As widespread debate over women’s reproductive health sweeps the nation, the call for access to female reproductive healthcare and products has become more relevant than ever.
As it stands, 35 states have a tax on menstrual products as they are listed as a “non-essential good,” but there has yet to be a sales tax placed on various men’s sexual health products such as Viagra. The so-called “pink tax” on feminine hygiene products is a sales tax of approximately 6.85%.
Currently, there are approximately 25 million American women who live below the poverty line and may have a harder time getting access to feminine hygiene products, as they are not covered by food stamps.
Because of this disparity in access to menstrual products, activists are now calling for “menstrual equity.” But what does that entail exactly?
Menstrual equity, a term coined by menstrual advocate and attorney Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, can be described as “the ability to manage menstruation in the context of full democratic and civic participation.” To most activists, this means access to both menstrual hygiene products as well as access to reproductive education.
Safe and affordable access to sanitary pads and tampons have two major policy aspects: eliminating extra costs on pads and tampons (sometimes called the “tampon tax”) and increasing public accommodations (providing menstrual hygiene products in schools, prisons, and homeless and crisis shelters).
“The ability to access these items affects a person’s ability to work and study, to be healthy, and to participate in daily life with basic dignity,” Weiss-Wolf said in her book Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equality.
One of the primary barriers to access to safe and affordable menstrual hygiene products is that of affordability. There have been movements such as the change.org petition started by Period Equity and Cosmopolitan magazine (which has now amassed over 100,000 signatures) to abolish the infamous tampon tax.
The activists’ efforts have proven to be fruitful. Since launching the Period Equity movement in 2015, over 24 states have moved towards eliminating the tax and five states (Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, and New York) have been successful.
Although people who menstruate would benefit from an abolishment of the tampon tax, it has not been universally accepted.
The primary argument is that states could lose money if they lift taxes from menstrual products. Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, for example, vetoed a bill in 2016 that would have eliminated the tax in California, citing “a loss in 20 million dollars in tax revenue.”
However, many states argue that such a tax on menstrual products is discriminatory towards individuals who menstruate monthly.
Another policy aspect to be addressed is that of accommodations, or access to menstrual products in public spaces like schools or work.
Democratic New York Representative Grace Meng introduced a house resolution in 2017 titled Menstrual Equity for All Act. The bill was primarily designed to allow various demographics of individuals who menstruate to have access to the required hygiene products.
There are five components to this bill:
Allow individuals to buy hygiene products through money they contribute to their flexible spending accounts
Provide a refundable tax credit to low-income individuals who routinely use menstrual hygiene products
Allow grant funds from the Emergency Food and Shelter Grant Program (which are typically utilized for homeless assistance providers for essential goods) to be used for feminine hygiene products
Require each state to provide menstrual hygiene products in federal prisons to both prisoners and detainees in exchange for funds from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program
The Secretary of Labor will require employers with 100 or more employees to provide menstrual products to said employees free of charge
The bill would certainly be a step in a positive direction for supplying public accommodations, but as of now, it has been referred to the House Ways and Means Committee. The committee is primarily responsible for appropriating the federal government’s revenue to social services programs, such as Medicaid and Social Security.
The takeaway argument for menstrual equity can be best summed up by a quote from the aforementioned Periods Gone Public: "When menstruation is stripped of its reproductive purpose, and framed solely as a basic bodily function—right up there with nosebleeds—legislators from both sides of the aisle are more willing to engage.”
Women in the United States should be able to go to work, attend school, and participate in daily public life without being forced to stay home for fear of losing their dignity due to a lack of hygiene resources.
Zaira Khan is a junior at Mercer University where she is pursuing a double major in public health and sociology. She enjoys exploring the world around her and hopes to contribute to a more honest, thought-provoking world.