Two undergraduates, Alice Yan ’21 and Alexandria Wynn ’22, are leading what they call a “Tampon Crusade” — an effort to bring free menstrual hygiene products to lab buildings on Science Hill.

The two students are leading the “crusade” as part of their coursework in their “Being Human in STEM” class. According to the course description, the class aims to “examine, understand, and disseminate how diversity of gender, race, religion, sexuality, economic circumstances, etc. shape the STEM experience at Yale and nationally” and to tackle those issues through project-based collaboration.

Thus far, Yan and Wynn have reached out to the Physics, Geology & Geophysics and Chemistry departments, and they plan to reach out to department heads for Molecular Biology & Biophysics, Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology in the near future. The Physics and Geology & Geophysics departments have already started supplying the products in the bathrooms of their lab buildings.

“There are two parts to why we’re doing this: One is to increase ambient belonging among women in these lab buildings, to let them know ‘you belong; people are thinking about you; your presence is expected,’” Wynn said. “Also because [of] practicality — you’re in a four-hour lab; you don’t have time to go back to a residential college to get menstrual products if you need them.”

According to the course instructor Helen Caines, each student in the course chose a group project to work on throughout the semester that tackles an issue for STEM students at Yale. Other groups in the class are working on initiatives to allow professors to view course grades by demographics on Canvas, to add questions about diversity to end-of-semester course evaluations and to formalize a mentoring program for underrepresented minorities in STEM.

Yan said that she and Wynn first reached out to the Yale College Council to learn more about how it could afford to supply those products — the YCC introduced free disposable menstrual products in all 14 residential colleges this February. Since the YCC relied on corporate sponsorships to provide a substantial number of the products, Yan said they “knew that wasn’t a route we could go down.” Instead, the pair decided to reach out to the people in charge of science departments’ budgets, such as department chairs and departmental directors of finance.

While Yan said that both she and Wynn expected resistance given that department heads tend to be males with “no personal interest in the issue,” Yan and Wynn emphasized that the faculty and administrators they have worked with so far have been very receptive to their ideas.

“Alice and Alex met with me and my business manager; we said ‘great idea,’ and we had the baskets with the free products in the women’s rooms soon after,” Geology & Geophysics department chair David Bercovici said. “I’ve gotten some nice feedback from our residents about it since then.”

Bercovici added that the products have been getting “plenty” of usage — the menstrual supplies needed to be replenished only “a few weeks” after the department began to offer them.

Physics professor Sarah Demers, who is one of four guest professors for the course and pitched the “Tampon Crusade” project idea, said that she has been aware of this issue since she herself was a graduate student at the University of Rochester in the early 2000s. During her time there, she noticed that female undergraduates who got their periods while working in the lab buildings often struggled to find menstrual supplies on campus after 6 p.m. when stores closed.

Demers said that when she came to Yale in 2009, she worked with the Physics department to begin supplying menstrual products in the bathrooms of Sloane Physics Laboratory. Given improved dialogue around menstruation and the YCC’s February initiative, Demers felt that this semester was a good time to propose expanding the crusade beyond the Physics department and “see[ing] how much further [it] could go.”

“It answers a real need,” Demers said. “If you walk into a bathroom, and you see a little box or a little basket that has pads and tampons in it, it gives you a sense that you’re expected to be there … Little signals like that can make a big difference, and in science we need all the help we can get to try [help] people … feel like they can belong.”

Though the Physics department started supplying free menstrual products in some of its lab bathrooms before the students began their project, department chair Paul Tipton said that the department “applauds the work of the ‘Being Human in Stem’ course members” and is “quite pleased to have class participants working toward making all Yale students welcome in all science classes.”

Chemistry department chair Kurt Zilm told the News that he asked Chemistry department Director of Finance and Administration Erin McAvoy to work with the student group on the issue. McAvoy was not available for comment.

Zilm also said that he reached out to Deputy Provost for Health Affairs and Academic Integrity Stephanie Spangler to “address this as an institutional issue.” Wynn and Yan added that they hope to see the issue addressed institutionally rather than it being a financial responsibility for individual departments. In an email on Tuesday, Spangler wrote that she had heard about the issue “only very recently” but will look further into it.

“I look forward to hearing more from the students who have raised it and to engaging the appropriate university offices and individuals in a further exploration,” Spangler said.

The 14 residential colleges offer free tampons, pads, liners and menstrual discs.

Asha Prihar |

Asha Prihar served as managing editor of the News during the 2019-20 academic year. Before that, she covered community service, Yale's professional schools and undergraduate student life as a staff reporter. She is a senior in Silliman College studying political science.