Eye Openers vs Ear Pluggers

Ottawa XPress – Shotgun – April 7, 2005

What was more embarrassing than getting a woody right as the teacher asked you to go up to the blackboard?

Try being initiated into womanhood in grade school and starting your period-in a pair of white slacks. I remember when I was in grade 6, I witnessed a girl’s mad dash to the office in hot pursuit of a feminine product. Accompanied by a female teacher, she was wearing the teacher’s cardigan wrapped around her bum. I’ll never forget that day, because it was the first time that the thing all girls hope will never happen, happened.

The memory of a woman’s first onset of menses can be quite embarrassing if it’s a surprise like that one. But it’s just as disconcerting for even an experienced menstruator who finds herself unprepared because she miscalculated her cycle by a day or two. Unplugged, she’s stuck, baby.

But times have changed and thank God for the tampon dispensers my younger sisters can find in the girls’ washrooms at their Catholic schools now. Actually, forget God – thank Shannon Salisbury. Now a mother of two pursuing a master’s degree in social work, Salisbury’s campaign for tampon dispensers in schools began at St. Matthew’s in 1990. Salisbury, with fellow crusader Jen Vowles (then head girl), was responsible for steering the cause into the public eye. She contacted Shotgun about the ordeal to set the story straight.


Shotgun What issue did the administration have against tampon dispensers?

Salisbury The principals told me that it was a matter of preparedness. Girls don’t “leave home without remembering to brush their teeth,” after all. For those who were caught unprepared, there were pads in paper bags available in the office. The chaplain also had a grab bag of pads. When asked if she also provided tampons, she replied that there were just too many choices available and that she couldn’t please everyone. Meanwhile, she showed me at least five different brands of pads.

The message I got was to always keep a stash in my locker and make sure that word got around to as many girls as possible… it was up to us to provide for ourselves and each other.

Shotgun How did you feel about getting local media involved?

Salisbury I felt frustrated that it had to go that far. The Ottawa Citizen had started the High Priority page to accommodate student voices at the time, and I submitted an essay to that section. The High Priority editor passed the essay on to a city writer who decided to investigate my claims. She contacted me, as well as Jen Vowles and her mom, the school board trustees, the public school boards, and the principal of St. Matt’s (who refused to comment, if I recall correctly). The trustees (both women) had no idea this was happening, and apparently none of the schools in either separate board had dispensers.

It was downplayed as an architectural oversight in building design.

Shotgun Was there buy-in, interest and support for your activism?

Salisbury I started off seeking student support before making my case to the administration. I circulated a petition during lunch hours, trying to get a good cross-section of the student population, including boys, from grades 9 to OAC. Underground support came from some teachers too.


In the end, Salisbury told me, dispensers were installed in the summer of 1992 in all schools in the board district.

Doesn’t the whole issue with tampons and Catholics have more to do with preserving the hymen until lawfully wedded intercourse than “preparedness”? I remember my Catholic mother interrogating me about using tampons when I was younger. “How come you use tampons,” she asked, “when you’re a virgin?” Mom came from a generation and religious upbringing where mothers told daughters their period occurred because of excessive bicycle riding. Go figure.

In addition to the tampon issue Salisbury tackled at St. Matthew’s was the Catholic board’s reluctance to discuss homosexuality. Salisbury had co-facilitated a homophobia component for an area student council leadership training day on issues of racism, sexism and homophobia-to which the Catholic school boards refused to send any delegates.

A bit daft considering that a young man was thrown to his death off Alexandria Bridge for being presumed gay. Salisbury recalled, “Not one word was said by the administration of the school to condemn the act of homophobic violence.”

Like homophobia, silence on important issues may leave you cold, or in a pool of your own blood.

– Sylvie Hill