An illustration of a tampon

Women's Bodies

The Politics of Menstruation

Millions of women across the nation struggle to afford simple sanitary supplies. It’s time for (mostly male) elected officials to reckon with the economic, health, and educational implications of the “tampon tax.”

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It was 1998 when Arunachalam Muruganantham first began working to create affordable feminine hygiene products for women in rural villages around his city of Coimbatore in South India. That was when Muruganantham first noticed that his wife and many other women, especially in rural areas, used rags sometimes wrapped around ash or sand to absorb blood during menstruation.

“In the ’90s, the napkins were available in Indian stores and supermarkets, but because of high production costs, they were out of reach of many,” he told NPR.

Many of the prototypes Muruganantham developed early on were failures; but as someone who experienced menstruation, his wife helped guide him to an eventual, ground-breaking finished product: a machine that efficiently produced low-cost and quality sanitary napkins.

Two decades later and Muruganantham, named one of Time magazine’s most influential people in 2014, is the subject of a Bollywood biopic that began airing in theaters across India earlier this year. The biopic follows not only his journey as an entrepreneur but also the social impact of his work to make safe, sanitary feminine hygiene products available to women of all socioeconomic statuses.

And just as culturally necessary as Muruganantham’s work is the circulation of this story in a public sphere that too often regards menstruation as too taboo to talk about, let alone watch a movie about. The implications of our conversations—or lack thereof—around menstruation reach beyond everyday culture into government, politics, and women’s living standards.

This is true in all parts of the world, and certainly in the United States, a country governed by a male president who once notoriously claimed a woman who questioned him had been on her period, an 80 percent male Congress, and state legislatures that are more than 75 percent male. The rare nature of discussions of menstruation and women’s health needs makes sense in this context.

More than 18 million American women are living in poverty as of 2014; 40 percent of America’s 565,000 homeless people are women; and as of 2017, 219,000 American women are incarcerated. That’s a lot of women struggling to afford and access feminine hygiene products. Additionally, girls are missing school because of their periods, and women on SNAP benefits are skipping meals to pay the “luxury” sales tax on tampons. This inaccessibility has consequences even more far-reaching even than discomfort, indignity, and lost opportunity; it can also lead to increased risk of cervical cancer and infections, according to research conducted in developing countries.

Male representatives’ discomfort talking about periods has real-world costs—and women are paying.

When it launched in 2016, the Periods for Pence campaign (since renamed “Periods for Politicians”) asked one thing of its many female supporters: to call then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s office every day and describe aspects of their period to him, from menstrual flow and cramps to tampon discomfort and bloating, and in doing so, expose just how much of this law was rooted in ignorance and misogyny.

This campaign was inspired by Pence’s notorious crusade on abortion rights in his state, and one law in particular that required miscarried or aborted fetuses to be buried or cremated. The law required this to be paid for by the woman who had the abortion, and neglected to specify a minimum gestation period. To many Indiana women—including Periods for Pence’s founders—this exposed the law’s underlying ignorance about menstruation, as its lack of clarity could potentially affect nearly any woman on her period, as Periods for Pence’s Facebook page noted in a post at the time: “Fertilized eggs can be expelled during a woman’s period without a woman even knowing that she might have had the potential blastocyst in her. Therefore, any period could potentially be a miscarriage without knowledge.”

The act of calling a male lawmaker and literally describing one’s period might sound outlandish, bizarre, even, but before Periods for Pence, politicians’ exposure to and participation in conversations about menstruation and struggles to access hygiene products have been severely limited.

In 2012, one female Michigan lawmaker was silenced from speaking on the state House floor for saying the word “vagina.” In 2015, when Trump claimed Fox News’ Megyn Kelly had been on her period while moderating a Republican presidential debate, he said she had “blood coming out of her wherever,” apparently unable to say the word “vagina” despite once being very forthright in encouraging famous men to “grab” women “by the pussy.”

Male lawmakers’ inability and absolute refusal to talk about women’s bodies and some of their more explicit health needs may seem comical on the surface, but it’s ultimately yielded a national crisis around women’s living standards.

Just last year, the president issued a dangerous executive order to prohibit funding for global organizations that offered information about family planning and abortion to young women, and just last week, his State Department removed language stating contraception and abortion are human rights from a global report. The Health and Human Services Department is reportedly phasing out groups that educate about and offer resources related to family planning in favor of pro-abstinence groups, essentially ignoring how birth control, for many women, isn’t even about sex: It’s about health. And specific to menstruation, birth control is often a necessity for women who experience heavy flow or cramping and period pain, sometimes to the point of needing to miss work or school.

In this administration, men in decision-making capacities are imposing censorship to avoid critical conversations about what women need to be safe and healthy. And unfortunately, the marginalization of women’s voices by men in positions of power is far more the norm than the exception. It should go without saying that women’s health is suffering because of this.

As of 2017, only nine states do not place a “luxury” tax on tampons, while five states don’t have sales tax; meanwhile, every other state in the nation taxes feminine hygiene products, and many waive the tax on similar bodily products for men such as Viagra and razors. Even in the state of California and its liberalized reproductive health laws, a bill ending the tampon tax passed the Assembly and Senate, but didn’t receive Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature.

“Liquor is a choice and a luxury, and human biology is not,” California State Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia had said last year in defense of her bill, which instead shifted the “luxury” tax on tampons to alcoholic beverages. “There is no happy hour for menstruation. Our tax code needs to reflect the fact that it’s not ok to tax women for being born women.”

It was just last year that Brown signed off on a bill requiring public secondary schools to offer cost-free menstrual products in restrooms, and while colleges like Brown University, the University of Southern California, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and others either offer or are working toward offering sanitary products in campus restrooms, this is not yet the norm in most parts of the country. Some young women and families on SNAP report choosing between buying food or feminine hygiene products. The Free the Tampons Foundation tells the stories of girls and young women across the country who are forced to miss school or use rags and toilet paper to absorb blood during their periods when their families can’t afford sanitary products, a reality that places them at a distinct disadvantage behind their male peers, yielding not only poor physical but also mental health.

The “luxury” tax placed on tampons is insulting on principle because menstruation isn’t a choice, and it certainly isn’t a luxury. But for many women, on top of this, the added costs of the tax can make tampons inaccessible. California lawmakers reported that in their state alone, the tax on tampons costs California consumers $20 million annually.

The issue is exacerbated for homeless women, who, as previously noted, form the majority of the United States’ homeless population of roughly 550,000, and incarcerated women. Incarcerated people earn far below minimum wage, with some earning $0.75 or less per day, and in prison, costs range from $2.63 for 24 pads to $4 for eight tampons.

And extreme discomfort and indignity—which, once again, will only be exacerbated by federal attacks on hormonal birth control access—aren’t even the only costs of menstruation without sanitary products. Poor menstrual hygiene can even be deadly, as studies have shown it is linked to high rates of cervical cancer in developing countries, along with infections from using unwashed rags in lieu of pads. Placed in this context, tampons being taxed as “luxury” products is not only ridiculous but dangerous.

And yet, tragically enough, it will require some miracle of male legislators finally listening to facts about periods to spark real change.

Or, of course, we could just replace those men.

What do the lawmakers leading the way in Wisconsin, Colorado, California, Illinois and every other state that has either tried to or successfully waived the tampon tax have in common? They’re women—they’re people who are comfortable talking about menstruation, have knowledge about it or have experienced it firsthand.

Late last year, Wisconsin state Rep. Melissa Sargent formally introduced legislation that would not only create a sales tax exemption for feminine hygiene products, which are currently subjected to the state’s 5 percent sales tax rate but also require restrooms of buildings owned, leased or occupied by the state to carry these products. Prior to this, Sargent helped oversee a pilot program in public high schools in the state to supply menstrual products in campus restrooms in addition to the nurse’s office, and in November last year, she told the Wisconsin Public Radio it had been a “great success.”

“[Students] didn’t have to go to a nurse’s office, for example, to gain access to menstrual products. They were less likely to go home because they had to change,” she said.

In 2016, Sargent spoke to NPR about women being conditioned to feel shame for menstruation, and lawmakers’ discomfort with and reluctance to have conversations about periods as a factor in why this issue has gone neglected through the years.

Around the same time this legislation was formally introduced in Wisconsin, in Colorado, Democratic state Rep. Susan Lontine introduced similar legislation. A year before this, legislators in her state under the leadership of another female state representative, Leslie Herod, added an amendment to the state budget to fund hygiene products for incarcerated women.

And in California, state assemblywoman Cristina Garcia was the driving force behind a bill to end the tampon tax, which, as previously noted, passed the state legislature only for Brown to veto it. But despite her frustration with his decision, she refused to quit on the issue. She went on to fight for AB 10, the aforementioned bill requiring middle and high schools in which at least 40 percent of students meet the poverty threshold to provide free menstrual products in campus restrooms. In October of last year, Brown ended up signing it.

Illinois saw another success story late in 2016, led by state Sen. Melinda Bush and approved by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. Bush’s bill made feminine hygiene products tax-exempt, and was sponsored by another female state senator, Laura Murphy. Bush told the Chicago Tribune at the time that her bill was, “just the start of a conversation.”

In the United States, what progress we’ve made so far to promote accessibility of menstrual products and recognition of these products as crucial health care, we owe largely to female politicians. Many of them stood up to skeptical male peers and weathered crude online trolling just to initiate critical conversations in their states. For some insight into the role of women’s representation in how seriously menstrual health is taken, consider Utah’s all-male state House Revenue and Taxation Committee and its decision to not only move a female state representative’s proposal to eliminate the tampon tax to the bottom of its priority list, but eventual decision to veto it from moving forward back in 2016.

Representation matters, and speaking of representation, it’s 2018: an election year. Come November, we could all be a part of the only real solution there is—that is, electing more women who will make women’s health a priority, and aren’t afraid to say the word “vagina.”

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