Every woman has a period story.
Take the 34-year-old who remembers her 14-year-old self sitting on a boy’s lap at a pool party and leaving her mark, literally, on her crush’s pants. Or the 58-year-old who leaves a pair of pants at her desk to avoid the embarrassment of being caught off guard by a surprise visit from Aunt Flo. Or the homeless women across the nation who face the humiliation of having to substitute old rags and newspaper for menstrual products. For too many women in prison, a former inmate wrote in the Guardian, pads and tampons are a rarity. Every woman, indeed, has a story.
Over the past year and a half, the global public has heard a great deal more of them, creating an ideal environment to push tampon tax bills through the state legislatures. On May 25, New York State voted to eliminate a “luxury” tax on menstrual products, which the goods had been subject to as non-“necessities” (think medicine, food), joining a handful of states and cities that have done the same. The next day, similar legislation passed in Illinois. These are the most recent wins in what has become a global movement over the past 18 months to change not only the way tampons and pads are taxed and distributed, but also the openness with which we talk about a biological process that for centuries was cast as a curse and a source of shame.
Linda B. Rosenthal, the assembly member who introduced New York State’s bill last May, estimates it will save women in New York City $416.52 over their lifetimes. But money isn’t the only issue, she says: “While this is about a tax on tampons, it’s also about women seeking and gaining their voice.”
Mentions of periods tripled in mainstream media outlets between 2010 and 2015, according to NPR. And all that visibility has helped fuel reform. According to Jennifer Weiss-Wolf of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, who has been at the forefront of the push, 14 states and three major cities have introduced legislation, amendments or budget lines this year to nix the tax. In July 2015, Canada ended its sales tax on these items. And earlier this year, the United Kingdom proposed a resolution to do the same.
“When the period went public last year, there was an incredible array of forces that brought it to the fore,” says Weiss-Wolf.
Take, for instance, the work of Naama Bloom, the CEO and founder of HelloFlo, a feminine–product delivery service responsible for a viral video that pokes fun at the way young girls learn about their periods and the shame surrounding them. “I think it’s much to do with the culture we live in,” Bloom told TIME last year. “Part of what has been so radical is that I’m not ashamed.”
Neither were the thousands of women who tweeted the hashtag #PeriodsAreNotAnInsult, which sprang up thanks to a comment about Fox News debate moderator Megyn Kelly by presidential candidate Donald Trump. YouTuber Ingrid Nilsen, who stumped President Obama with a question about tampon taxes in January, wasn’t ashamed either. “I don’t know anybody that has a period that would consider it a luxury,” Nilsen told TIME.
The next battle is to distribute free tampons and pads in public restrooms. On Thursday, the New York City council will host the first hearing on a package of bills aimed at expanding access to free tampons and pads in public schools, shelters, and jails.
Nancy Kramer, an advertising executive, has been advocate for “freeing the tampon” since her 2013 TEDx talk in which she argues that they should be as available as toilet paper. Tax repeal is a “step in the right direction,” she says, but universal accessibility would be the real win.
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