Periods can be irregular, heavy — even painful. They should never be a barrier to your career.

One would think members of the legal profession would have qualms about forcing women to bleed on themselves as a barrier to entry. One would be wrong.
The law is here to treat all people — including those who menstruate — with dignity.
The law is here to treat all people — including those who menstruate — with dignity.Megan Madden / Getty Images/Refinery29 RF
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By Julie D. Cantor, physician and attorney

If you've gotten your period, you probably have an excruciating memory of a public humiliation related to it, whether that's bleeding through your pants onto a chair in school or having to explain to a frustratingly dense colleague why, in fact, you can't wait until the end of a meeting to use the restroom or even realizing that you don't have supplies and your school or workplace doesn't stock them. You stare hard at the toilet paper roll, hoping for inspiration, and get real creative, real fast.

Usually, those moments end in adulthood: We become accustomed to our bodies' rhythms and figure out which products work for us, and we generally have access to them at school, at work or wherever we might be — and federal law mandates that we be allowed "prompt access to a clean restroom" as needed to use those products. But that is still not necessarily true for everyone.

But on Tuesday, aspiring lawyers who are taking the bar exam may find themselves with restricted access to their own menstrual products or — as demonstrated in a flurry of letters and calls from advocates, would-be exam-takers and reporters about what is and isn't allowed — just plain confused about the state of play.

In Texas, where the state Supreme Court postponed the bar exam until September because of COVID-19, your so-called "feminine products" won't be permitted in the testing center when the day does arrive. Fear not: Texas will provide them. Except that tampons are not one-size-fits-all-vaginas items, let alone one-size-fits-all-periods. They're not even one-size-fits-every-day-of-your-period products. And as anyone who's paid a quarter for those inch-thick restroom pads definitely knows, the free ones are not your friend.

That's not even to address the issues about allergic reactions to generic tampons, those who use menstrual cups, where and how those products are provided (imagine having to ask a proctor) or how transgender or nonbinary people can access products that are in women's bathrooms that they may not use.

California has also postponed its bar exam, but its usual rules remain problematic. Though it allows "feminine hygiene items" into the exam room (as long as they are in a "small, clear plastic bag"), test-takers aren't allowed to go to the bathroom during the three-hour testing sessions if the bathroom is outside the secure area — even if they bleed through a tampon or a pad in two hours, which isn't unusual — or, even if bathrooms are inside the area, they aren't allowed to go after the exam has ended until all materials are collected and inventoried. But California does have some good news for the menstruators: It allows people to bring pillows to sit on. So at least you can bleed onto that instead of the chair.

The implicit rationale for these policies appears to be exam security: The people writing the rules seem to believe that, if you bring your own tampons or pads, you might be able to use them to cheat. But you can't cheat with a tampon or a pad: Their porous nature, designed to absorb and lock away liquids (and, in the case of tampons, expand to fit) makes them impossible to write anything meaningful on and then somehow read later.

And even if you could write something on a menstrual product, I promise you — it won't help. The bar exam is a thinking exam, requiring a comprehensive understanding of more than a dozen subjects, that asks test-takers to identify issues, recite rules, analyze situations and draw conclusions. Even if there is a multiple-choice part, random notes are useless. The bar exam could really be open book — as is now the case in Nevada — and all the notes in the world wouldn't help.

If cheating were the goal — a risky strategy after three years of schooling and tens of thousands of dollars in sunk costs that could lead to getting banned from the profession before even being licensed to practice — rigged eyeglasses, Tony Stark- or Google Glass-style, might be the way to go. But, of course, unlike feminine hygiene products, eyeglasses are on states' lists of approved items to take into the exam room — including in Texas and California.

A grassroots response to these discriminatory rules has already led to change in one state: In the last week, a confluence of voices on Twitter writing under the hashtag #bloodybarpocalypse caught the attention of a lawyer in Arizona who was able to get the state bar to amend its policy from "NO feminine hygiene products (Products will be made available in women's restrooms)" to one that allows test-takers to bring feminine products in a clear plastic bag — the policy in most states.

Maybe these policies are just the centuries-old residue of a patriarchy that should already be completely in tatters — examples of a systemic bias that is invisible until you see it. Or maybe they do embody a malicious intent to send a clear message that your bleeding body is bizarre, different and definitely not welcome in the practice of the law. Or maybe the people making the rules for the bar exam are just bloody ignorant, even though tampons have been around for ages.

No matter the reason, these policies are intrusive, unnecessary, insulting and — ironically, because the bar exam tests knowledge of the law — arguably illegal.

It isn't reasonable to expect people who take the bar exam to craft cogent answers to test questions while bleeding through their clothes or worrying that they might. Every state bar exam rules committee that still has such antiquated policies should eradicate them — now. Arizona moved quickly; so can every other state. People taking the bar exam must be allowed to take menstrual products and keep them wherever it's convenient — and not in a clear plastic bag, because, if you'd like to broadcast your menstrual status to the world, go ahead, but it shouldn't be required.

Eradicating these policies will help roll out a new, symbolic welcome mat emblazoned with the message, in a very bold font, that all bodies are equal under the law and the law is here to treat all people — including those who menstruate — with dignity.

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