It had all the makings of a viral controversy: a male legislator in Michigan discussing menstruation, tampons, and his girlfriend — on Facebook last week.
But state Senator David Knezek wasn’t interested in controversy when he shared his thoughts on buying feminine hygiene products for his girlfriend. He was interested in generating awareness about the unfair sales tax on tampons, sanitary pads, and menstrual cups and why Michigan needs to repeal it. It’s been dubbed the “tampon tax” or “period tax” and there is growing momentum, across the country, to dump it.
In the states that have sales tax, only five don’t tax women for having periods. In the rest of the states with sales tax, tampons and pads are considered “luxury items” by the government and are therefore able to be taxed as such. Michigan is one of a handful of states that has either introduced legislation to repeal the “tampon tax” or recently passed a bill to do so. Canada became the first country in the world to abolish the tax after being petitioned by tens of thousands of citizens who spent years fighting the No Tax on Tampons battle.
If you’re wondering why you should care about this issue (aside from the absurdity of it all), here are 3 great reasons:
1) Tampons, pads, and menstrual cups are not “luxury items” for women who menstruate. Most states make exemptions in their tax codes for goods and services deemed necessary or essential (non-luxury items). I think we can all agree that those of us who have periods or who have had periods at one point in our lives do not consider stemming or catching or absorbing the flow of blood from our vaginas every month unnecessary. It isn’t a luxury for girls in particularly poor regions of developing countries where feminine hygiene products are in short supply or unavailable, forcing girls to stay home from school regularly. There is widespread social stigma in many of these areas that accompanies menstruation as well. No matter where one lives though, it is not a luxury to have access to and use menstrual products.
2) Ditching the period tax is an issue of gender equity. Women are paying a tax for simply having the biological make-up we do. Cristina Garcia, the California Assemblywoman who introduced legislation in January to eliminate the tampon tax in her state, announced the bill by saying, “Basically we are being taxed for being women.” The gender injustice highlighted by this tax is even more apparent when one considers that, in California, Viagra is considered exempt from sales tax while tampons and pads are not. It’s not that non-essential taxes are unjustly placed only on items that women purchase. Many states tax toilet paper. I’d be hard-pressed to find someone who considers toilet paper non-essential. But the period tax is inherently unjust for women because almost all women menstruate. Eliminating the tax would send a clear message that menstruation for women is not optional and the products we need to deal with menstruation should not be unfairly targeted as optional either.
3) Low-income women are disproportionately impacted by the “tampon tax.” It may not seem like much to some Americans but paying upwards of $7-$10 every month for tampons or pads adds up. For low-income and homeless women this monthly cost is one more financial burden in a long list of “essentials” like food or housing. In an article earlier this year explaining the tampon tax, the Washington Post notes that over 40 years — the approximate number of years women menstruate — these continuous costs add up.
The tampon tax is an economic impediment that exists simply by being a woman, but it’s far from the only one. Consider the wage gap as well. Women working full-time in the United States typically make 79 percent of what white men are paid. Black women average only 64 cents for every dollar a white man makes, and Latina women fare even worse, at 54 cents. How many ways can we scrape away at economic justice for women in this country? Ms. Magazine explains that for low-income women, homeless women, young women, and women behind bars, getting rid of the tampon tax doesn’t go far enough. In New York City, a program piloted last Fall in schools that serve low-income students provides free tampons and pads.. Response to the program was overwhelmingly positive and the New York City Council proposed a bill last month to provide free tampons and pads in all public school restrooms and homeless shelters, and improve access in correctional facilities. In Wisconsin, one county will soon be providing menstrual products for free in eight county facilities.
After a group of women in New York filed a lawsuit against the Department of Taxation calling the tampon tax discriminatory and a double standard, New York passed a law to stop taxing tampons. It is waiting for Governor Cuomo’s signature. In Ohio, there is a similar lawsuit pending. Women understand how important affordable and accessible menstrual products are because we live with the need month in and month out for decades throughout our lives. Now that legislators like Sen. David Knezek of Michigan and Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia are making impassioned pleas and sponsoring bills to repeal the tampon tax, there is not only a growing awareness of the unfair policies but the potential for greater understanding of what it means to menstruate for women and girls and how it impacts our lives.
Want to add your voice to the menstrual rights movement? Sign this petition to let state legislators know you support ditching the tampon tax!