Emma Hankins '19: Senator for the Campus at Large

This year, one of the major initiatives of Her Campus American University, along with several other organizations, has been to push for free tampon dispensers to be placed in public restrooms on campus. Student government has also played a major role in this initiative. HC AU met up with Senator for the Campus at Large, Emma Hankins, who is a sophomore CLEG major from Charlotte, North Carolina, and who has made providing free feminine hygiene products on campus one of her platform goals. Hankins has also pushed for more gender equality in student government, and for a more accepting and secure student body overall at AU, all while interning for organizations such at Emily’s List here in Washington, D.C.

Her Campus American University: Thanks so much for meeting with me today Emma. Can you tell me a little about your role as Senator at Large, and what that entails?

Emma Hankins: I applied because a friend of mine encouraged me to apply last year, and I filled out a form at the end of last year. At the beginning of this year, the former speaker sent me an email asking to interview me because the Senate had some empty seats. I was appointed a couple of weeks into the semester, and then there were about three weeks when I was actually on the Senate, then I decided to run again and was then elected. When I was appointed, it was for the Class of 2019, but I decided to run for a Campus at Large seat, which is what I was elected to. I realized that in both my political life and personal life, I want to encourage women to run for office, and I felt that if I am encouraging other women to run, I should do it myself. I wanted to walk the walk as well as talk the talk and see firsthand what the barriers are and why women don’t tend to run for office.

HC AU: What were some of the barriers you encountered?

EH: For me, a lot of my barriers were on a smaller scale than other political figures, and a lot of my barriers were internal, such as wondering whether I was qualified to do this job, if people cared what I said, questions like that. Campaigning was also hard, since it is a larger way of applying for a job or doing anything else. Women are taught early on not to talk about ourselves and not brag or talk about our accomplishments, so the idea of having to do that on a large scale was very intimidating, and at some points it just felt wrong. That was probably my biggest hurdle. However, this position has opened up a lot of doors for me beyond what I have been able to do, and I feel I’ve been able to make a small dent in the problems. I’ve learned a lot from it, and I’ve learned about a lot of different sectors of campus I didn’t know about before.

I also recently went to a leadership conference, and they had done a study about what people think about job qualifications, and they found that while women think they need to meet 100 percent of the qualifications to get a job, men think they only need to reach 60 percent because they felt they would learn on the job and they were fine. It’s really interesting in terms of who thinks they are qualified. They also talked about the idea of perfectionism being born out of insecurity, which was mind-blowing for me. If something I am involved with is not perfect, it’s a reflection on me, and I think that is a hard thing that a lot people, women in particular, struggle with.

HC AU: What originally made you want to run for this position?

EH: I got the sense that there weren’t enough women in the Senate in student government, and I was confused about this since we are a majority female-identifying school, so why did the Senate not reflect that? Part of that is because there is drop off over the summer because people graduate and go abroad. Certainly when I joined it seemed like there were so many white men, and that was odd because, while I have noticed this trend in our national government, it is jarring at AU, a place where I am in classes with mostly women. It was confusing, and I just wondered, why is it like this? Because of this, I wanted to foster more women coming up, and be able to make a change on campus in the small ways that I can.

HC AU: Why is getting free tampons on campus such an important issue for you to champion?

EH: I am really passionate about getting free menstrual products. It’s really interesting because a lot of my issues don’t transfer into legislation, it’s just a matter of meeting with people. However, the national election was a major realignment of my priorities. When the student government election was held in October, we all had our platforms, and then the national election happened and we realized we had other priorities. Free menstrual hygiene products are important, and I think they are a necessity, but people not feeling safe is a priority. In the wake of the election, a lot of student government meetings were held to make sure people felt safe, and to figure out what we were going to do. I have been lucky to work with a senator named Yamillet Payano who has worked to make people feel safer on campus, making sure we have resources for undocumented students, and working with the international community more. No one should feel afraid that they are going to be deported walking around campus. There is only so much we can do about that, we are way out of our depth, but we are trying.

A lot of what we can do is symbolic, but it is still important because these actions are not just physical, but they also take a big psychological toll on the students involved. Just the sense that this administration doesn’t want you here is a huge cause of stress, and while we can’t really stop that, we can at least say we’re with you, we support you, we are going to do what we can to make sure you’re okay. That’s really all we can do right now.

HC AU: In your research into other universities, what has been the impact of having free tampons available on campus?

EH: There is a free website called freethetampons.com, and they have done multiple studies about how important it is that people have access to feminine hygiene products. For example, 86 percent of people who menstruate have started their periods in public without having the hygiene products that they need. There are also a lot of statistics about what people do in response to that, such as 79 percent of people improvising, and 62 percent choosing to go to a store immediately. On AU’s campus, Eagle’s Nest is the only place you can buy feminine hygiene products, which is obviously pretty far away from a lot of academic buildings, meaning you are pretty much stuck. 53 percent asked others for supplies, while 48 percent got a tampon or pad from a dispenser in a public restroom. However, only 8 percent of those that used public dispensers said that dispensers work all the time. At AU if you tried to get a tampon, there are no dispensers. 34 percent went home immediately to get hygiene products, and when we are talking about trying to get an education, that is very limiting, and that is in our fairly accessible American society, it is obviously so much worse in other countries. It’s beyond a physical concern, it is also stressful psychologically, and can be limiting to your educational experience, since it is difficult to focus in class if you are bleeding. The same study said that if people are caught in public without supplies that they need, most felt embarrassed, some felt annoyed, and others felt stressed or panicked. When you multiply that by everyone who menstruates on AU’s campus, that is a lot of people who are going about their day stressed out.

To me, it’s beyond just fulfilling a physical need, even if you aren’t on your period that day and you don’t need that dispenser that day, the fact that it's there means that someone in power has thought about your needs and taken steps to address them. It is symbolic as well as practical, because it is showing those people on campus who face this problem that someone thought about you and that someone cared enough to solve this problem that you might be having.

On the subject of peer institutions, Brown University is the most famous example, along with programs at Emory University, the University of Maryland, New York University, and John Hopkins University. Several of these American educational institutions have had these programs for a decade or more. If we could get one dispenser in every building, that would be a huge win, we don’t need a dispenser on every floor at first, we can take baby steps. I really like that we are advocating for the dispenser route, because I think there is a concern that people might take the whole box if a whole box was left out. Tampons will still be free, people just shouldn't take too many unless they really need to. I’m really hoping we can get this done, it’s been a long time in the making.

HC AU: Do you feel there is more that AU could do to make women feel equal on campus?

EH: I’m part of American Association of University Women (AAUW), a national organization that just started an AU chapter this year. At the beginning of this year, it was new, so they were doing focus groups and getting women together to find out what would help women. What was really interesting is that even in a university that is majority women, women still face some sexism. First of all, occasionally there can be a problem convincing people that it is an issue. Particularly, it’s been smaller things, or things that I think on their own are not terrible, but add up to creating a less welcoming environment. For example, people being mansplained in class, when there can be one man in class and he still dominates the discussion. I don’t know how to fix that, I don’t think there is a policy to fix that, but instead there is just a need for open conversation. Catcalling off campus is harder to address, and for that we need more of a cultural shift in order to address it. We also struggle with intersectionality, something we saw this year, and a lot of times we have a problem with white feminism, something I am guilty of on occasion. It can be really hard to figure that out and to address it in a way that is constructive and isn’t calling people out. I am a big fan of Call In culture and not Call Out culture, but I also realize that is still coming from a place of privilege and not everyone can afford to do that. That’s something that, when done right, it’s such an educational thing, and it can be so liberating to learn from other people, and it obviously helps people whose marginalized identities might be different from your own. That is true for women of color, trans women, and non-binary people as well. Gender essentialism is also a problem. I have been struggling with how to balance the idea of women wanting to reclaim their own bodies, which is where you get pussy hats and vagina-centered items, and nothing is wrong with that, but people need to realize that that might exclude people from the discussion, and that those people have been excluded so many times before, they don’t need to be excluded again. Striking that balance is really difficult, but I think it can be done.

HC AU: Is there anything else you want readers to know about your platform or your role on campus?

EH: There were a lot of shenanigans that went down in the recent student goverment election. Through a strange turn of events of people being recused, I ended up having to preside over a meeting of the Senate that was about the State of Exception that student government was in at the time. This meeting was the most contentious meeting I’ve even been a part of, and I felt like the meme with the record scratch “you’re probably wondering how I got into this situation." My insecurity helped me in a roundabout way in this situation because I applied to be in the Senate because I was afraid to run, which is why I applied early and was appointed, something that gave me a trial period. A lot of that was born out of me feeling afraid and insecure about it and not feeling qualified. I was only a senior person because I served the last three weeks of a previous term before being elected. I ended up presiding, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I made it up as I went along. It was empowering, but also bizarre because I have such a quiet voice and I had to speak loudly, and it was not something that I planned for. I don’t know what my lesson is in that, but I guess I would recommend to people that if you’re interested in something, go for it, and maybe you’ll learn about something, maybe not. Also, multiple people have walked up to me about the live stream, since we always live stream the Senate and said they enjoyed it.


Photos belong to Emma Hankins.