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March 26, 2018 by

This Writer-Attorney Is Fighting to Get Rid of the Tampon Tax

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf at the Coney Island Polar Bear Swim.

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf at the Coney Island Polar Bear Swim.

Every January 1st, writer-attorney Jennifer Weiss-Wolf jumps into the Atlantic Ocean in a ritual sponsored by Brooklyn’s Coney Island Polar Bear Club. “The camaraderie is almost inexplicable,” she writes in the Introduction to Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity (Arcade Publishing, 2017). “People think it’s crazy. And maybe it is. But it’s actually a very proactive, symbolic way to set an intention and direction for the remaining 364 days of the year.”

Such plans, of course, are all well and good, at least until serendipity enters the mix.

To wit: Three years ago, a few hours after Weiss-Wolf’s 2015 New Year’s Day plunge, she found her gaze turning in an unexpected direction. The reason? An email seeking donations of tampons and sanitary pads for distribution at a local food pantry.

“I was immediately captivated and curious—and honestly, even mildly ashamed, that I’d never, ever, considered this before,” she wrote. “A self-aware, self-professed feminist, I’d marched on Washington, volunteered as a rape crisis advocate and abortion clinic escort, and worked professionally as a lawyer and writer for social justice organizations. How had I managed to completely overlook this most basic issue?”

That question precipitated an avalanche of others and, in short order, Weiss-Wolf was investigating why millions of women throughout the world—in places like Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Nepal, Uganda and the United States of America—often lack access to an adequate supply of pads and tampons.  

Weiss-Wolf sat down with Eleanor J. Bader to discuss her work on a cold, mid-March Monday. The interview took place in Weiss-Wolf’s office at the Brennan Center for Justice, where she is Vice President for Development.

Eleanor J. Bader: Over the past several years, people of all ages, classes, races, and political leanings have gravitated to the issue of menstrual equity. Why do you think this issue has taken hold so broadly?

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf: Menstrual equity is decidedly neutral, yet it has shades of feminist radicalism attached to it. But unlike abortion, contraception, or sex education, it is not politically toxic. Menstruation is something that all women face, but because we have been conditioned not to talk about it in public, when we’re open about our periods it feels slightly edgy.

I also think that the universality of menstruation arouses empathy. When people hear about barriers to participation in everyday life—girls missing days of school each month because they don’t have sanitary products—it catches them off guard and has a cross-cutting ability to make them want to help. The issue gets to the core of equity and does not have a partisan feel to it. In fact, both U.S. political parties have taken to this issue. For Republicans who are anti-choice, menstrual equity gives them a way to speak to women’s economic equality and empowerment. For Democrats, it’s a way to step out of their usual box and promote wide-scale access to sanitary products in public facilities.

EJB: Why did you choose to talk about equity, rather than putting menstruation into the context of reproductive justice?

JW-W: The phrase menstrual equity is very purposeful. It is a way of putting menstruation into a category that includes opportunities for women to participate and be productive in their workplaces or schools. Previously, when menstruation was discussed, it was raised as a public health, personal hygiene, or human rights concern. These are important, but I chose equity so that I could address the ways menstruation keeps women and girls from taking part in their communities. This lens led me to policy and forced me address the legislative changes that can make women’s participation in democratic processes and decision-making more likely. Since I began this work in 2015, I’ve learned that getting people from all corners of society—and the legislators who represent them—to talk about periods can lead to the changes we want to see and help us to formulate a comprehensive agenda for women’s equality.

EJB: As I read Periods Gone Public, I was shocked to learn about the products that are taxed or untaxed in particular states. It seemed really arbitrary. Can you talk about efforts to remove the sales tax on pads and tampons in the states that continue to tax them? (Note to readers: There are examples of randomly untaxed items in almost every state. Here are a few: Mississippi does not tax coffins; Iowa exempts Kettle Corn; North Dakota exempts pastries; Nevada exempts newspaper ink; and Florida has made marshmallows tax-free.)

JW-W: Thirty-six states still tax menstrual products. Five—Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon—have no sales tax whatsoever on anything. Another eight—Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania—have removed the tax; Connecticut eliminated it through a line item in the budget, rather than legislatively, which means that the exception can expire when the budget expires.

Ongoing campaigns to remove the tax have taken root in numerous other places. The argument that is being made by activists is simple: Pads and tampons should be treated like food, which is untaxed because it is essential.

We’ve made some recent headway. Both houses in Virginia just passed a tampon tax elimination bill and the governor is expected to sign it.

EJB: Efforts to provide sanitary goods in prisons, public schools, and homeless shelters, among other places, have also taken off. What’s the current status of these campaigns?

JW-W: In June 2016, the New York City Council passed, and the mayor signed, a bill to provide supplies to women incarcerated on Riker’s Island and in all correctional facilities in the city’s five boroughs. It was the first systemic, jurisdictional statement of its kind in the U.S. Since then, different state, city, and federal systems have copied the model. In Los Angeles County, for example, the Superintendent announced that beginning in January 2017, all juvenile detention facilities in the county will provide needed supplies to those who need them.

There has also been momentum on the federal level. The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act was introduced in the Senate in July, 2017. It’s a broad bill that covers visitation and shackling, as well as access to sanitary products. Co-sponsors Corey Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have been outspoken supporters of the bill and have continued to highlight the necessity of menstrual equity for women inside our jails and prisons. 

Surprisingly, the Bureau of Prisons—yes, the one that is run by Jeff Sessions’s Department of Justice—recently issued a policy recommendation that pads and tampons be made freely available in federal facilities. Of course, this recommendation has no teeth, but the fact that menstruation is being discussed at all is important and noteworthy.

There has also been a small amount of progress when it comes to providing free supplies in public schools. Illinois now does this, and California has a formula where supplies are provided if a designated percentage of the student body is eligible to participate in the free lunch program. The fact that, by law, public education cannot be infringed or denied should be enough to guarantee access to no-cost sanitary supplies, but for most schools, the issue is financial. At the same time, no one questions allocations for toilet paper, so activists need to push everyone’s thinking on this.

When it comes to helping the homeless, it’s impossible to prioritize periods as if they stand alone, since undomiciled people—those staying in shelters as well as those living on the street—have so many other things to contend with. Again, an easy fix is to provide free sanitary supplies in all public bathrooms, so that no matter where someone sleeps she will have access to whatever supplies she needs.

EJB: Are you now working on a specific menstrual equity project?

JW-W: Laura Strausfeld, a women’s health expert, and I have launched an online group, periodequity.org, so that anyone who wants to get involved in organizing efforts or legislative work can be in touch with us. The site is in its infancy, but I’m very excited about it.

Since Periods Gone Public came out in October, the book has generated a lot of interest. I’m really proud of the role it’s played in changing the discourse and putting menstrual equity on the policy agenda at the state, local, and national levels. I love that I can be creative and nimble and work with a lot of different partners, from the folks who are doing grassroots organizing to lawmakers, and can help them develop talking points, write op eds, or strategize more generally.

There’s so much more to do to make menstrual equity a reality, but we’ve made some real headway. That periods impact half of every population the world over means that women are not a special interest group, and we should not be treated like one. It’s high time that every law, every policy, and every workplace and school recognize this. I’m delighted that promoting menstrual equity can move this idea forward.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.