It’s been less than a year since Claire Coder launched Aunt Flow in November 2016, and there’s been a lot going on since: the company, which sells and donates menstrual products in a buy-one-give-one fashion similar to TOMS, has grown from selling tampons and pads to consumers to getting connected with businesses. It’s part of Coder’s larger mission to make sure everyone who gets a period also has access to free products right in their office bathroom—and, in this case, 100-percent cotton, FDA-regulated, hypoallergenic, and biodegradable free products. (The tampons, it should be noted, are sans applicator—common enough in Europe, and they generate 58 percent less waste, Coder says.)
First things first, though: you better not call them “feminine products” or refer to the category as “feminine hygiene” around Coder. A huge part of her business concept is normalizing the conversation around periods and making it inclusive to a wide range of gender identities. Like the “#JustSayPeriod” campaign by cycle-tracking app Clue, Aunt Flow is all about getting rid of euphemisms. (“Tampons” and “pads” are the preferred terms.) There’s also the recognition that it’s not just cisgender women who get periods: transmen and people who don’t identify as one gender get them, too—so the company has eliminated the gendered pronouns of “her” and “she” from their materials.
As far as why periods, of all things, are her passion, she has a compelling narrative: “Growing up, my mom would talk to me about how many women she would serve—she’s a therapist—who would come to her groups wearing plastic bags or dirty socks when they were flowing,” she told me last December, soon after she started up. “I didn’t understand why. At my house, we always had a stock.” But for people receiving food stamps or WIC assistance, running to Walgreens isn’t financially an option with the cost of getting your period so high—and their assistance doesn’t cover menstrual products. Plus, she says, many organizations that provide tampons to those in need only have enough for two tampons per person per month.
“Craziness,” Coder told me. “I knew I wanted to create a sustainable solution to this problem.”
As of last week, Coder is bringing tampons to the “every-menstruator” (a term she coined to cover everyone who gets a period). The pivot to targeting businesses and organizations has seen her calling upon CEOs—men and women alike—to persuade them to make her tampons and pads available for free in company restrooms. After all, who among us hasn’t been caught out at work when our period strikes unexpectedly—whether it’s due to post-pregnancy spotting, adjusting to a new method birth control, or just switching purses from the night before and forgetting to throw a tampon in?
“I was inspired to start the business because I was at an event and I got my period,” she says. “There were no tampons. It was one of those events where there’s only men—a tech event—and you don’t feel comfortable asking for a tampon. So I had to leave the event early.”
When Coder approaches CEOs to praise the wonders of having free products available to their employees, she approaches it from a language they’ll understand: money—and in a way that totally gets rid of the “we don’t have budget for that” argument. According to research she commissioned with like-minded organization Free the Tampons, it costs more in time for a company to have an employee leave the office and go buy tampons if they’re out than it costs for the company to stock them for free.
But the CEOs that are the most receptive isn’t who you might think: instead of men being the ones to shy away from the idea, they’re the ones embracing it. “Our biggest supporters are typically male high executives,” Coder says. “We call them our flow bros.”
“Whenever we’re talking to men, what we’ve noticed is that these men have never had the opportunity to ask questions, to talk about menstruation in a comfortable environment,” she adds. “Ever since middle school they were separated from the conversation and put in separate heath courses.”
Instead—and surprisingly—it’s women who aren’t up for free tampons for all.
Why? Coder’s theory is this: “Women have been told their whole lives: don’t talk about menstruation. Carry your own supplies—it’s up to you. So female executives have said to me, ‘I have personally have had an experience that was personally embarrassing, but I learned from it: now I carry things with me all the time.’ It’s a really sad system where women have been told over and over again: don’t talk about it; be prepared; it’s your responsibility.”
According to data from Free the Tampons, almost two-thirds of younger women somewhat or strongly agree with the idea of free menstrual products. Conversely, only 33 percent of women 55-plus do. Fifty-five percent of women in that older age group strongly believe that it’s a women’s personal responsibility to be prepared. And yet, according to more data from the organization, a whopping 86 percent of women have had their period strike when they weren’t prepared for it.
She acknowledges that of course it’s someone’s responsibility to have the supplies they might need. “But at the same time bathrooms are not created equal: you don’t carry around toilet paper all the time.” And for people on their periods, menstrual supplies are, in fact, as basic as toilet paper.
“That doesn’t mean there haven’t been great female advocates for the company, but when we look at ratio of our supporters, it’s really been men who have backed us and supported us,” she says. “We haven’t done enough research on understanding why this is, but we always joke if a man turned us down he’d look like a douchebag. Or continuing the patriarchy, right?”
There’s more to come as Coder continues trying to sell companies on the idea that every menstruator should have access to free tampons and pads: to date, they’ve sold enough product that they’ll be donating, in TOMS fashion, 60,000 menstrual products to organizations around the U.S., she says. And, after all, she’s not even 21. But when she finally hits the age when she can “talk about it over drinks” with potential clients (that’s February 27, by the way), you better believe she’ll be ready.