NU increases menstrual product access, works toward all-gender bathroom equity


Madison Bratley/The Daily Northwestern

NU has been expanding bathroom equity with menstrual products in more residence hall bathrooms and more all-gender bathrooms.

Kaavya Butaney, Reporter

Northwestern community members have been advocating for gender and menstrual equity in campus bathrooms for years. Some of these campaigns are starting to see results this year, as students and faculty are collaborating with the University to bring these goals to fruition.

Menstrual equity

In November, Residential Services completed the installation of menstrual product dispensers in 70 bathrooms across 30 residential buildings, according to Residential Services Director of Operations and Services Jennifer Douglas. The initial cost for installation was about $8,500. 

The dispensers were installed in common-space bathrooms and in all-gender bathrooms to ensure all people who menstruate can access them.

Last year, former Menstrual Equity Activists Director of Advocacy and first-year Feinberg student Rwan Ibrahim (Weinberg ’22) spearheaded the “Menstrual Products in Dorms” project that requested menstrual products in all residence hall bathrooms.

MEA sent out a survey about menstrual products to the student body last winter, which received 662 responses. Of those surveyed, 99.2% said it would be helpful to have access to menstrual products in residence halls. While most of the installed bathroom dispensers have tampons and not pads, 79.5% of students surveyed said they would like pads, compared to 66% who said they would want tampons.

MEA Director of Public Relations and Weinberg junior Ruba Memon said some students must pick between purchasing menstrual products and affording a meal. Ibrahim added that period poverty is an issue among students.

“An institution like Northwestern should be responsible for catering to (menstrual) needs, especially in dorms — places people consider homes on campus,” Ibrahim said.

She said these installations are just a first step, and Douglas said Residential Services will gauge student response to inform a possible expansion of menstrual product dispensers.

Currently, Memon is spreading the word about menstrual products in bathrooms with Residential Services through social media, emails and stickers.

“Menstrual products should be like toilet paper,” Women’s Center Director Sarah Brown said. “They should be in every restroom.”

Most of the work around menstrual equity has been student-led, according to Brown. Douglas said MEA made the first formalized request for menstrual services. 

All-gender restrooms

Brown said she thinks facilities cleared four new all-gender restrooms to be built, including one in Annie May Swift Hall. The locations are chosen for quick installation and distance from current all-gender bathrooms, Brown said.

“It finally feels like there’s some momentum going,” Communication third-year Ph.D. student Nathan Lamp said.

What complicates the construction of all-gender restrooms is the Illinois plumbing code, Brown added. All-gender restrooms do not count toward the number of restrooms a building requires, according to the code. A bill changing this policy is currently in the Illinois Senate but until it is passed, there is less of an incentive to build all-gender restrooms.

Brown and Assistant Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Michelle Manno are working on centralizing a system to install these restrooms. Facilities and departments are currently splitting funding for these bathrooms, which Lamp approximates each cost $80,000. According to Multicultural Student Affairs Assistant Director Matthew Abtahi, this policy makes it hard for smaller departments to have all-gender restrooms.

Departments without all-gender restrooms find it difficult to recruit transgender and nonbinary students or faculty to work for them, Abtahi said. They called the current situation an “inequitable Band-Aid solution.”

“The University banks on student exhaustion when it comes to protests,” Abtahi said. “It was pre-COVID that students were protesting at the bathrooms, they were having town halls with deans to try to go school by school (to advocate).”

These discussions, Lamp said, have been going on since they first arrived at NU in 2012.

In September 2019, the Gender-Queer, Non-Binary and Trans Task Force released a report detailing how the University should support trans students, including a centralized identity management system. Abtahi said some students criticized the fact that the group, comprised of students, faculty, staff and alumni, did hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of consulting work for the University out of care for the issue rather than being compensated. The task force also released a report in 2015, Lamp said.

“It seems like (the University) just stuck it in a desk,” Lamp said. “There wasn’t a lot of traction for several years.”

Brown hopes to create a new metric for all-gender restrooms. Rather than using the number of bathrooms as the principal measurement, she wants to know what percentage of buildings have an all-gender restroom or how many bathrooms there are per building capacity. Manno hopes each NU building will eventually have at least one all-gender restroom, per the task force’s recommendation.

Lamp said she is optimistic about the new University administration making a significant difference.

“It’s not a new thing,” Lamp said. “Students have been asking for this for some time … The work is ongoing and it continues even still.”

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @kaavya_butaney

Related Stories:

MEA campaigns for free menstrual products in dorm bathrooms 

Northwestern must act now on all-gender bathrooms, some Faculty Senate members say 

ETHS addresses concerns among LGBTQ+ students and adds gender-neutral bathrooms