Frustrated by broken or empty sanitary-napkin machines in girls’ bathrooms at school, an eighth-grader from Mercer Island started a petition and went to the administration seeking change.
This is a column about females and their bodies and their bodies’ needs. It’s also about schools and bathrooms. And tampons. Lots and lots of tampons.
It may be too much for those who get squeamish when it comes to women and their periods. So I understand if you want to step out to write a mean, angry note to me about, oh, I don’t know, feminism.
But it wasn’t too much for Cordelia Longo, an eighth-grader at Islander Middle School on Mercer Island who recently found herself in school, in need of feminine protection — and out of luck.
The building she was in had no sanitary napkin/tampon machine in it. So she walked to another building, found a bathroom with a machine, put in a dime — and got nothing. She went to another building, found a machine, inserted a dime and again — nothing.
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“I just felt scared because I was embarrassed,” she told me. “But I shouldn’t have been, because it’s just what happens.”
“Then I was mad,” Longo continued. “It shouldn’t be that I was caught without pads. The principals talk so much about diversity and how it’s a good thing to appreciate everyone’s differences, but they don’t think of the difference between boys and girls.”
Friends told Longo similar stories of walking through school, cramped and anxious and finding machines that were empty or broken.
Middle school is also when some girls get their periods for the first time and are caught completely unaware. And few carry the coins needed for the machines, if they’re even working.
So Longo, 14, circulated a petition that about 100 students — boys and girls — signed. She attached it to a letter to school administrators, asking questions that women have been asking since the first Kotex vending machine went up in the 1920s. (There are three hanging in the Smithsonian; not sure if they still work.)
“Why are tissues and toilet paper provided free at school, but not sanitary pads and tampons?” Longo wrote. “As toilet paper and tissue are used for normal bodily functions, sanitary pads and tampons are also necessary to address normal bodily functions …
“Girls do not choose to have periods. So girls are being penalized and made to pay for a bodily function they cannot control.”
Longo — who took a class called Social Justice last fall — noted in her letter that New York City’s public schools are required by law to provide sanitary products to students. And she said that if money was a problem, perhaps boys and girls could be required to bring a box of tampons or sanitary pads on the first day of school — as they do now with boxes of tissues.
Initially, school administrators said they would have to meet on the issue, which incensed Longo’s mother, Jen.
“If the restrooms ran out of toilet paper, they would simply restock,” she seethed. “They wouldn’t say they were going to have a meeting about it and leave the kids to forage for leaves to wipe themselves.
“This whole thing is so sexist.”
To be fair, the school keeps a “huge stockpile” of feminine products in the health room and the P.E. locker rooms, according to Islander Co-Principal Mary Jo Budzius, but since it’s not something that gets into the morning announcements, many students are unaware.
Within a week of Longo’s letter, Budzius had the school’s director of maintenance, Tony Kuhn (“He only has boys, but he’s awesome”), call the manufacturer for the parts to disable the coin operation in all the school’s machines.
“As a woman, I never really considered it,” Budzius told me. “It is what has always been. It’s so great for a 14-year-old girl to say, ‘This is wrong and we should not pay for this.’ I’d love to take credit.”
Then maybe she could explain the broken and empty machines?
“The school is 50 years old,” Budzius said. “And probably the machines were broken and I’m sure it never crossed the custodians’ minds that they weren’t working.” (My guess is that the girls felt awkward bringing it to their attention.)
Mercer Island High School is going to follow suit and disable its machines, Budzius said.
Jen Longo is understandably proud. Her daughter’s embarrassment and anger have provided a lesson for everyone about equality.
“Boys should be cool with it, girls should be cool with it,” she said. “And the more that it’s normalized, the more girls are treated like humans, the better it will be for everyone.
“If boys are taught there is nothing wrong with women’s bodies, they won’t grow up to legislate against them.”