News & Politics

How I Got a Tampon Dispenser Installed in the West Wing

The author, center, at a party on her last day at the White House in 2014. Photograph by Pete Souza.

The West Wing bathroom situation is probably not what you’d expect. When I started in 2009 as President Obama’s director of scheduling and advance (later I was deputy chief of staff for operations), there was only one full women’s restroom on the ground floor, plus a toilet on the main floor and another on the third. You’d often find yourself in line, and what you were in line for wasn’t an elegant powder room with fancy soaps. It was your standard office bathroom—stalls, sinks, unflattering light. No tampons.

At first, I didn’t think that was a big deal, but it was a huge pain to get out of the building once you were on the grounds—no dashing to CVS between meetings. To leave, you had to brave tourists taking photos on the sidewalk; to return, you had to show your ID, punch in a code, put your bag through the scanner, go through the metal detector. In a true emergency, I’d sometimes ask my assistant, Clay Dumas, to go to CVS, but I started to feel guilty. He was busy, too.

Though it’s changing, there aren’t a ton of women in the West Wing, and many have already gone through menopause. Those of us who still got our periods developed an understanding that it was cool to rifle through someone’s bag or drawer for a Tampax while she was out. Still, it wasn’t uncommon to find yourself in a code red.

To support one another through the gender imbalance, some senior-staff women and Cabinet secretaries organized dinners where we’d talk about issues and drink wine. On one of these days, I got my period.

That day was extremely busy, and I exhausted my tampon supply. As the dinner approached, I realized I needed to change my tampon—soon. I began to panic. Neither my deputy, Danielle Crutchfield, nor the girls downstairs had anything to help me. The toilet paper wasn’t absorbent, so you couldn’t do the thing where you roll it around your underwear. I’d have to run to CVS. No luck. A meeting ran long, POTUS had a question to research. I ran out of time and barely made it to dinner. Then someone said something funny, and my “Ha!” turned to “Oh, my God, no no no.” I began to bleed through my favorite pants—J. Crew blue-and-white houndstooth capris. Of all the women at the table, probably four of us still got our periods; I knew they didn’t have tampons because I’d already asked. I told my friend Kathy Ruemmler, who was White House counsel, what was happening. She escorted me to my car, where I bled on the seat as I made my getaway.

The next day, it became my mission to get a tampon dispenser for the women’s restroom. If we were serious about bringing more women into politics, the West Wing should have a basic level of comfort. There was no objection to my proposal—it just seemed like no one had thought of it.

A couple of weeks later, I walked into the senior-staff meeting—populated by 20 or 25 people, including a lot of men—in the Roosevelt Room, a stately space where FDR once kept an aquarium. Today it’s decorated in subtle beiges, with a painting of Teddy in Rough Riders gear and a little statue of a buffalo. It was here I announced that the West Wing would be installing a tampon dispenser in the women’s room that day. No one said a word, but it felt really good.

Alyssa Mastromonaco is COO at Vice Media. This is adapted from “Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House,” © 2017 by Alyssa Mastromonaco. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group. All rights reserved.

This article appears in the April 2017 issue of Washingtonian.