The latest battle in the fight for women’s rights: Menstrual equity
▶ Lawmakers across the U.S. are cutting taxes on tampons ▶ “Our sales tax code is a reflection of what we value”
When New York City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland told her advisers she wanted to make feminine hygiene products free in public facilities, they told her she risked being forever associated with women’s periods. She ignored their recommendation that she back off the issue. “You can’t solve a problem that nobody wants to talk about,” Ferreras-Copeland says. “If we had to ask men to pay 25¢ for every square of toilet paper, or if they went to the bathroom and found no toilet paper, there would be an uprising.”
It turns out her political instincts were right. On June 21 she scored a unanimous vote in favor of providing tampons and sanitary pads at schools, foster homes, jails, and homeless shelters. The ordinance will serve about 300,000 students in New York City schools and an additional 23,000 women living in shelters or in jail.
New York isn’t alone. Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., are considering a giveaway program, though it’s been tabled until the fall. Chicago’s City Council voted in March to drop municipal sales taxes on feminine hygiene products by reclassifying them as medical appliances. “It’s a watershed moment for the U.S., this idea of menstrual equity, and it’s being driven by a lot of smart people recognizing the problem working to remove the stigmas attached to it,” says Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, vice president for develop- ment at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.
Bills lifting sales taxes on tampons and pads await governors’ signatures in Connecticut, Illinois, and New York. The California State Assembly passed a tax cut unanimously in early June; the measure awaits passage in the state senate. “Our sales tax code is a reflection of what we value,” co-sponsor Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, a Democrat who represents a district in eastern Los Angeles County, said before the vote. “It’s time we start valuing women’s health.” The sales tax cut will cost the state about $20 million a year, reports the state Board of Equalization.
Five states—Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania—already exclude tampons and other hygiene products from sales taxes, the National Conference of State Legislatures says. Pennsylvania also exempts diapers, wipes, toilet paper, toothbrushes, and toothpaste. “We don’t tax food, we don’t tax the things that are essential to the health and safety of people,” says Alison Weir, director of policy, research, and analysis for the National Diaper Bank Network, a group that tracks sales taxes on hygiene products nationally. “Every little bit helps when you want to maintain the health and welfare of the population.”
Canada suspended taxes on tampons and other hygiene products in July 2015. In March, the European Union agreed to allow member states to exclude feminine hygiene products from taxes on goods and services, partly in response to pressure from British leader David Cameron before the Brexit referendum. New York will spend at least $2.5 million a year on pads and tampons under the giveaway program. Other benefits will partly offset these costs: In a pilot program, the city’s education department found that attendance increased at the High School for Arts and Business in Queens, to 92.4 percent from 90 percent, after free sanitary product dispensers were installed. “I wish it were easier to access products at my school,” Lineyah Mitchell, who graduated in June from Brooklyn Technical High School, testified at a council hearing before the vote.
Much of the debate has focused on helping young and low-income women, but some lawmakers have been clear that they feel all women deserve a break when it comes to menstrual products. “My view is pretty simple,” says Illinois Democratic state Senator Melinda Bush, who sponsored her state’s tax-exemption bill. “Women know their period isn’t a luxury, and it shouldn’t be taxed like one. These products are necessities.”
The bottom line New York and California are among states poised to cut taxes on feminine hygiene products to help women.