It’s 2017. We have ultra-absorbent pads with wings and super-deluxe tampons. We have sea sponges and menstrual cups, reusable pads and period panties.
But still, sometimes, every woman knows: Sometimes there’s a leak. It happens to some of us every single period, despite our best efforts. Sometimes you even end up with blood on your clothes, an experience that’s happened to every woman at least once. The equivalent of flying a red flag in front of the world: I’m menstruating! And the world cringes back, makes you feel dirty, gross, ashamed. Like you’re somehow nasty because failed to contain it.
Well, that’s total bullshit, but…
Alisha Coleman, Georgia a mother of three, knows this stigma all too well. According to a brief filed by the ACLU, she was working as an E-911 call taker at the Bobby Dodd Institute, “a job training and employment agency that serves people with disabilities.” Alisha had worked there for nine full years, in fact. But she was experiencing a common symptom of pre-menopause: sudden-onset, heavy periods.
According to Contemporary OB-GYN, during perimenopause, “changes in hormone levels interfere with ovulation,” likely spacing it out, and therefore spacing out periods. “The ovary will continue making estrogen, causing the endometrium to keep thickening. This often leads to a late menstrual period followed by irregular bleeding and spotting.”
Unless you need a pad every hour for 24 hours, or the bleeding lasts for more than two weeks, the docs at Contemporary OB-GYN say don’t bother to call in. As any woman knows, that’s a hell of a lot of blood. Our Bodies, Ourselves says that during perimenopause, “menstrual irregularities are a normal part of this stage of every woman’s life,” and that “bleeding can be heavier.”
Alisha Coleman was living this reality, and she knew it. So she did what any responsible woman would do: She knew was experiencing what the ACLU terms “irregular and unpredictable sudden onset menstrual periods,” so she kept an extra stock of period supplies at her job. She also notified her boss, who told her to keep an extra stock of period supplies. We can only imagine the guts this conversation took her end, and the squickiness her boss felt on the other. How do we knew he was squicked? Well…
In August 2015, the inevitable happened. With no warning, Alisha got that heavy gush of a perimenopausal period. It was enough to stain not only her clothing, but the chair she was sitting in. She reported it to her supervisor. He told her to leave and go change her clothes, says the Ledger-Enquirer. “One or two days later,” according to the ACLU, Alisha received a disciplinary notice informing her that “she would be fired if she ever soiled another chair from sudden onset menstrual flow.”
Yes, you read that right.
Because this was totally something she could control, guys. Like it was her choice to bleed all over herself and her chair. She was a perimenopausal woman experiencing health issues related to her reproductive system — and ability to bear children — argues the ACLU. Which means that her condition is protected, like pregnancy, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This prevents any workplace discrimination based on “pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions,” says the Ledger-Enquirer.
Any woman alive would argue that bleeding from your vagina is a medical condition related tangentially to childbirth. And Andrea Young, executive director of the Georgia ACLU, says, “Employers have no business policing women’s bodies or their menstrual cycles.”
Because menstruation should just be a thing that happens to women, not some enormous social taboo that puts us in a metaphorical red tent for days. Right?
Wrong, according to the supervisors at Bobby Dodd. Because despite her precautions, several months later, on April 22, 2016, Alisha got up to walk to the bathroom — and some menstrual blood leaked onto the carpet. Probably mortified because she knew how others would react, she immediately cleaned the spot “with bleach and and disinfectant,” says the ACLU. The site manager directed her to be relieved from duties, though she was scheduled to work over the weekend.
On April 26, after a call to report to her job site, Alisha was fired. The ACLU says her employer claimed that she failed to “practice high standards of personal hygiene and maintain a clean, neat appearance while on duty.” Because somehow, menstrual blood is unclean. This is some Biblical shit right here.
“I loved my job at the 911 call center because I got to help people,” said Coleman, in a statement released by the ACLU. “Every woman dreads getting period symptoms when they’re not expecting them, but I never thought I could be fired for it. Getting fired for an accidental period leak was humiliating. I don’t want any woman to have to go through what I did, so I’m fighting back.”
And fighting back she is. After her initial appeal was denied — during which a District Court challenged her to find a “similarly situated male comparator,” according to the ACLU document — the ACLU is now appealing on her behalf. Their brief argues that the district court screwed up in ruling that said “premenopause and the associated sudden-onset heavy menstruation are not protected under Title VII.”
Andrea Young says, “Firing a woman for getting her period at work is offensive and an insult to every woman in the workplace. A heavy period is something nearly all women will experience, especially as they approach menopause, and Alisha was shamed, demeaned, and fired for it. That’s wrong and illegal under federal law. We’re fighting back.”
And rightly so. We all get our periods. We all bleed. We need to eradicate the shame in something that happens to a full 50%-plus of the human race. Yes, it can be messy. Yes, it can be unpleasant. But it’s generally part of being female, and when you stigmatize menstruation, you stigmatize the very fact of being female. Misogyny.
“Federal law is supposed to protect women from being punished, harassed, or fired because of their sex, and being fired for unexpectedly getting your period at work is the very essence of sex discrimination,” said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney at the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU. Amen, sister. And as she says: “This is…why the fight for gender equality must continue.”
There’s no word on when Alisha’s ACLU brief will see its day in court, but women everywhere are hoping it will be soon — and cheering her on.