I came upon Support The Girls on Instagram. (Yes, that’s how I’m finding out about women doing things that are helping the world. Through the pictures on Instagram.) Immediately, I wanted to donate my bras. I reached out to, what I had hoped, was the person running the Instagram feed, and as it turns out, it was Dana Marlowe herself, the founder of Support The Girls. We got to Insta-chatting, and I knew right away, that Dana was a Lady Like Us: fierce, smart, like-minded. We talked for a long time. So long that I originally posted these as a series. This here? It’s the full interview.
Enjoy. And…support the girls! Go to isupporthegirls.org!
I love that you are doing Support The Girls. I just put a few bras in the mail to you.
Support the girls has been one of the most magical experiences and tiring and exhausting and thought provoking moments that I’ve ever had. If you had told me a year ago, “Dana, you’re going to be regularly on stage talking to thousands of people from all walks of life talking about bras and tampons,” I would have thought you were crazy.
What were you doing a year ago?
I work a 50/60 hour work week regularly that has nothing to do with Support The Girls. I run an IP consulting firm that makes technology accessible for people with disabilities. I’m a very big practice what-I-preach so you get what you get with me; the same goes for my company. 85 percent of my employees are people with disabilities. I don’t mess around. And I’m raising a family.
So, that’s a pretty full plate.
And the problem with that is I had forgotten to take time for myself.
Yes, that happens with when you’re running on all cylinders.
Right, but its normal, there’s nothing atypical about that. For a lot of women entrepreneurs who are busy running successful companies, they forget to do stuff for themselves. I started the company when I was on maternity leave; I wrote the business plan while I was nursing my newborn.
Of course because, that’s what most women do while nursing their newborns. 😉
I was working so hard but I wasn’t exercising. I sure as hell wasn’t eating right and I gained a lot of weight. And then I lost it and then I had another kid. At that point, everything was fine. I have a very close relationship with my mom and my aunts. They were all like, you need to take better care of yourself. But really, do you think I’m gonna listen to my mom? So when my two very close friends—we were all sitting out on the deck watching the ocean and drinking wine—were like, “Dana, we’ve known you for a really long time, we know (your company) is successful and you have these two amazing kids but at the end of the day we need you to look at taking care of yourself.”
So they really got in there.
Yeah, but that’s what close friends do. I’ve always been tall and lanky and suddenly I wasn’t. I’m a person who swims with my kids, I go in the ocean, I don’t give a crap what I look like. And that’s why nothing had changed. So I started cracking down and eating right. One of my colleagues said, “I want you to run a 5K with me.” I don’t run 5k’s, I don’t run any K’s! So I didn’t do a couch-to-5k-program; instead I did a 5k-to-couch program. I ran the 5k and I came home and collapsed on the couch, but I did it. I set a goal, and I will tackle it, I will do it. I just proved to myself I can do it. And so suddenly I did six 5k’s and then I did a 10k and I did a ten mile-r, all in about a year and a half. I wound up losing 35 pounds.
Yeah. You don’t know me so when I tell you I’m a fashion train wreck like legit I dress for comfort. I didn’t care that my clothes were baggy, I didn’t care that they fit right. My professional attire was always very much what you would expect: I wore a lot of black business suits. And my mother, my employee, my best friend from childhood and another close friend of mine since grad school, got together and nominated me for a TV show called “What Not To Wear.” I feel like that that really says something.
So you start getting back into shape, eating right, and your clothes are hanging off your body and the people in your life are again saying, Girrrrrl.
And one morning my husband said to me, “Look I know you’re not going for new clothes. We’ve had so many friends offer to take you. But for God’ sake. You need to buy new bras. Your bras are not fitting you. There’s like zero support. The only thing they’re doing is preventing you from being nipple-y. You’ve lost 35 pounds. You need to cancel your meetings. I don’t care what you’re doing today get yourself to the mall, get fitted and go buy some bras, end of story.”
That’s a good partner, that one.
Yeah he’s great. I basically blame him for starting the NGO. Because he told me to go buy bras. So I went to the mall. As I’m getting fitted, I asked the sales associate, “I have a drawer full of perfectly good bras. Can you refurbish them like a laptop?” She said, “Are you an IT consultant?” And I said, “I am.” And she said, “Well, no we can’t refurbish them.” And she told me four words which were really important: “Homeless Women Need Bras.”
And that’s when you had your a-ha moment?
I mean, I’m a disability rights advocate. I’m into social justice. I’m into women’s rights, human rights, and civil rights. I’m into supporting traditionally marginalized populations. We regularly donate our clothes, our kids clothing, our children’s books, furniture. We’re part of that typical donation culture. And I had never opened my drawers and pulled out my bras and donated my bras. I always felt it was too personal. And many places, like homeless shelters, don’t collect undergarments.
Why is that?
Because then people will send a lot of underwear. There’s a big difference between worn, used underwear and a used bra. So instead of specifying bras—because maybe its too sexualized—they just say no undergarments.
So this woman in a bra-store ignited something in you?
I was like, I need to research this because maybe there’s something I can do. I found this shelter in DC and I said, “Hey, I have 16 really good bras. Do you want them?” And the Director of Volunteer Services said, “We’ll take them as soon as you can get them. Nobody donates bras.” And so I said, “What else do you need?” And he said, “Maxi pads and tampons.” That was like a double whammy. It made me think about women and girls who are homeless who have their period every single month. And then you have to choose between am I going to buy a box of tampons or a package of maxi pads for eight dollars or am I going to spend that 8 dollars for a hot meal. It’s really not a choice, like you really have to be able to not-bleed all over your clothing. Like they don’t have the privilege to be like “I want to free bleed the London marathon.” When you’re homeless, you need to take care of the few items you do have. And so that’s kind of how it all started.
So you have this moment, Homeless Women Need Bras and you know that you want to donate bras and feminine hygiene products. Then what happens?
So I put it on my Facebook page. I was like, “Hey, I just learned about that homeless women need bras. I’m going to be donating 16 bras to this shelter. I also learned about the need for maxi pads and tampons. I know there’s a big menstrual taboo and if it’s upsetting up on my Facebook wall, well like deal with it. There’s nothing taboo about having a period. There is something that we need to focus on: dignity. I’m not here to have a debate as to why people become homeless but if I can make a difference and donate some tampons I’m going to do so.” I basically said I will collect for two weeks and I will donate at the end of July. (This was July, 2015). I went out for a walk with a friend the next day. I was telling her what I learned and she looked at me and she said, “Dana, I have so many bras. I didn’t know I could donate them. My body type has changed so much with my kids. Would you take mine down too?” And then my post was shared and re-shared and then it was shared on my local listserve—my women’s listserve, my community listserve, my moms listserve. Everyone was like, “oh would you pick up from my house?” I wound up spending my lunch breaks picking up what I call doing porch pickups. I would count them, sort them, wash them.
All on your own?
Yeah. Schools, churches, and synagogues all said, “Hey we can do this? We can put out a box and collect bras and tampons and maxi pads.”
So it just picked up this momentum.
Yeah, and it spread. More and more organizations were doing collections. Finally, Halloween in 2015, I did the donation that I had just collected—over one thousand bras and over seven thousand menstrual products. The Washington Post had heard about it and were like “Can we interview you?” I was like sure why not, if it raises awareness on providing dignity to the marginalized population of people in need. And they ran it in their weekend section above the fold! After that happened my inbox went bonkers. I was shocked that people still read the paper. I couldn’t keep up with the emails, the messages, the Facebook, the texts. It was out of control how many people it resonated with who said, “I have bras I can donate.”
Was it always called Support The Girls?
So right after it got popular, I was like I need a name for this project. You know, some people collect stamps; I didn’t want to be known as a bra collector because you know it sound a little too fetish-y. I called it Support the Girls. I thought I was super super clever. I was patting myself on the back even though everything’s always been done before.
So now you’ve got a sea of people who want to donate their bras and donate feminine hygiene products on top of your dayjob.
Yeah yeah yeah, it was not normal. I manage a very busy inbox anyway because of my day job. At the core, there were only about a dozen of the same questions people were asking and I wanted to be able to respond back to them. So the paper came out Saturday and I was leaving Sunday to fly up to Boston for a disability accessibility conference that I was speaking at. And I was overwhelmed. So I got up at 4 am; I bought the domain Isupportthegirls.org. I bought an email address. I got the WordPress package. I typed up my frequently asked questions. I typed up some resources. I typed up some background links to the articles. And then I typed up a how-to for my husband. I woke him up at 6am. I was like, “I need a really big favor, honey. I just sent you twelve emails. I need you to create me a website before I land in Logan.” And he goes, “I don’t know how to make a a website!” And I go, “I know. It’s on a platform called WordPress. I feel like if fifth graders can do it, so can you.”
Okay, you’re my superhero. Was he able to do it?
He did it by the time I landed.
So now you have a working website and then what happened?
I spent hours writing back to everybody that night from my hotel room instead of preparing my presentation. While I was in Boston, people started asking how can I do this in my community?
So what was your plan? Obviously, you’ve built a business, but a business built on donations requires a different approach.
I had to kind of buckle down and build out the infrastructure for the organization. I wound up picking a woman locally first who is in her 60s. I worked with her on tips, what to do, what to not do. She collected a thousand bras! She hit it out of the park. A woman from Indiana, Rachel, reached out. She said, “I want to collect 3500 bras before I turn 35.” This was a year ago; she turned 35 last month. She’s a stay at home mom who had extra time and needed something to while her daughter’s at pre school. And she collected 3500 bras in 88 days.
Oh my god!
And then I had a woman in Cleveland do it and I had a woman in Knoxville. My whole focus was to empower women in their community by collecting these items locally. It was a win-win because everybody felt good: the person who was donating their four bras and a box of maxi pads felt good for donating, and obviously the the end recipient. It’s an amazing feeling to have someone give you new bras and have that dignity and know that you don’t have to worry for that next month when you have your period.
Again, it’s so incredible that all this came out of you needing to take care of yourself, going bra shopping, and being told four magic words, Homeless Women Need Bras.
Look, I work a full-time job. I have a family. If I can do this, I kind of feel like anybody can kind of follow their passion. There’s nothing that particularly unique or special to what I was doing. I don’t have access to bajillions and bajillions of dollars. This was just doing good. It was very simple. Everyone understood the message immediately.
How did you come up with the logo?
I found this women in Buenes Aires. It’s very hard to tell a graphic designer, I want an S and a G and I want it to look like a bra but not look like a bra. She goes, “I work with a lot of organizations and this is one of the hardest requests.” If it looks too much like a bra with cleavage or sexualized, I’m gonna have a hard time with the pre-schools, elementary schools, churches and faith based organizations; they’re not going to want to put a logo of a bra or a tampon. So she created the logo.
Do you have a staff??
We have no staff. We have no money, Marcelle. It’s just people doing good. To date, we have 45 affiliates on Support the Girls: Chicago and Knoxville and Detroit and New York. We have support the girls Australia and Support the Girls Thailand and Support the Girls Taiwan.
That’s amazing you have so many people who care.
You know sometimes it’s hard to see the forest through the trees? I’m literally sitting at the bottom of the trees going how do I make this more sustainable? My theory is anybody can do this, right? Part of the reason this is so successful is my friends are helping me—they share their ideas, their input, leading me. A bra company is donating 1500 bras lovely bras. We’re working with the largest domestic violence shelter in the country, [which] happens to be in New York. Support the Girls is donating these 1500 new bras to the shelter. One of my requirements when I donate is to tour the shelter because only way I’m going to get smarter and learn more is by meeting the people who receive the products and meeting the people who work in homeless shelters and domestic violence organizations and community based centers, correctional facilities and jails, low-income public schools. We’re in over 150 some odd shelters and domestic violence organizations. To date we have donated collectively 85,000 bras and nearly 400,00 menstrual products in basically over a year. Because: people are good.
It’s because you’re good and the driver of what brings out the good in people.
I don’t know sometimes I think I’m a total bitch.
Let’s talk about transgender women.
I realize not all women have periods and not all people who have periods are women. One of the things I tell any organization that is interested in partnering with us is we do donate to transgender organizations. And that’s rubbed a couple of southern organizations the wrong way. That’s fine. Every time I post a photo on social media of us donating to a transgender organization, I can usually watch our numbers fall. Give it about a day or two and for however many we lose, we gain so many more. We’re not all likeminded. At the end of the day my mission is not to be some staunch liberal leading an organization, it’s about empowering women in your community to help other women in your community with these dignity items.
Do women in need reach out to you?
I mean it has been completely mind-blowingly amazing. My inbox fills up every day with stories of women who tell me I used to be homeless and living in Las Vegas and I never had maxi pads and tampons and I would have to steal or beg people in the casinos for them and how having an organization like Support the Girls makes a difference to so many people. I met many women who keep their breasts up with a belt.
I can totally see a belt working.
Yep, yes! Because if you don’t have a bra but you still want that support, you have to use belts. People do what they have to do to get by. Same goes for menstrual products. We’ve met many women who steal products. Teenagers get caught and they get a record on account of stealing tampons which then impacts them for the rest of their lives. I’ve met women who are using paper towels and duct tape and ripped t-shirts and insides of mattresses and all different materials to serve as hygiene products for their period. That’s not okay. This is just not okay. A lot of states have a tax on maxi pads or tampons. It’s called a tampon tax. It’s just not okay with me at all. I’m not saying this is the best solution out there—Support the Girls—but it is a solution. New York City fortunately passed a law last year that there’s gonna be free access to tampons in homeless shelters, public schools and correctional facilities but that’s not the norm, that’s new. We’re trying to push that legislation through other cities and states but like anything it takes time. We keep plugging away at it. (We keep) talking about how to break the taboos that recognize there’s a time and place for bras to be sexy and there’s also a practicality about them that bring dignity to people, that lets them stand up straighter, that lets their clothes lay appropriately and make them feel better about themselves. So I do walk around with bras and tampons when I give speeches and help to open the conversation and break that stigma which I think is silly anyway.
We’ve done a couple of events where we’ve given away bras at a shelter. I’ve had bra fitters and professionals come in because clearly I’m not. Everyone can pick five bras. I like to talk to the women and find out why they’re picking what they’re picking. There was this one woman who only wanted hot pink; she had breast cancer. She’s been homeless for years. She loves to wear pink, she’s known for her pink. She said, “I’m just so excited I can pick out a whole bunch of bras in my size that are hot pink.” Crystal always sticks out for me because Crystal used to be a painter and an artist. She’s been homeless for years. She’s had the same bra for 8 years! She was so excited to pick out a new bra. We talked about what her preference would be and it was for a sports bra. She said, “I don’t even want the new ones you brought. I want a used one.” And so I said, “Why do you want a sports bra?” And she said, “Well, one I don’t want the underwire to cut in and break. Two, a sports bra doubles as a purse.” I didn’t know why a sports bra would double as a purse. She said, “A sports bra has the extra fabric that lets me put my most precious items next to me. No one’s going to get to them. I’m in and out of a lot of high risk locations. Shelters are not the safest places and the sports bra can contain it.” The other bra she wanted to pick out was red and lacy. I was like, “Why a red lacy bra?” And she said, “I’m homeless. I don’t feel pretty. I look in the mirror and I’m never happy with who I am. Having a red lacy bra is something that doesn’t put me at risk because nobody can see it. If I were to pick one of these fancy sweaters or fancy scarves or something that could be desirable to other people—whether they would want to hurt me for it or they would want to steal from me—I don’t want to call attention to myself. But a red lacy bra? I know it’s there. It’s hidden under my clothes. It can make me happy and smile just from knowing that it’s there.” There’s that.
Speaking of women with breast cancer, what about women who have had mastectomies?
We’ve received donations of mastectomy bras from women who have had breast cancer. We work with different partners to distribute those to low income women with breast cancer or in need of those highly expensive products. We’ve received donations from literally every state. I appreciate that that people are willing to participate and help others because at the end of the day they’re helping people they don’t know. I mean there’s a little bit of irony in the fact that strange women are sending me their undergarments in the mail. When I put it that way, Marcelle, it’s a little creepy.
It’s so wonderful how you’ve galvanized legions of people and corporations as well.
I still can’t believe this is working. We just had Support the Girls Taiwan ship 8000 bras. Support the Girls Thailand donates to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and Nightlight international that helps victims of sex trafficking. It’s still very very much a pinch me. It still makes me marvel that it’s working.
So you have two sons.
Yeah, 8 and 5.
Ah you’re in the magical years. When kids want to hold your hand and call you “Mommy.”
Yeah. I’m married to a feminist and we’re raising two feminists. We have had many people in the house who have been so shocked at… first of all my house, at right now? To date, we have donated collectively 85,000 bras and nearly 400,00 menstrual products.
So you’re basically swimming in this stuff. Like you are in Legos.
Yeah and that’s really important to me, that my kids are raised with a focus on equality. I will never forget when there was a reporter in my house asked—I guess at the time he was 7—my older son, “Do you know what those things are?” He looks at the reporter as if she had pointed to a bunch of cars or dinosaurs or Legos. He goes, “Those are tampons.” And the reporter looks at me and said, “He knows what they are.” And I said, “Well, why not?” Why wouldn’t he know the answer to those kinds of things? He doesn’t need to know the nitty gritty at 7 of periods and menstruation.
This is your home. People underestimate how aware children are. That they know what their parents are up to and feeling. And adults lose sight of that. They don’t get it.
They don’t. People are like, “Dana, how are you doing all this?” And I’m struggling. My kids see that running a global NGO and running a national consulting firm is tiring. It’s hard. It’s not sustainable. I let my kids know that. I think it’s important to let kids know its not Stepford Wives/Donna Reed/Everything is Perfect. No. My hair is always a mess. I suck at cooking. The kids know that men cook because my husband does all the cooking. We’ve had to level set and equate it to “Anybody can cook” because you don’t want it to go too one way or the other. They assume that men cook because children know what they see. It’s wild to see how they’re watching all of this.
It’s normal for them because it’s normal for you.
This has been interesting. I’m trying to coordinate playdates for my 5 year-old. Recently, he had a playdate. The father says to me, “Hey, when my son comes over, you don’t have bras and maxi pads laying around everywhere do you?” Some days we do and some days we don’t. Right now, I have 6100 bras in my basement and 40,000 menstrual products that need to be donated.
Right, because you are actually helping women in need.
I didn’t know my life was going to take this interesting path. For 20 years, I’ve been in disability advocacy and IT consulting on the technology side of things. This is a very cool unique curve ball that I’m happy to be part of. I don’t have a background in social work, I don’t have a background in women’s studies, I don’t have professional experience dealing in the arena of poverty. Again we’re talking about making websites compliant for people who are blind can read them, right so that’s very different than how are we helping developing nations like women in Islamabad get maxi pads.
How has feminism evolved for you over your lifetime?
For me, feminism is clearly deeply rooted in equality. I was somebody who, as a teenager, had no problems identifying as a feminist. I’m somebody who, at 40 years old, has no problems identifying as a feminist. I think that, in general, feminism at its core hasn’t really changed for me. I think there have been times in my life when I’ve been louder and prouder about it and there’s times where its just me. I think there have been different times when I’ve been more adamant about different issues. I’m more vocal about different issues. But at my core I don’t think feminism has changed. I think once a feminist, always a feminist.
Have you ever gone through a stage where you were angry?
I wasn’t angry growing up. I don’t think I had a time as a teenager to be the brooding angry teenager because my father, who I was very close with, was sick with brain cancer for most of my childhood. He passed away when I was twelve and a half. A lot of my childhood, my coming of age years, my teenage years were also spent tackling grief issues of the loss of a parent. That gave me a little bit of a different sense of prospective than most high school teenagers have. Not everybody watches their father get sick and then pass away. I had a different empathy for people that not everybody has. So much of my childhood free time was spent in hospitals, you know, like doing my homework at the nurse’s station because the light was better or my dad was sleeping. And who am I as a person and also dealing with other responsibilities that other kids didn’t have to. I have a younger brother who is five years younger than me; I was one of these kids who was very responsible, albeit nerdy.
So you were classic first child.
Yeah. I was a good student. I was involved in a lot of extra curricular activities. I didn’t have time to be angry. I was angry that I just lost my father. I don’t think I had the space to be angry about women’s equality issues although I took women’s literature classes. I like to learn from women. A lot of my teachers in high school were women.
Were you a writer? Like writing in your journal a lot?
I just found a poem I wrote when I was like 14 or 15, a very feminist focused poem. It’s not winning any poetry awards. It will give you a hint into Dana as a 15 year old. I was still kind of a loud outspoken teenager on women’s issues.
For more information on how to donate bras and feminine hygiene products to Support the Girls, go to http://isupportthegirls.org/how-to-donate/