Earlier this month, Scotland became the first country to launch a pilot program providing low-income women with sanitary products. On one hand, it seems like a bold move—it’s the first country to do so. On the other, it’s remarkable that this hasn’t happened until now.
While for many of us buying tampons may seem like just an inconvenience, we who menstruate actually spend on average over $2,000 on feminine hygiene products over the course of our lives (not to mention the thousands many spend on birth control and pain medication to regulate cycles and ease cramps)—money that some women simply do not have. For anyone with a period—which is about half the population—not having access to sanitary products can be traumatizing. There are reports of women using wads of toilet paper, socks, or even newspapers when they couldn’t afford pads or tampons, and avoiding school and public life until their period has passed. Yet, despite the debilitating effect of not having access to such necessities, there have historically been few legislative moves to provide sanitary products to those who can’t afford them in the U.S.
Thankfully, there are now legislators and policy advocates coming forward to rectify that.
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, author of the forthcoming Periods Gone Public: Making a Stand for Menstrual Equality and co-founder of Period Equity, a law and policy institute focusing on menstruation issues, has been one of the women on the frontlines in the fight for policy change. Her experience learning about the issue, then feeling suddenly compelled to do something about it, seems to be echoed by many working in the movement.
“I became completely intrigued with the question of what it means for low-income people to manage menstruation,” Weiss-Wolf, who’s also vice president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, told The Daily Dot. “There wasn’t a lot being said about it at the time. The reaction I had to it was really oversized… it was so visceral.”
She says part of the success of the menstrual equity movement is reminding others of the universality of the pain and shame in menstruation. “If you’ve had a period you know what that gut-wrenching, horrifying feeling is,” she says. “That is the power that many of us have tapped into.”
Tampon Tax in America
The first hurdle in fighting for access to sanitary products has been working to demolish the tax on menstruation products that, up until a few years ago, existed in 40 states (five states have no sales tax whatsoever, while the remaining five didn’t tax sanitary products). This tax classifies tampons as a luxury item, rather than a necessity—to put that in perspective, potato chips are not taxed as a luxury item. Apparently, tampons and pads are less essential than a bag of chips.
Over the past several years this tax—combined with the fact that so many women can’t afford sanitary products—has drawn public ire. Though exact statistics on how many women struggle with access aren’t readily available (due, in part, to embarrassment around discussing menstrual needs), it’s not difficult to see the gravity of the situation. With 21 percent of U.S. children living in poverty and 43 percent living in low-income families, it’s startling to consider the number of young women who are struggling to find a way to not bleed through their clothes or who might reuse or keep in sanitary products to save money.
Period products are the most in-demand items from homeless shelters. Prisoners report products being delayed or withheld completely, leaving them to bleed through uniforms. The more we look around, the more we see that period poverty affects all of our most vulnerable women.
And it’s not just in the U.S.—tampon taxes and the lack of free sanitary products around the world have come under scrutiny. Girls in the U.K. have reported using socks and missing school because they can’t afford sanitary products. One in 10 girls in Africa miss school for their entire period every month. But, as Weiss-Wolf points out, the U.S. is a particularly difficult case because the tax has to be fought on a state-by-state basis.
The good new is things are changing—and quite rapidly. 2015 was deemed by NPR “The Year Of The Period” as menstruation issues burst onto the world stage. Women started making statements by showing their period blood publicly, Trump was torn apart for saying Megyn Kelly had blood “coming out of her wherever,” and the #PeriodsAreNotAnInsult hashtag took over social media. In fact, by 2015 the use of the word “menstruation” in national outlets had tripled.
All of this was both the backdrop and a motivator for a swift shift in attitude toward menstruation. Because 2015 is also when the tampon tax started to get some really bad press. Then, in January 2016, on the very first day of California’s legislative session, California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia announced a bill aimed at removing the tax. By March 2016 five bills had been introduced across the country.
By the end of 2016, New York and Illinois both scrapped the tampon tax, and Connecticut removed the tax from its budget. This year, Florida also agreed to end the tax and Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Vermont have all introduced bills to do the same. Though there is still resistance and not all of the bills will pass, the winds are clearly changing as more legislators and voters see that this is a common-sense issue.
But the tax issue is only the beginning of the fight for sanitary product accessibility.
“The sales tax was just the gateway to get people willing to talk about menstruation in a policy environment,” Weiss-Wolf says. “The idea always was to take this much, much further.”
Beyond the sales tax issues
Really, the end goal has to be to make sure that all women have access to sanitary products—and that means making them free for people who can’t afford them. This has proven more difficult than the tampon tax, because while almost everyone can accept that sanitary products shouldn’t be categorized as a luxury, the idea of “giving something away for free” has garnered much more resistance.
In the meantime, some progress is being made in certain pockets of America. Last year, New York City passed laws mandating the provision of free sanitary products in all public schools, shelters, and jails. It’s a huge step forward—and not one to be underestimated. “That policy is being replicated around the country,” Weiss-Wolf says. “On a national level, the new prison bill put it at the center.”
The prison bill she’s referring to is the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which was introduced this month by Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). It aims to provide many protections for women in federal prisons, including prohibiting pregnant women from being shackled or placed in solitary confinements—and giving them free sanitary products.
In fact, period product availability in prisons has become its own sub-movement—and with good reason: There were reports of withholding sanitary products from women in jail and humiliating women by making them show their used pads before receiving a fresh one. In the last six months, Los Angeles passed an ordinance to provide free tampons in juvenile detention centers and Colorado mandated funding for tampons in state prisons. California, Illinois, Connecticut, and Maryland have also all introduced bills aimed at helping provide sanitary products to different vulnerable groups, including prisons and shelters.
Though individual states and cities are doing a laudable job at tackling the issue, they are in the minority. That’s why a federal law is needed. Enter Menstrual Equity for All Act of 2017, introduced by Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.)—the first-ever federal menstruation omnibus bill. It contains provisions for tax credits for low-income women to purchase sanitary products, as well as for them be provided to detainees and employees of large companies.
“Menstrual hygiene products are a necessity for most women, yet they are treated as luxury items,” Meng said in a press release. “It is definitely not a luxury to menstruate, and my legislation acknowledges this reality by making it easier for women and girls to access the products that their anatomy requires. I urge all of my colleagues—both male and female—to support this important bill.”
While the bill was introduced into Congress in February, it still has a long way to go. It currently sits the initial stage of being considered by committee.
Smashing the stigma
These bills, whether they succeed or not, and the publicity they’ve generated highlight one of the most encouraging part of the movement: It’s chipping away at the taboo of talking about periods. Up until recently, we couldn’t even have a commercial for tampons that didn’t feature mountain biking, skydiving, and alien blue liquid to clumsily distract from the fact that they were a (gasp!) period product.
Even five years ago it was impossible to imagine menstruation taking over the front page of major outlets. Jessica Valenti was pilloried for tackling the issue in the Guardian as recently as 2014. But the recent Prison Equality Bill led with sanitary products as its main feature. Legislators are openly discussing tampons and pads in a way that would have been met with blushes and tuts just a few years ago. It’s a huge societal shift.
And it goes further than just the legislative progress. There have also been activists, journalists, and influencers opening the discussion about menstruation. At the same time that tampon tax and sanitary product access have been making headlines, we’ve also had Rupi Kaur Instagramming her period blood and Kiran Gandhi running the London marathon while bleeding openly. Women are showing girls that they do not need to feel ashamed about their periods or about their bodies. We’re normalizing the period after a long history of squeamishness.
There’s a reciprocal bolstering effect between the legislation and the media coverage. Kaur’s Instagram photo ended up on the cover of Newsweek, something that would have been unimaginable even a few years ago. The more the stigma is smashed, the more mainstream media attention it gets, the more it encourages legislators to fight for menstrual rights without backlash.
And together, it’s working: A company in Bristol, U.K., has introduced period policies allowing women to take time off. Sustain, a company that sells period products, gives 10 percent of their profits to help provide their goods to women in need.
As we’re getting a more holistic view of menstruation culture, attitudes are improving. But access is key—and for our country’s most vulnerable, that fight is still very much being waged.