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Earlier this year, 14-year-old Cordelia Longo went from one building to another at her middle school, trying to find a restroom with a working sanitary napkin and tampon dispenser that wouldn’t take all her change.
But after spending her last dime at an empty machine, Longo felt embarrassed, discouraged and angry, she told NBC News. Before realizing she had one sanitary napkin remaining in her backpack, she didn’t know what to do.
“I realized even if I didn’t succeed in getting equal rights for men and women, that I had tried and all that mattered was that I tried my hardest to get equal access to education.”
After the experience, Longo felt determined to channel her frustration into action.
“I just didn’t want any other girls to experience this. I just wanted to make people’s lives better — girls’ lives easier,” Longo, an eighth grader at Islander Middle School in Mercer Island, Washington, said. “They already have to deal with so much and this seemed like something I should fix.”
While the school provides feminine hygiene products at the nurse’s office and locker rooms, Longo said that their availability is not well-known.
Inspired to address the situation, Longo drafted a petition informing students of the lack of feminine hygiene products in the girls’ restroom and obtained 100 signatures from her classmates.
Along with the petition, Longo drafted a letter addressed to the administration: “Why are tissues and toilet paper provided free at school, but not sanitary pads and tampons?” it read. “As toilet paper and tissue are used for normal bodily functions, sanitary pads and tampons are also necessary to address normal bodily functions that happen naturally. The only difference is that only girls need pads. Girls do not choose to have periods. So girls are being penalized and made to pay for a bodily function they cannot control.”
“I absolutely think pads and tampons should be treated like any other product because they are just a product, like toilet paper,” Longo said, noting her frustration about the “pink tax,” which she said is discrimination against women.
While the petition and letter were being reviewed by the administration, Longo decided to use some of her allowance money to create baskets and stock them with pads and tampons and place them in the girls’ restrooms at school.
Each of the baskets also contained hand-written positive notes and a message inspired by her role model, Hillary Clinton: “Women’s rights are human rights. Human rights are women’s rights.”
Longo says her inspiration for launching the petition also came as a result of the skills she gained in her social justice class, where she learned about oppression, race and gender identity, among other topics.
Longo credits a big part of her interest in social justice issues and politics after closely watching the election.
“Hillary Clinton inspired me because she kept being strong and she didn’t take any of the insults people threw at her and didn’t let it affect her,” she said.
“It inspired me in a way that I can’t really describe,” she added. “I realized even if I didn’t succeed in getting equal rights for men and women, that I had tried and all that mattered was that I tried my hardest to get equal access to education.”
A Mien-American adoptee, Longo was born in Sacramento, California, and adopted at age 1 and raised in San Francisco before moving to Seattle.
Mother Jennifer Longo said that since moving to Seattle, the family has helped connect their daughter with the Mien community, noting that her daughter is very proud of her Mien heritage.
“I actually didn’t know a lot about my culture until recently because my parents got me interested in the Mien culture,” said Cordelia Longo.
The 14-year-old says she is deeply passionate about social justice issues, linguistics, journalism, and writing. She credits the character of Rory from her favorite TV series, “Gilmore Girls,” as one of the reasons why she wants to be a journalist someday.
“Rory Gilmore was a role model for me because the show is such a feminist show, and I really just like to watch a show about women and their struggles,” she said.
Longo is glad she created this petition and is grateful for all the support she’s received.
“I feel like if we all get together, all of the people who are in favor of social justice and equal access to education, I feel hopeful. I feel satisfied that I created this petition and wrote this letter and made a difference in our school,” she said.
Jennifer Longo is proud of her daughter for standing up for what is right, noting that even as early as elementary school, her daughter has always spoken out about injustices.
She added that middle school is often a time when girls may get their first period, which can be an equally scary and confusing moment. Longo commended the administration for their quick response in addressing the issue. “I think it’s incredible — it took three weeks from start to finish and they were on it,” she said.
Due to Cordelia’s petition and efforts, the district has also agreed to disable the machines at the local high school as well, according to her mother.
“We appreciate Cordelia bringing this issue to our attention, we are very proud of her for doing that, and for putting into practice the skills she gained in the social justice class,” a spokesperson for the district told NBC News in an emailed statement. “We have repaired any broken or empty machines and they [no] longer require any coins for feminine hygiene supplies. Ample supplies are also available in the health room and locker rooms.”