Photo via Karolina Grabowska.

HB155, HB156, HB310 and HB641 – all bills that will aid in helping access to period products – passed in late 2021 in the general assembly. HB155, the bill that would allow SNAP and WIC recipients to purchase menstrual products with their benefits is still encountering a few issues, including setting up waivers that must be approved by the House and Senate members.

HB156 states that menstrual products must be available for free in all restrooms, not only girl’s or women’s restrooms in Illinois public schools through grades four to twelve. It is up to the schools to find funding within their budget for the products.

Similarly, HB641 makes it so menstrual products are available in all bathrooms at public colleges and universities in Illinois for free. There was an important change amended to the phrasing, switching from “feminine products” to “menstrual products” to de-gender the products.

HB310 created the Menstrual Products for the Homeless Act, ensuring that products such as pads, tampons and panty liners are at homeless shelters in the state at no cost.

Although each bill is a step in the right direction, advocates are worried about implementation, specifically HB156, and the differences for schools on Chicago’s north side compared to the south and west sides. The north side usually has more funding, privilege, and accessibility to products whereas the south and west sides may want to follow through with the legislation, but struggle to purchase it.

Activists React to the Bills 

“I think the bills are nice in theory, but that’s not always how it is on the ground in these schools,” said Chez Smith, the founder of Gyrls in the H.O.O.D, an organization that provides resources to low-income women on the South Side. “I don’t have much hope that it will actually translate into supplies. I hate to be cynical, but I don’t think it will happen in a meaningful way. They need to make sure students are also educated and there are extra uniforms and underwear.”

A similar bill to HB156 was passed in 2018 but began in sixth grade and was only for women’s and girl’s restrooms. The products were placed in the nurse’s office, if placed at all, and in larger schools that commute can be unbearable while bleeding. The other big issue with the previous bill was that there was no execution.

Ashley Novoa, the founder of the Chicago Period Project agrees, saying that getting schools to stick with refilling their stock of products is sometimes the hardest part. One box may be given and when it runs out, it’s gone. Students are back to using rolled-up toilet paper or free bleeding if they don’t have access to products.

“It’s great that they are being passed but unfortunately, a lot of it just becomes words on paper and there is no action behind them,” she said.

Representatives Explain Personal Connections to the Legislation 

Illinois Rep. Barbara Hernandez of the 83rd district and Rep. Katie Stuart of 112th district, the leads on bills HB156 and HB641, are hopeful for true change this time around.

Rep. Hernandez shared that it was important to make sure products were in every restroom, rather than just women’s and girl’s to be inclusive to everyone experiencing periods and what restrooms they decide to use.

Rep. Hernandez worked closely with Rep. Stuart as their bills focus on education from fourth grade through college and as they both noted, period poverty is not designated to a certain age.

“The same issues of K-12 go through higher education too,” Rep. Hernandez said. “Sometimes they have to make sacrifices and that sacrifice might be menstrual products.”

Because the schools must find money in their budget, there was a sense of hesitation at first from other house members, but items such as paper towels, napkins and toilet paper are not treated the same way. When some brought up the increased budget for menstrual products, that was Rep. Hernandez’ and Rep. Stuart’s response – where was the concern for other necessary products?

Before she was a representative, Rep. Stuart was a math teacher in middle school, high school and college. She watched first-hand what menstruators went through and noted regardless of the age, the shame and access issues persisted.

While teaching Rep. Stuart would keep a designated drawer in her classroom filled with pads and tampons. Her students, and even students she didn’t have, knew they could come into her classroom with no questions asked and get a menstrual product.

Of course, Rep. Stuart purchased these products herself, but she wanted to ensure that menstruators in her space felt empowered through the stigma.

“It’s time we all get comfortable talking about periods and menstruation, it’s always something we whisper about and hide,” she said. “There is nothing shameful, dirty or wrong about having a period so let’s just start talking about them in public spaces.”

Hopeful For Change 

Rep. Stuart’s dream is for menstrual products to be available for free in every public restroom. State parks, rest stops and more – she wants the familiar weaved basket in the corner plum full of tampons and pads – welcoming in guests and reminding them that periods aren’t shameful.

“No matter your gender, you’ll get used to seeing menstrual products just like you do toilet paper, and you won’t even think twice about it,” Rep. Stuart said. “The products are a visual cue that it’s just a normal part of our lives.”

As activists predicted, the implementation of HB156 did not go as planned. Five months into the school year, students and teachers shared feedback that menstrual products were still not in CPS bathrooms and schools were not following the legislation protocol, so Rep. Hernandez amended HB156 with HB4178

The amendment clarifies the need that menstrual products must be in every single bathroom and employees or third-party contractors in charge of toilet tissue and paper towels will also be responsible for the replenishment of menstrual products; it went into effect on October 19. If you are someone you know is experiencing period poverty, contact the Chicago Period Project, the Period Collective or Gyrls in the H.O.O.D to find out how to receive free products.

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Sam Stroozas is a writer and the calendar editor for Rebellious Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @samstroozas.