good at math, here are the staggering results.) And if that sounds great, it is! You go, Nevadan voters! But it is also about damn time, and we have a lot more work to do, since according to PeriodEquity.org, some states don’t tax chapstick, doughnuts (and not just for period cravings), cowboy boots—even, in the great states of Wisconsin and Florida, memberships to gun clubs. To break down this disparity even further, Fusion’s Taryn Hillin explains it like this, “Most states tax all ‘tangible personal property’ but make exemptions for select ‘necessities’ (non-luxury items). Things that are considered necessities usually include groceries, food stamp purchases, medical purchases (prescriptions, prosthetics, some over-the-counter drugs), clothes (in some states), and agriculture supplies.” So, while gun club memberships are considered necessities and therefore not taxed, tampons are considered…an extravagance.
The tampon tax is sometimes called the pink tax, as everything from Bic pens to dandruff shampoo costs up to three times when it’s a smaller product (perfect for your delicate lady hands!) painted a demure shade of pink. But it’s also known as a luxury tax, and that’s where we’re going to get into a fight. As anyone who’s ever bled all over their pants or hunched, groaning, over a hot water bottle can tell you, menstruating is not the luxury 1950s health classes tried to sell us on (if you want a giggle that turns into a groan, check out these wonderfully terrible period ads from decades past). In fact, it’s actually a luxury for retailers and state legislators, who have cashed in on our need to buy sanitary products and the accompanying heating pads, pain medications, and yes, backup underwear and sheets. I refuse to pretend that doesn’t happen, folks. I will also happily tell you that hydrogen peroxide is the best to wash blood out of fabric. I am a fount of period information.
Are you wondering why I’ve made it this far without once mentioning fútbol? Unusual Efforts has talked about periods before, and Abbie Mood said it best when she explained why a website dedicated to soccer ventured into menstruation: it’s about damn time someone talks about it. Athletes get their periods, and the world would be a better place if we acknowledge openly that Megan Rapinoe, Lindsey Horan, and Ada Hegerberg don’t stop, in fact, can’t stop, just because they do.
The fact is, though, that menstruation taboos have rendered an entire segment of the fútbol world both invisible and uncomfortable, as fans were simply expected to deal with stadiums of empty dispensers, or no available menstrual products at all—until, that is, three footie friends got together to change all of that. Mikaela McKinley, Erin Slaven, and Orlaith Duffy. Over email, this trio writes as cohesively as they work, the three of them speaking as one voice. Their answers to interview questions seemingly go from the group as one, and are full of enthusiasm for their work and for each other. Because of that, it came as a surprise to learn that, until relatively recently, they knew of each other only as fellow die-hard Celtic fans, but only met in person when supporting the repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, a bill designed to confront sectarianism in Scottish society and football. Mikaela in particular was involved in the campaign, working with the fan-powered campaign Fans Against Criminalisation, and all three friends eventually took a bus to Scottish Parliament to watch the final debate, where they saw the power of grassroots organizing firsthand. The bill, a threat to free speech, was repealed, five years after it was passed. Fresh off one successful campaign, the trio floated the idea of celebrating their win by jumping headfirst into another. This time, though, they would combat period poverty, and they would begin with their own club.
When Erin brought up Scottish activist Victoria Heaney and the success of her Women for Independence group in bringing the concept of period poverty to the attention of the Scottish Parliament, Orlaith and Mikaela were immediately on board, though aware of a potentially steep learning curve up ahead. “We had all taken a wee bit to do with it here and there but that was as far as our ‘activism’ went.” As the friends sat down to plan their first steps in convincing Celtic to provide free sanitary products at the Park, they realized that, with all of their varied previous experiences, “On The Ball really was our first shot at starting and running a successful, grassroots campaign.”
Though Celtic has a charitable history almost as storied as its footballing history, nothing like what On The Ball was proposing had ever been attempted before, either at Celtic Park nor at any other league club. Yet they remained undeterred. Timing was on their side, as well as their own organizational strategy. Member of Scottish Parliament Gillian Martin had responded to a Women for Independence survey about where and how often women and girls found themselves scrambling for sanitary supplies, saying, “It is clear that access to period products is not simply a women’s issue, but a human rights issue.” Scottish Labour MSP Monica Lennon pressed her fellow legislators to make Scotland “a world-leader in tackling period poverty,” introducing a bill on the floor to make period products free throughout the country. If there was ever a time for Scottish football to jump on the period bandwagon, it was now, and Mikaela, Orlaith, and Erin were going to do everything in their power to make that happen:
We went through our Supporter Liaison Officer at Celtic . . . to ask for a meeting with the Club to discuss our idea further. Due to Celtic being the first team ever to potentially introduce free period products, we also set up a petition to gauge how much support we had amongst the Celtic support to take this to the Club. We got over 3,000 signatures and this gave us more sway in our proposals at Celtic.
Armed with this overwhelming proof of support, the girls— now officially On The Ball—moved forward with their proposal, meeting with Celtic’s Supporter Liaison Officer and General Secretary. Erin recounted that meeting, and the wonder that was:
Three female fans and two male employees from Celtic discussing the taboo subject of periods and the stigma around them in the same conversation as a chat about winning a potential double treble and whether we would beat our biggest rivals, Rangers, in our next game. Exactly what I want discussion around periods to be like— normalised.
Three whirlwind months after launching On The Ball, and just one week after sitting down to talk periods and the Old Firm, Celtic FC agreed to become the first club in the United Kingdom to provide free period products at their stadium.
Other teams soon signed on, and not just, as was On The Ball’s original goal, in the Scottish Premier League. Two weeks after Celtic made their historic decision, League Two’s Tranmere Rovers announced that they would be the first team in England to provide free sanitary products on matchdays at their grounds, Prenton Park. The social media response has been, unsurprisingly, mixed, with the most common objection—primarily from men—being a variant of “if fans can afford tickets, they can afford tampons. (Scrolling through @OnTheBaw as I wrote this article, I came across yet another man-struator.) Orlaith, Mikaela, and Erin are unfazed, at least online, and take the opportunities both to educate and to urge fans to talk to their clubs about joining the initiative. When the Tranmere Rovers Trust announced their team’s decision, Mikaela was right there in the Twitter fray, gently pointing out the error in some people’s arguments: “Not everyone buys their own ticket—young girl at a game with a parent? Freebie? Several reasons. Money aside—when did you last pay for toilet roll or soap? & it’s not a choice—You can have both, free tampons and sanitary pads and a striker!”
As more teams sign on, Celtic’s influence and the work the girls put in on that first campaign can’t be overstated. “We haven’t found that other teams have had to start petitions due to there being other teams like Celtic functioning as examples as how free period products can be implemented successfully.” With the exceptions of Dundee and Hamilton (and really, what are you two waiting for??), On The Ball is working with supporters of all Scottish Premier League clubs. Fifty-six Scottish clubs are now involved, and the English clubs are quickly following their lead, with Brighton & Hove Albion the first club to pledge to provide free menstrual products at the Amex, followed by Huddersfield and West Brom. Erin, Mikaela, and Orlaith have adapted to the outsized success of their campaign with equanimity, humor, and—to my unending delight—a generous sprinkling of the word “wee” in their emails. The three work and study full time, and run On The Ball themselves with no funding, and, in another stigma-smashing moment for women, acknowledged that yes, doing it all is hard, and relying on each other is necessary:
We really just try and do it whenever is possible. We are so fortunate to have three of us involved in this so we can split the work up as and when is needed. We are such close friends too that we are able to understand if one of us is busy or stressed. We have become really good at adapting to changing circumstances.
The girls are adapting, and looking ahead to a time when free and accessible period products will become the norm. “Once this has been conquered, maybe we [will] have an idea of our next mission!” Though for now, “We are just focusing on our current aim of making period products free in football grounds.” If December 7’s announcement by Burnley FC that they, too, will be providing free sanitary products is any indication, they’ll be moving on to that mission sooner rather than later. MSP Monica Lennon, whose bill to provide free menstrual products throughout Scotland is in the consultation stage, recognized the incredible work that Erin, Orlaith, and Mikaela have undertaken. “This is a brilliant victory for the activists who have been campaigning to secure free access to sanitary products,” she said. “Menstruation should never be a barrier for women participating in football or supporting their team.”
If you’re feeling inspired to join Erin, Orlaith, and Mikaela in knocking down those barriers, the trio have some simple advice for those looking to incite change in their own clubs. First of all: welcome. In the same spirit of friendship and collaboration in which they have achieved all of their successes, Erin noted that On The Ball’s approach has been to work with supporters of other teams to instill change at their own clubs. They welcome fans to get in touch with them via their social media accounts or email for information about proposing free period products (ahem, New York Red Bulls, I’ll be contacting you shortly about getting #OnTheBall; I’ve had quite enough of bringing tampons to the stadium in clear plastic backpacks, thanks). Just as importantly, “Just keep talking periods! Raise awareness, put it into public consciousness and help break the stigma.”
As you may have noticed, here at Unusual Efforts, we’re more than happy to assist in the smashing of stigmas.