How Ending the Tampon Tax Became Viral Legislation

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Before Greta Johnson was elected to the Ohio state legislature in 2014, she was “admittedly naive about what women are facing systematically in Ohio.” Johnson is a Democrat, and her party is outnumbered two-to-one in both the state House and Senate. “When you are sitting in the front row watching the GOP chip away at your reproductive freedom, your financial freedom … at some point you have to be proactive,” she says.

So in early 2015, Johnson sat down with her communications director and asked: What can we do? Among other efforts, including a slate of pro-choice laws, they came up with a bill to eliminate the tax on pads, tampons, and other menstrual products. Right now, most states apply sales tax to feminine hygiene products because they’re considered “luxury” goods — not “necessities” like food and medicine. Never mind the fact that, in some states, Viagra counts as a necessity when pads and tampons do not. Never mind that some girls who lack access to these “luxury” supplies report missing school.

Last year, both Australia and Canada were debating whether to end the tax, and activists in the United Kingdom were pushing for the same thing. Canada ultimately followed through. “When a whole country gets onboard, you’re like, ‘I’m going to pay attention,’” Johnson says. She joined forces with another first-term Democrat, Emilia Sykes, who has a background in public health and sits on the committee that handles tax matters.

The bill they introduced in Ohio was the first of what has become a wave of state-level proposals to end taxes on menstrual supplies. While they’re not brand new, bills to axe the tampon tax are — dare I say it? — trending. Between 1975 and 2005, only five states (Maryland, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Massachusetts) dropped the tampon tax. But since the middle of last year, legislators in eight states and at least two major cities (D.C. and Chicago) have introduced legislation to end the tax. But there’s not a single group behind the effort, nor have the lawmakers deliberately coordinated their efforts. So why has tampon-tax opposition gone viral? And why now?

Pads and tampons have made political headlines in every single month of this year. In January, lawmakers in California, Utah, Virginia, and Michigan introduced anti-tampon-tax bills. They were mostly sponsored by women (shout out to Delegate Mark Keam in Virginia, though!). Notably, in each of those states, except California, the mostly Democratic sponsors are vastly outnumbered in their Republican-heavy legislatures. Also in January, the tampon tax made headlines when Obama learned about it while the camera was rolling, and declared he thought the tax was unfair. Then, in February, similar bills were introduced in Illinois, Wisconsin, and New York. In March, the city of Chicago dropped its tampon tax, and a class-action lawsuit brought by women in Ohio and New York state added pressure to stop taxing periods. In April, the New York Senate unanimously passed the tampon tax bill.

This is an astounding amount of national legislative momentum for an issue that was long considered to be women’s private, shameful burden. It’s no coincidence that efforts to end the tampon tax have cropped up alongside viral art projects, new businesses, and digital campaigns to destigmatize menstruation. The tampon tax is the perfect of-the-moment issue for lawmakers who want to signal their support for women — and take a stance on inequality. Ending the tax, which promises practical benefits for low-income women, is low-hanging fruit for legislators in liberal states.

But it’s also an appealing cause for outnumbered progressive lawmakers in Republican-heavy states. “As a legislator in a minority caucus, we don’t get an opportunity to see much of our legislation passed through the end. We introduce it. We’re required one hearing, and that’ll be it,” says Sykes, who co-sponsored the Ohio bill, which is already stalled. “But it also provides us an opportunity to talk about the status of women in our state, and what that looks like and where we’re disadvantaged.” Sykes sits on the Ways and Means committee, where she has watched her colleagues green-light tax exemptions for oil companies and sales-tax holidays. “Women don’t seem to ever get those tax breaks,” she says.

The tampon tax has been criticized as unimportant — not the biggest thing we should be focusing on at a time when more fundamental rights are being chipped away and glaring injustices are going unchecked. Critics have dismissed tax-elimination efforts as insignificant because they save women just “pennies on the dollar.” But consider its deceptively low stakes and big symbolic punch, and you can see why the tampon tax has caught on so quickly as an actionable issue in many states. Unlike attacking the pay gap or trying to make an economic argument for expanding reproductive rights, ending the tax is a fairly straightforward answer to one form of gender inequality. End the tax; put more money in women’s pockets. It’s a health issue masquerading as a tax matter, meaning it’s easy to keep it distant from polarizing issues like abortion rights. Yet it affects a wide swath of the population, with an easy case for discrimination: The majority of women spend decades of their lives menstruating, and they pay extra because of it. Most men don’t.

For all of the national momentum, in most of the heavily Republican states where tampon tax bills have been proposed, they’re already stalled. In Utah, notably, a committee composed entirely of men voted to uphold the tax. But in more progressive states, the tampon tax bills look likely to pass — and pave the way for even bolder legislation, such as requirements to provide free pads and tampons in public places. Maybe they will also lead to support for long-frustrated efforts, such as the one Representative Carolyn Maloney has led for more than two decades, to require tampon-makers to disclose the toxins in their products.

It’s also a golden opportunity for us to figure out which state-level lawmakers are worth our attention and support — like Johnson and Sykes in Ohio — because they’re fighting for much more than simply ending the tampon tax. “For me, it’s about bringing attention to these small issues that when you add them up are a huge cost of being a woman,” Johnson says. “When you start to add them up, it’s an enormous cost.”