What started in a student’s bedroom is now a worldwide movement that led to some pretty amazing victories. Nevada is the 10th American state to eliminate the so-called tampon tax. London-based commentator and radio-host Rosie MacLeod investigates the #EndTamponTax movement on both sides of the Pond.
– by Rosie MacLeod –
In 2014, some ‘serious exam procrastination’ led Laura Coryton to look into the British taxation system from her student bedroom in London. Private helicopter maintenance, horse meat, crocodile meat: just three of the items – basic necessities I’m sure – she discovered on the tax-exempt list, while sanitary items go taxed as luxuries.
From that same student bedroom, armed with only a change.org account and a ‘positive, almost humorous’ writing style, Coryton launched the #EndTamponTax petition and the campaign went viral overnight. People listened. Parliament listened. Everyone listened to members of the Westminster boys’ club say words like ‘tampon’ and ‘period’ in those hallowed cloisters; they had to speak about menstruation. The period taboo that had so long upheld the unfair tax on sanitary products was finally breaking.
Job done. Except it isn’t
The House voted and passed the motion to stop taxing tampons as luxuries by 2019. Enter Brexit. Prior to the EU membership referendum, the then Prime Minister David Cameron travelled to Brussels to negotiate a better deal for the UK as an EU member state, including the right to legislate its own taxes and inclusive of the so-called ‘tampon tax’. No good turn goes unpunished and this well-intended measure only postponed ending the tax to 2020. But still, job done. Except it isn’t. Abolishment of the tampon tax is now scheduled for 2022. Although the #EndTamponTax job is far from complete, erasing it is somewhat more straightforward in the UK than across the Pond.
In late 2015, American lawyer Jennifer Weiss-Wolf happened upon a Facebook plea from a local food pantry or food bank, requesting donations of tampons and sanitary towels. The post explained ‘why these products could be hard to afford for those on low incomes, why shelters and food pantries wouldn’t be likely to stock them – they’re not in their budget – and that people don’t think to donate them.’ Although happy to donate to the collection drive, Weiss-Wolf felt such ‘a systemic problem would require a systemic solution’. She consequently co-founded Period Equity, a policy agenda ‘aimed at destigmatising menstruation, acknowledging the economics of menstruation’ and removing the sales tax from menstrual products to that end.
‘A systemic problem requires a systemic solution’
In Periods Gone Public she serves as a platform for this policy agenda and argues for ‘access to affordable, safe menstrual products as a necessity for women to be active participants in society, attend school and be productive at work.’ Weiss-Wolf was concerned that ‘Periods are so stigmatised and had never been part of US policy making or US policy debate, so how would legislators even say words like ‘tampon’ and ‘period’, let alone legislate on it?’ That rings a bell and holds a mirror to the British counterpart, but here’s where the American sister campaign becomes more complex.
In the US, sales tax on tampons is not a federal tax. This means it is not decided by an overriding central government and outsourced to every state in the same way that Westminster can pass a motion that then applies in every UK constituency. In the USA, sales tax is legislated on a state-by-state basis and so by the local state government. In late 2015, ‘40 of the 50 states did not exempt menstrual products from the sales tax’, meaning ‘40 different campaigns’ would be necessary to remove it altogether.
The poorest women are the hardest hit by the tampon tax
Furthermore, the more closely monitored American welfare system varies greatly from benefits in the UK. Food stamps and much social spending cannot be used to acquire anything but the intended commodity such as food and shelter. The cost of going through the natural bodily process of menstruation is simply not factored into the welfare system, meaning women in poor and low-income families fall through the cracks when it comes to affording menstrual products.
An intersection between menstruation and poverty arises, which can conceivably force women to choose affordable food or going hungry to afford a clean period. The American sister campaign consequently necessitates additional ‘access bills’. In so doing, it draws out that the poorest women are the hardest hit by the financial sexism of the sales tax. Already, we can see how the American version illuminates misogyny rooted in periods, or to which periods are relevant. Fortunately, access bills, that is to say ‘laws that ensure women who need to can access, afford and have free menstrual products’, have ‘taken off like wildfire’.
Cowboy boots, gun club memberships and Viagra go without sales tax
In 2016, New York City ‘was the first to pass a slate of three laws that make menstrual products free in all of the city’s state schools, shelters and correction facilities.’ At city level, LA and Chicago followed suit. Illinois has also made free sanitary products available in state schools with ‘Colorado and Nebraska [doing] the same for state prisoners. Even at the Federal Government, US department of Justice issued a law mandating free menstrual products in all federal prisons.’
Making sanitary towels and tampons free and accessible, starting with the poorest and most vulnerable women, is no mean feat. It will involve ‘working our way through a maze of regulations through which we live our lives, whether tax code, department of labour standards, or health programmes’. The legalities that complicate making tampons free are numerous.
Meanwhile, in certain states, cowboy boots, gun club memberships and Viagra go without sales tax. This highlights a political landscape where ‘the powers that be have not considered the reality of’ women, who are ‘not a minority group, but half the electorate’; another example of systemic sexism illuminated by the American campaign.
Furthermore, the blueprint of policies caters not one iota for the female cycle, which is the ‘means by which we women perpetuate the population’. Why so much stigma and secrecy over something half the population does once a month, securing the survival of our species? Aside from the vested interest that periods remain taboo to maintain the tampon sales tax, a kind of silent defence for it where manufacturers of cowboy boots, Viagra, et al would voice an argument, fear of menstruating women is one factor. Misogynist or just plain ignorant?
A single mentality can have more than one face
Whilst researching for her book Periods Gone Public, Weiss-Wolf found that ‘some communities that have celebrated menstruation and seen it as something that strengthens women, making them something to be feared. I think fear is actually a big part of where the stigma comes from in the first place.’ Such subconscious fear ‘bleeds’ into the need to keep periods a secret, manifesting in the economic disadvantage already described and extending to ‘girls all over the world truly suffering from all manner of beliefs about menstruation.’
‘Girls miss school or are unproductive at school. Girls in rural Nepal are banished from their homes during their period and we’ve seen the deaths of three teenage girls who died in menstrual huts outside their homes. Two were bitten by snakes and one died of suffocation after lighting a fire to keep warm.’ Unimaginable. But possibly even more disturbing, those deaths arose from the intersection of poverty and menstruation also present in the Land of the Free. A single mentality can have more than one face.
Quotations taken from a conversation with Laura Coryton and Jennifer Weiss-Wolf in Oxford, February 2018.
Editorial note: the worldwide #EndTamponTax movement has led to some pretty amazing victories. After Canada in 2015, Australia, Spain and India decided to end the tax on menstrual products in the last year. November 8th, Nevada became the 10th American state to eliminate the tampon tax.
About the author
Rosie MacLeod (London) has a strong background in European Studies. She has written extensively on language politics. When she isn’t writing, she can be found translating and making radio programmes. She is the host of ‘Political Motivation’ on @WomensRadioStn and various shows on @EastLondonRadio. Listen to her podcasts on mixcloud.com/rosie-macleod.