Emily Bell McCormick: What I learned when I went to advocate for period products in Idaho

Sometimes 35 people say yes to you. And sometimes 35 people say no to you. And there is still work to do.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Heidi maxfield and her daughter Ivy, 10, show their support during a rally sponsored by The Period Project to urge Utah legislators to provide free menstrual products in the bathrooms of every public school in Utah, Nov. 17, 2021 at the Capitol.

On Friday, I conned my 8-year-old daughter and my aunt into a 12-hour round-trip road-trip to Iona, Idaho — just outside of Idaho Falls — to speak to a room full of pink: organizers, legislators, community champions and supporters.

Idaho House Bill 313, similar to Utah’s 2022 unanimously-supported House Bill 162, would put period products in all Idaho schools. It did not pass this year.

The vote — 34 yes. 34 no.

One vote from done.

I spent the last year exchanging voice messages with Idaho’s leader as she navigated the Legislature. She’d ask, “What do you say when they say it’s inappropriate?” or, “How do you respond when they say it’s not a problem?”

We worked through them.

And incredible progress was made. But watching the legislative debate on HB313, was tough.

The man sponsoring the bill, Rep. Rod Furniss (R), wisely explained that there are three “bathroom Ps — pee, poo, and periods.” We provide for the first two, but not the third.

Afterwards, several female legislators commented. One said the fourth “P” would be “patronizing” because girls can take care of themselves. Another added that putting period products in bathrooms would contribute to the destruction of families (I’m still trying to figure that one out).

The misinterpretation of the initiative made me all the more thrilled to pull into the Iona Community Center — a converted LDS chapel that is half event center, half public library.

A stream of pink was already pouring from the doors.

The personal effort encapsulated in the event was palpable — a pan of the most gorgeous homemade cinnamon rolls for auction alongside trips to Island Park. Women carrying hot dishes of chicken Parmesan from the basement kitchen up to the tables, to set alongside doughy, still-warm rolls and golden pre-wrapped butter slabs.

We played heads and tails, listened to speeches and acoustic music, took pictures in front of well-crafted backgrounds, and settled into a no-rush evening in a room with people gathered for a common cause.

When my turn to speak came, I climbed the stairs and parted the heavy velvet curtains.

I told the story of a girl, Rosemary, in Kenya who bled on her seat at school and was punished for her “disobedience.” Her punishment was to dig out a possibly centuries-old tree stump with her bare hands.

Rosemary worked for two days, making very little progress. On the third day, when she decided she would quit school, because she was so embarrassed, the teacher allowed her to come back after hitting her with a cane because of her disobedience.

I told the story of two sisters in my own children’s school district who spent every day of their periods inside their mobile home, on towels or rags, watching television and waiting for their periods to end so they could return to school.

And that of a high school basketball player in Ogden who refused her coach’s request to play in the game after realizing she had started her period while sitting on the sidelines and did not have the products to care for it. Her coach yelled at her, but she was too embarrassed to tell him why she wouldn’t play.

And finally, I told the story of working to remove Utah’s tax on period products (a tax that similar items do not incur). We passed that in a special session 2019 as part of a larger tax reform bill. It was overturned two months later. And we failed to pass it in the 2020 legislative session.

And so we pivoted to something much more meaningful in the individual lives of students — something that could impact their ability to graduate— placing free period products in schools.

They gave me a standing ovation. I cried.

As it turns out, sometimes 35 people say yes to you. And sometimes 35 people say no to you.

And sometimes you realize that there is still much work to do.

The 35 legislators who blocked Idaho House Bill 313, were wrong.

But we’ve all been wrong before. And we need room to change. And we need a reason to change.

I can’t think of a better reason than our students. And I can’t think of a better person to allow room for change, than each of us.

This movement has never been about politics. It’s about policy — a course of action put in place to help humans thrive. To help us become the best version of ourselves, so that we in turn can help others.

I hope 2022′s unanimous passage of Utah’s HB162 — “Period Products in Schools,” is aspirational for all states. But I really hope that the journey — the failures and successes — is what inspires.

Idaho looks good in pink.

Emily Bell McCormick

Emily Bell McCormick is the founder of The Policy Project, a U.S. nonprofit that creates movements to forward healthy, long-term policy at a state and national level.