Pagan Kelly, who has written a book about world changing inventions, observes that since ancient times women have tinkered with pads and tampons to better contain their menstrual flow. Everything from papyrus to absorbent mosses, to repurposed cellulose bandages. Early in the 20th century, Lillian Gilbreth, one of the first female Ph.D. engineers, questioned thousands of women in her effort to discover what an ideal sanitary napkin would look and feel like. Even still, corporate manufacturers of these products, including Proctor and Gamble, clung to “brick-like sanitary pads,” long after female consumers nixed this chafing, bulky model.
When Kelly dug through 200 patents granted for feminine napkins and tampons since l976, she “found that three out of every four of the inventors behind these patents were men,” and “clearly men have exerted an enormous amount of control over the look and feel of menstrual products.”
Increasingly for most American women, since it became available the tampon has been the method of choice, providing essential comfort and freedom of movement, and the ability— extreme pain or unusually heavy flow withstanding—to keep on with our daily lives. Which includes being able to go to school or show up for work and earn a living every day of the month.
Among the other female reproductive human rights matters that have sporadically dotted this year’s general election campaign season is the economic justice issue of what is being called the tampon tax. These essential health products have been considered luxury items in all but a handful of states, as opposed to a long list of other things that are considered personal necessities: groceries, prescriptions, some over-the-counter drugs, clothes ( in some states), and agricultural supplies.
California assemblywoman Christina Garcia has been hearing from women in her district for a while now. She says they talked a lot about their daily struggles and “how it all adds up,” including the tax on feminine hygiene products. Garcia became convinced that pads and sanitary napkins are undoubtedly a basic necessity, not a luxury at all, and should not be taxed— a tax which only impacts women, who find themselves “ at the wrong end of the gender wage gap” already.
A group of Michigan legislators are also trying to repeal the sales tax on these products. A tax made more ludicrous given that Michigan is among a handful of states that, while treating products to manage periods a luxury, do not tax junk food like candy or soda.
And some women in Ohio are suing the state’s Department of Taxation, labeling this kind of tax discriminatory and calling for its repeal.
The amount of taxes an individual woman might pay annually when she purchases her pads or tampons may be small, but it adds up to considerable revenue for state coffers: In Ohio it totals around $11 million a year from menstruating women.
But besides the gender injustice of such a levy, for many low income women the cost of period protection is a real barrier. Food stamps and W.I.C. may not be used for these purchases, nor for so many other items such as toothpaste, toilet paper, and other non-food necessities. When I worked with homeless women, while they were grateful for the casseroles and sandwiches we provided, they were most appreciative for access to a closet filled with headache relief pills, shampoo, hand soap, and those feminine hygiene products that make such a difference—after all these centuries—in how we manage this deeply personal part of our reproductive lives.
I read an article this week about two teens who collect tampons and other feminine hygiene products for distribution to poor women and girls. This is a worthy enterprise, one that might well be replicated in our congregations as a charitable activity. Coupled, hopefully, with vocal and determined campaigns in the 45 states that tax menstruation. We can overturn this injustice.