Period politics in Florida and Idaho
Trigger warning: Reading this might set your hair on fire.
Earlier this month, Florida Republicans introduced and advanced a wave of bills on gender and diversity that, if passed, are likely to be signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). One GOP lawmaker acknowledged that his proposed sexual health bill would ban girls in grades younger than sixth from talking about their menstrual cycles in school.
During a hearing on the bill, Democratic Rep. Ashley Gantt asked, “So if little girls experience their menstrual cycle in fifth grade or fourth grade, will that prohibit conversations from them since they are in the grade lower than sixth grade?”
Rep. Stan McClaire, who chairs the Florida House Education Quality Subcommittee, said, “It would.” The measure was passed by the committee on March 18 on a 13 to 5 vote, mainly along party lines.
Reading that piece of bad news made me think about Judy Blume’s young adult novel, “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” first published in 1970 and in print ever since.
In the novel, Margaret, who is heading into sixth grade in a new city, has regular chats with God about her pre-teen worries, including a fear that she’ll never get her period.
Although there is very little about the biology or mechanics of menstruation in the book, the fact that it is treated not as an icky problem but as a much-anticipated milestone has been revelatory and reassuring to millions of young readers. “Thank God for Judy Bloom,” writes gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunther, the author of “The Vagina Bible” and “The Menopause Manifesto.”
I interviewed Dr. Gunter in the process of writing a book called “Period. End of Sentence.” Menstruation has been a taboo topic for millennia, weighted with shame and cloaked in silence. Blume’s book was the exception, read and shared by young girls for the past 53 years, despite being one of the 100 most-banned books in America for 20 years.
Sales of the book will doubtless get a nice bump after the April release of the movie adaptation, which stars Rachel McAdams and Kathy Bates and lists Blume as a writer and producer.
And I am happy to report the menstrual landscape has changed a lot since 1970. In the past decade, young activists have been challenging period stigma — refusing to put up with the old bad rules. Girl scouts, church groups and college students around the world are shamelessly demanding free period products in all public bathrooms. Just like toilet paper. And they’re making progress despite the efforts of Florida Republicans.
Today’s Margarets — and Maryams and Meenas — want respect and justice. I think a 2023 version of “Are You Still There God?” would be asking different questions.
It might go something like this:
“Are you still there God? It’s me, Margarida.”
My family is moving to Florida because of my dad’s new job, and I am scared. What if I hate my new teachers? What if everyone else in fifth grade hates me?
What if I get my period in gym class and forgot to bring my supplies and get expelled for asking the teacher where I can find a pad because the Florida government is trying to make it so that you can’t talk about periods until sixth grade?
When my mother heard about that rule, she said some very bad swears, and then told me I didn’t have to worry because I have everything I need in the cute little bag she got to keep my period stuff in.
But what if I forget the bag at home? What if another girl asks me about periods? That happened a few times at school so I know for a fact that you can get your period in fourth grade when you’re 10 years old, and not all kids have moms like mine who explain the whole menstruation thing.
One girl in my class used to miss three or four days of school every month because she was having her period and her family couldn’t afford to buy pads. When the school nurse found out, she talked to the girl and her mom and then made sure there were free tampons and pads for anyone who needed them in her office.
If the school nurse in my Florida school does something nice like that, she might get fired.
This seems very unfair and mean to me, God.
My mom says rules like these are outrageous and misogynistic (which means hatred or prejudice against women). She says banning books about women’s health is a crime—or it should be.
My mom told me she read the Judy Blume book when she was 12, and it was the first time she heard about menstruation. I think it might even be where she got the idea for my name, which is cool, because in the book Margaret is cool — eventually.
I’m glad there’s going to be a movie of “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” because kids will have more chances to hear the word “menstruation” and see that it isn’t a swear or even a secret. Why do people treat periods like a secret when half of the human beings on the earth get them?
Maybe those Florida Republicans should go see the movie. They might learn something.
LATE BREAKING NEWS: In Idaho, a bill to provide free period products in schools was killed because doing would be “Woke” and “Liberal”
First published in WBUR’s online magazine of ideas and opinion Cognoscenti
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