So, my college years were in the early 90s, the age of AIDS awareness for GenXers, when we knew we were vulnerable, we could no longer deny our own susceptibility to the virus, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, race, etc. Condoms were being freely distributed in a lot of places - outside student health services on my campus, and popularly in men's bathrooms. Oh sure, sometimes you had to pay as much as 25 cents in a vending machine (far below retail), but more often than not, they were just there, in a basket, or there was some activist with strings of them wrapped around his body, ammunition on a guerilla soldier in the war against AIDS.
It was in this time that it occurred to me to ask, why is it that women have to pay for tampons or pads in our bathrooms? Why can't they be free, if condoms are free? Not all college students were having sex, but practically all college women were menstruating, from time to time. A friend of mine who had transferred to Womyn's College (that feminist utopia - heh) told us that they were free on her campus. (I don't believe this was ever true, judging from the age of the tampon vending machines at Womyn's, but it was a grand myth for us at Patriarchal University in any case, and perceptions are real in their consequences). How we (ok, maybe it was just me) longed for free pads and tampons - wouldn't that be the true mark of women's arrival?
Fast forward to now. I'm at a meeting at the Esteemed Engineering Society, my second meeting there in as many weeks. At the last meeting, there were flashbacks to the McCarthy era, but that's a story for another time. I had been staring at the wall of past Chairmen (yes, chairMEN), and they were all pale and male. The last, most recent one had his picture taken without a tie, against a bright yellow background to signal his break with tradition, and this did not pass without comment. I thought, well maybe 50 years from now, people will look at this wall and pinpoint that moment as when things started to change.... then I had to pee.
Now I don't know how I missed this two weeks ago, so maybe it's a new thing, there I am at the sink and to my left in a basket, is an array of pads and tampons, free for the taking. Now, sure, they are the kind with the huge cardboard applicator and the kind that's thick as a mattress, in a cardboard box, but they are free. Now, some cynics may think they can afford to do this because of the dearth of women present, but in fact this bathroom gets plenty of use - support staff from administrative to security are there every day, along with a few women in leadership positions and of course the rare female member or visiting academic like myself drops in occasionally.
Maybe the vending machine was broken, perhaps likely since the products offered were that type, and I really don't think it was there two weeks ago - but still, a brief moment of liberation for (menstruating) women in engineering. Free tampons at the Esteemed Engineering Society! Can a framed female on the wall be far behind?