Episode 033: Menstrual Justice & Shattering The Stigma with Anita Diamant
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Anita Diamant is a New York Times best-selling novelist, journalist and the author of multiple books on menstrual equity – including Period. End of Sentence., based on the Oscar-winning documentary of the same name.
In this episode, Anita shares wisdom and stories from her acclaimed books on menstrual equity; dives into her personal journey as a menstrual health author and advocate; unpacks the connection between power, period shame and gender equity; and leaves us with hopeful words about the future of the menstrual movement. Tune in below!
- What inspired Anita to join the fight for menstrual justice
- The story behind Anita’s partnership with The Pad Project when writing her most recent book, Period. End of Sentence.
- All about Anita’s first menstruation-themed book, The Red Tent, and the movement it inspired
- The relationship between “period talk” and gendered power dynamics
- The prevalence of menstrual stigma and its role in driving gender inequity throughout generations
- Unique challenges faced by incarcerated menstruators
- Why Anita believes today’s young people have the power, passion and resolve to finally change the menstrual equity paradigm
Facebook: Author Anita Diamant
Anita Diamant is the author of thirteen books. Period. End of Sentence, is her most recent. Her first novel, New York Times bestseller, The Red Tent, has been published in more than 25 countries, won the 2001 Booksense Book of the Year Award and was adapted into a two-part miniseries by Lifetime TV.
Anita’s other bestselling novels include The Boston Girl, Day after Night, The Last Days of Dogtown, and Good Harbor. She has written six non-fiction guides to contemporary Jewish life: The Jewish Wedding Now, The Jewish Baby Book, Living a Jewish Life, Choosing a Jewish Life, How to Raise a Jewish Child, and Saying Kaddish. Anita’s book, Pitching My Tent, is drawn from twenty years-worth of newspaper and magazine columns. As an award-winning journalist, her articles and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, Real Simple, Parenting, Hadassah, Reform Judaism, Boston Magazine and Yankee Magazine.
Anita is the founding president of Mayyim Hayyim: Living Waters Community Mikveh, a 21st century reinvention of the ritual bath as a place for exploring ancient traditions and enriching contemporary Jewish life. She grew up in Newark, New Jersey and Denver, Colorado, and graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in comparative literature. She also holds a master’s degree in English from Binghamton University.
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Jessica Williams 0:02
Welcome to the Days for Girls Podcast, a show about breaking barriers for women and girls around the world. I'm your host, Jessica Williams, Chief Communications Officer at Days for Girls International. At Days for Girls, we believe in a world where periods are never a problem. We are on a mission to shatter the stigma and limitations associated with menstruation by increasing access to sustainable period products and menstrual health education for all people with periods.
Today's episode is with Anita Diamant. Anita is the author of thirteen books. Period. End of Sentence. is her most recent, inspired by the Oscar-winning documentary produced by Melissa Burton – who, by the way, was also recently interviewed on the Days for Girls Podcast in Episode 28. In the book Period. End of Sentence. she mentioned Days for Girls and features a quote from our CEO and founder Celeste Mergens. Anita's first novel, a New York Times bestseller is called The Red Tent, and has been published in more than 25 countries around the world. It is the winner of the 2001 Booksense Book of the Year Award, and was adapted into a two-part miniseries by Lifetime TV. Anita's other bestselling novels include the Boston Girl, Day After Night, The Last Days of Dogtown and Good Harbor. I am so excited to share this conversation with you! Period. End of Sentence. offers a wonderful comprehensive overview of the issue of period poverty, and how we go about ending it for every girl, everywhere. Now, let's go on to the show.
You have this great quote I love so I thought I would share it with everyone and use that as a jumping off point to talk about what inspired you to join the fight for menstrual equity. And you say in the very beginning of the chapter “if the famous arc of justice is moving to abolish all obstacles that keep human beings from the pursuit of happiness, then menstrual justice has to be part of that great and worthy goal, for everyone and everybody.” So that just gives me chills. It's fantastic. So for you, what inspired you to join the fight for menstrual justice?
Anita Diamant 2:17
Well, first, let's give credit to that quote about the arc of justice, it's much quoted by of Dr. Martin Luther King, although I think he got it from somewhere else too. So. But it's a wonderful, wonderful image. I have written about women's health, women's bodies, women's lives, have centered women in the middle of everything that I've written pretty much through my career, in journalism, and in fiction, and even in some of the nonfiction books I've written. And so I had written, I think I put in like an op-ed about menstrual justice, in the fall of, you know, years just mushed together. And it was responding to stories about women being sequestered in rural Nepal, and dying out in sheds and huts because it was cold and animals attack them. And the reason they were out there was their families believed that sleeping under the same roof as menstruating women would be a source of illness and perhaps even death for people in their own homes. So that was kind of shocking. It was on the front page of the New York Times, three stories within the course of one year. And at the same time, I read a story locally about a high school student who had written an op-ed in her high school newspaper, demanding that there be period products in all of the bathrooms in her high school. And that op-ed [inaudible] of a local city council member who brought it before the city council. And Brookline became, I believe the first municipality to mandate menstrual products in all municipal bathrooms. So these two poles of terrible loss and, and shame and loss of life. And on the other end, a young woman, a very young woman, voicing her passionate belief that women should be treated like human beings. And that shifted things for a whole community. So those two things made me think about menstrual justice. Then I watched the Academy Awards in 2019 and saw the Period. End Of Sentence. crew win for Best Documentary short and I was so inspired, I got up off the couch and applauded and the next day I watched the film Period. End Of Sentence. which was created by The Pad Project. And I thought it was fabulous. And then a week later or so I got a phone call from my agent asking, would I be interested in talking to The Pad Project about a book that would be inspired and connected to their film? And so here I am, a couple of years later, having learned so much about menstrual injustice and the battle for menstrual justice, and documented it in a way that I hope will reach a really broad audience of people, to make them aware of this issue and enroll them in the fight for menstrual justice.
Jessica Williams 5:27
Well, your book does a fantastic job at that it is, you know, it's not a thick book. For those listening, it's I felt like a super easy read, it gives you a really broad overview of the issues and I've just got to say, I remember that moment when Period. End Of Sentence. won. I was also watching that on my couch and and how cool that was.
Anita Diamant 5:54
And you know, the director held it up and said I can't believe a movie about menstruation just won an Oscar. And the backstory is that they didn't think they were… they had heard the the group that made the movie – and The Pad Project is located in Los Angeles – and with connections to the movie industry. And there was, you know, a [inaudible] that the guys, still largely a white male and senior Academy of people, would never in a million years vote for this movie. And yet, a miracle happened, and it did win. And it gave it a huge platform. And people all around the world watched it. And a lot of people had never thought about this before and boom. And that's the power of media.
Jessica Williams 6:38
It really is amazing. Yeah. So Melissa Burton is coming on the Days for Girls Podcast in a few weeks. And I'm curious, why? Why they reached out to you. You said you've been writing a bit about it. But can you unpack that a little bit more?
Anita Diamant 6:52
Well, the reason they reached out to me is because of the red temps, really, which is the first novel I wrote, which was published in 1997, which tells the story – a small story that barely registers in the book of Genesis – about a character named Deena. And in trying to imagine that world, a very different kind of world, I imagined that women gathered together during their menstrual cycle, in what I call the Red Tent, and took care of one another. It's where women also gave birth and nursed the sick, and it was a place not of banishment or sequestration, but of celebration and healing and of community among the women. I made that up. I thought that was an invention. Because based on one sentence in somewhere, it's not in Genesis, no – I think it's later that women, after giving birth to a son, were set apart from the community for 30 days. And women, when they gave birth to a daughter were set apart for 60 days. And I heard a lecture once and the lecture said, perhaps the reason women were separated for 60 days when they gave birth to a daughter was not as punishment, but to honor the fact they had just given birth to another birth-giver. And that kind of made me think about biblical stories in a whole different way, to think about it not from the given lenses through which we see things, but to imagine what that world would have been like if indeed, giving birth to a birth-giver was a source of pride, honor, and respect. So that's where all of that came from. The Red Tent was very successful. It continues to sell – it's a bestseller. And that story of women's empowerment in a world that I imagined, as I imagined it was something that became a bit of a…I guess we call it a meme now. There are groups called the Red Tent, there are book groups called the Red Tent, there are businesses called the Red Tent, there's actually kind of a Red Tent movement. And the title is about women gathering to support one another and to strengthen one another. I don't think it has as much to do with menstruation. But in the book, the menstrual tent is the Red Tent.
Jessica Williams 9:25
Hmm yeah. I also found something really interesting…and I'm just making this connection. You know, I did some research about your book, The Boston Girl, which came out before the Red Tent. Is that right?
No, no. It was '97.. The Boston Girl is my most recent book, it was published in 2000. And I don't remember but a while ago, but no, that's my most recent novel. The Red Tent was the first novel.
Okay, awesome. Well, you know, the Boston Girls is about a woman named Addy who joins the Rockport Law Lodge, which is a vacation spot for poor and immigrant girls, and they get the opportunity when they go there to do things that are out of the norm, like new opportunities, new experiences. And she is – this is written during the flu epidemic and World War One and the depression, you know, of that era. And I just found it really interesting that, you know, when you were writing the book Period. End of Sentence. you were literally living through a pandemic yourself. And I was like, isn't that funny that you wrote that? I don't know, I was just curious, like, did you ever imagine that you would someday be like, somehow kind of living this parallel thing happening?
Anita Diamant 10:40
None of us imagined this, but no. What I learned about the flu epidemic of 1918 sort of echoed through my mind and my experience as I lived through this, as we've lived through this pandemic. So the same kind of people ignoring the warning signs. And of course, the incredible amount of deaths, mostly of young people, the flu epidemics in 1918 killed the young in overwhelming numbers, which was very different. But then nobody spoke about it, it became kind of this unspoken trauma for generations.
Jessica Williams 11:22
Hmm. Interesting. So you really like, you go through the book, I mean, you cover everything from menstrual health for the disabled, people of color, you talk about policy and business and stigma and period products. And I mean, you really, really do a great job of doing this comprehensive overview. You even talk about climate change and the effects of disposable products on Mother Earth. And by the end, what I really loved is you kind of focused on how this research has changed you. And you say – and I'm going to quote you here – you say, in fact, every public conversation about periods, whether it's menstrual leave, stigma or access to period products, is really a conversation about power. And I thought we could go into that a little bit. Can you kind of unveil what you mean by that?
Anita Diamant 12:23
Well, I think it goes back for me to the word “curse,” that periods have been called, for a very long time. “The curse,” not a curse. Everyone knows curse. There are all kinds of curses. But “the curse” is menstruation. And that means, implicitly that those who menstruate are cursed, which means they're dangerous. There's something wrong with them, they are less than those who don't have this curse. And that is reflected in the way that menstrautors, women in particular, have been relatively powerless in most civilizations, and that they have less power, we have less power than men. And that has been the order of things. So when you talk about menstruation openly without shame, you turn and you make fun of this idea that it's a curse. Also, I think humor is very powerful. You start to dismantle in a very subtle way, but in also kind of a very concrete way. I mean, we're talking about walking around with our tampons, without hiding, we are talking about undermining the idea that this is a curse, and that we are cursed, that we are less than, and that there is no reason for us to have less power because of the way our bodies are created. So that's that's my view of how its discussion about power. Because you're really talking about, well, I believe in using the word “menstruator.” I think menstruation is gendered, can't get away from that. And women have been treated as less than, have been treated as children, have been treated as chattel, through through most of history, although not in every single civilization and culture, which I was delighted to find out about.
Jessica Williams 14:13
I remember when I first came to Days for Girls, this was all new to me. And I was almost 40 years old when I came on board, and I've been working for five years doing you know, live events and trainings and and coaching women in business and leadership and really considering myself a feminist. And this concept of menstrual inequity, menstrual shame and stigma, I didn't realize I think back then that it was – that it really does at times seems like it was at the root of inequality or gender inequality. And I'm curious what you think about that, how you feel about it?
Anita Diamant 14:55
Oh, absolutely. I am. And when I started writing a book and people said, are you working on something new? And when it was a man asking me this, I would sort of hem and haw and say, well, I'm not sure you wanna hear about this, but I'm writing that book about menstruation. And I realized I was kinda like shuffling my feet and being embarrassed. And I stopped doing that. And there have been a lot of moments like when you hit your forehead, and you go, “of course!” working on this book. And I think that for a lot of people, that moment is when you say, there should be period products the way there is toilet paper in every bathroom in public. And people go – women of all ages go – of course, why didn't I think that? Why? Isn't that obvious? Why wasn't it obvious to me throughout my life? And I think that speaks to the way we've just been called, acculturated to believe that we need to hide this, that it is in some way, although maybe we wouldn't use the word, shameful. But it's embarrassing. It's unclean. There are beliefs about you smell when you have your period, some people I know have heard from their great grandmothers or their grandmothers, that if you take a shower while you're having your period, you'll never have a baby. I just heard that the other day from a friend of mine, her her grandmother told her that was true. But she was told that all of this stuff is way way down in our subconscious, I think. But it's been brought up to the surface. And the thing is, this has happened before in the '70s, there was a book about menstruation sort of groundbreaking, and they said, oh, you know, now we've broken the silence and things are gonna change. And that was in 1974. But things are really changing now. They are really changing now, don't you think?
Jessica Williams 16:46
Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, I was just talking to some legislators in Washington State and California. And, I mean, they're making period products free in all public school systems. And I think that's a step in the right direction. You know, obviously, I wish things would change more quickly.
Anita Diamant 17:09
And of course, we know, products are just part of this. But products are a way to get into this deeper conversation as well. You need to – girls need to have products in the bathrooms at school. I mean…people think, well, they miss school, but you know, if you don't have enough, and you're in class, how can you concentrate? Right? It undermines your confidence, it undermines your concentration. So it's a very insidious, and sometimes very subtle problem. In other cases, it's not subtle at all. It's in fact, life threatening. But for us in the United States, I think we need to recognize how pervasive and unfair it is.
Jessica Williams 17:54
Absolutely. So, you know, one of the areas that you touch on is how bad it is for incarcerated women in prisons. And I even personally don't think I realized what they go through to get access to period [products]. So since I don't think this gets enough attention, I was hoping maybe you could just tell us more about what you learned about that. And what you write about in your book.
Anita Diamant 18:18
It's really shocking. And there are, thanks to the work of women who have been incarcerated who have written about this, and brought lawsuits against the parties that are responsible. Women in prison, in many instances have been denied period products, or given almost next to nothing like to pads for a month or more than that. In one case, there were two women in a cell and they were getting 20 pads between the two of them for a month. And we're not talking about the pads you buy in the supermarket, we're talking about really thin garbage. They are sold in the commissaries at prices that are way inflated, that are… if you're incarcerated, it's quite likely you can't afford that. And you have to make the choice between calling home or buying a period product. And if you bleed through your clothes in some places, you get demerits. You get punished, because you don't have a way to take care of yourself. And then you soil your uniform, and then you're in more trouble. And in some really horrible cases – and I'm afraid it's not all that rare – prison guards have used period products as a way of of forcing women to perform sex acts in exchange for what they needed to maintain their periods. And it sounds unbelievably grotesque, but it's not uncommon, hasn't been uncommon.
And one of the saddest things I learned was that passing laws from on high, there's like a federal law that mandates period products in federal prisons…but mandating it that they should be made available doesn't mean that it's interpreted as “there should be free products in prisons and women should have free access to them.” There's still a lot of, there are a lot of places where that law set sits on the books, but it is not enacted in a way that actually allows women their dignity. So it's a really, it's a real nightmare situation for people and for homeless people who are menstruating. And, you know, there was that – and this is in the book too – that awful situation at the border, when so many young people were put in cages. And there was a story about a young girl who had bled through her clothes, and had to sit in it for a very long time before she was allowed to have a change of clothing, be allowed to take a shower. And I think that hits such a nerve that I feel like I read the story over and over again, by women reporters who immediately understood what an outrage that was, and how having…haven't all of us had some moment of panic? And of not being able to take care of ourselves. Not because it should be such a big deal – it happens. But in the culture we live in, it is like one of the worst things that can happen to you, especially if you're a teenager, right? So it's all woven together in a in a kind of nasty web that is being slowly picked apart. Thanks to the efforts of Days for Girls and others, The Pad Project, and especially by young women, young adults. And I'm talking junior high school students, as well as high school students and college students who just are not going to take it. And I'm so inspired by them. I really am.
Jessica Williams 21:46
Yeah, I do love that. It's a very hopeful message in your book, because, you know, you do talk a lot about the younger generation and how they're just…yeah, they're just not going to stand for this. And in some ways they feel emboldened not to have that shame or stigma and talk more freely about it.
Anita Diamant 22:06
It's wonderful. And I don't know exactly why. My hunch is that they have grown up in a world where not only their older sisters and their mothers, but their grandmothers are feminists on some level. And so they've grown up listening to the news, and they've grown up listening to me, too. I just read a piece by a 13 year old girl, talking about how she understood things that happened to her in her grade school as “me too” moments. This is a 13 year old with that kind of analysis. So that doesn't come from thin air, it is in the atmosphere. And it has been absorbed by a great many young women of all backgrounds, of all races, of all classes out there – set stories like this in South Africa, all over India, in Nepal, in Ireland, Scotland, there are examples of this around the world.
Jessica Williams 22:59
Yeah, well, I have to thank you for for writing Period. End of Sentence. the book because it really does a great job of looking at the issue. And I'm certainly going to recommend it to everybody, because you know, who wants to know more about menstrual equity and period poverty and all of those things? If people want to get a hold of the book? Where can they find it?
Anita Diamant 23:24
Everywhere. It's in bookstores, if you can support an independent bookstore, we always would love for you to buy it from an independent bookstore. But it's available, of course, online. It's available – it's an audio book. And you can download it. So there are lots of ways to to read it. And it's, you know, it is a quick read, it's really intended to introduce the whole range of issues, as you said some nicely, that fall under the category of menstrual injustice, and the fight for menstrual justice, which is happening all over the world all the time.
Jessica Williams 24:00
And if people want to connect with you personally, where can they go?
Anita Diamant 24:04
The website, of course, anitaDiamant.com. And you know, we're no longer in a time when there's a lot of book events. But I've been talking to people a lot and I'm not coming to a bookstore near you anytime soon, thanks to the pandemic. But there are online interviews and other kinds of events that have been recorded. So you can watch that if you'd like to, but anitaDiamant.com and Twitter and Author Anita Diamant Facebook, right.
Jessica Williams 24:37
That's awesome. We'll put the links in the show notes for everyone to find. Anita, thank you so much for coming on the show, really great to talk to you.
Anita Diamant 24:45
Oh, delighted! And again, I got to talk to Ms. Mergens when I was doing the book and she was an incredibly generous interview and she was very helpful and inspiring too. Days for Girls is inspiring, and the way it's grown and changed over time is one of the things I respect so much about it.
Jessica Williams 25:07
The Days for Girls Podcast is produced by Days for Girls International. For show notes and resources mentioned in this episode, visit daysforgirls.org/podcast. If you'd like to support the work we do on the show, leave a rating or a review wherever you listen, subscribe to the show, and share our episodes on social media or with your friends. To learn more about Days for Girls and to join our global movement, please visit daysforgirls.org. Thank you for listening. See you next time.