Music by artists like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga on Friday morning filled the Yale School of Management’s Evans Hall, which hosted PeriodCon 2018, a conference devoted to social issues related to menstruation.
Professors, entrepreneurs and activists called for securing equitable access to menstrual hygiene products at the conference, the SOM’s first-ever conference on menstruation. Sponsored by the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, Tsai CITY, the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Yale School of Management, the conference drew roughly 120 students and community members seeking to learn about common challenges and emerging innovations regarding menstrual hygiene.
Rachel Kauder Nalebuff ’13, the editor of “My Little Red Book” — a collection of over 90 first-period stories — opened the conference with a speech on the power of art in changing the negative stereotypes associated with menstruation. Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, the author of the book “Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity,” delivered the keynote address and Marni Sommer, associate professor for sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, was the afternoon speaker.
The conference concluded with three panels featuring industry leaders and activists including Amanda Skinner NUR ’08, CEO of Planned Parenthood, Southern New England; and Tara Pokras, founder of Period Portraits. Participants in the panels discussed the importance of access to menstrual hygiene products and continued innovation in the industry.
“‘How can women speak if our bodies are silenced?’” Nalebuff asked the audience, quoting Hope Dymond, a youth activist and a senior at New Haven’s Common Ground High School. “Our shame around menstruation is so harmful, even here in liberal America, and one reason it’s so harmful with first periods in particular is that it plants the seeds of silence … and this paves the way for a lifetime of silence.”
This year’s PeriodCon is the first iteration of the event.
In her opening address, Nalebuff recounted the embarrassment of her own first period, which occurred while she was water skiing with her grandfather. Sharing first-period stories can reveal more than a single narrative of the experience, which can help dispel the shame associated with menstruation, Nalebuff said.
Christine Chen SOM ’18, who co-organized the event with Yennie Lee SOM ’18, said the conference was born out of casual but frustrated conversations about menstruation and the lack of a public forum for such discussions. She emphasized that it is important that women from around the world, not just the U.S., have these conversations.
“We learned through our classes about the inequity across the world … where … because of a lack of access to menstrual products, some women around the world aren’t able to go to school or work,” Chen said. “[This] just increases gender inequity.”
Weiss-Wolf also addressed various systems that exacerbate such inequity in her keynote address at the panel on equity and accessibility later in the afternoon.
According to Weiss-Wolf, the American criminal justice system was not created with women in mind.
“The anecdotal experience that has come out is not that [menstrual hygiene] products are neglected from prison budgets,” she said. “It is that there’s no consistent way of distributing them that acknowledges the health and dignity of women incarcerated.”
At the same panel, Marika Klein — a program associate at The Monthly, a program that distributes menstrual hygiene products to those in need — criticized the assumption that women who are poor or incarcerated do not deserve access to a variety of good-quality menstrual hygiene products.
Students and community members interviewed at the event said they enjoyed the conference and found the message relatable and resonant.
Aya Suzuki, an undergrad at MIT who recently co-launched Aam — a medication compliance for birth control pills — told the News she was grateful for PeriodCon because conversations about women’s health are often avoided in public forums.
Joan Foran, a teacher at the Common Ground High School who attended the event with two of her students, said conferences like PeriodCon are important because they ground discussions on femininity in concrete, everyday reality. Periods do not weaken women, and it’s important to desexualize women and see them as full people, Foran said.
Attendees walked away with gift bags with products from Bitch Magazine, Flex, Lunapads, NatraCare, RubyCup and The Keeper.
Serena Cho contributed reporting.
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Correction, April 3: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that this PeriodCon is the second iteration of an event that took in New York last year. In fact, the PeriodCon at Yale is the first of its kind. This version of the article has also been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Marni Sommer’s name. In addition, panelist Kaleigh Heard was not present at the conference.