Beyond the tampon tax: How far will California go to end “menstrual inequity”?

Annie Wang remembers the panic she felt being a freshman in a 500-person chemistry class at UC Davis when her period arrived and she didn’t have a tampon or pad. There was nowhere nearby to go, and leaving to find something meant missing the class.

So she tried to focus on the lecture instead.

“I stayed in my seat and prayed it would not be too bad. When I got up I had left a mark on UC Davis in a very bold way,” she said. “It was a very embarrassing moment for me.”

She knew she couldn’t be the only one in this predicament—that  “a lot of my classmates had experienced similar situations where they were in class or going to class and suddenly got their period and were not able to go to class or had to scramble,” she said.

Now she’s one of many student activists, advocates, experts and officials working toward what they call “menstrual equity.” In California, that means exempting period products from state sales tax and ensuring that tampons and pads are provided as freely as toilet paper in public schools and universities, government building and prisons.

It’s part of a global movement—partially funded by feminine hygiene product manufacturers—to bring periods into the consideration of mainstream policymakers. A documentary about“period poverty”—the reality that some women miss work and some girls miss school because of cultural taboos or because they can’t afford period products—won an Oscar this year. Already in California, public schools in low-income areas are required to provide free period products, and college students are petitioning for free products in state universities. And an ongoing state Superior Court case claims the state is violating the 14th Amendment equal protection clause by taxing the sales of period products, arguing that tampons and pads are not luxuries.

But the most closely watched effort is underway in the state Capitol, where lawmakers expect to advance a bill to end that sales tax.

A few years back, there were a lot of eye rolls and snickers when Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia of Bell Gardens carried such a bill. Embracing the novelty of it all, she dubbed herself “Tampon Queen” and propped a huge pad and tampon in her office window.

“It allowed a conversation to happen that was more than a tax—it’s about menstrual equity and our biology,” she said.

Her bill cleared the Legislature in 2016, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it, saying it should have been addressed within the state budget and that “tax breaks are the same thing as new spending.” That prompted a tweet retort from Garcia:

With a new governor in place, she’s at it again. This time her colleagues have been so eager to back her Assembly Bill 31 that it has more co-authors than any other this session. Last time, she said, “I had to beg them to join me.” This bill is expected to garner Gov. Gavin Newsom’s support.

But Jerry Brown isn’t alone. Editorials in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times have contended that it’s unwise to carve out exemptions from state sales tax in such a random fashion—especially when the state taxes items equally as essential, such as toilet paper, diapers and toothpaste. The California Tax Reform Association criticized the bill for drawing a line new to the state sales tax: “gender necessity….The problem with drawing such a line is that many possibilities for exemption follow the logic of gender specificity. Clothing, cosmetics, over-the-counter and pharmaceuticals are all examples of products that can be construed as both gender-based and necessary,” the association noted.

And the California State Association of Counties also opposes the idea. “After the past thirty years of changes to sales and use tax collections, counties have come to depend on those revenues to balance their budgets and specifically offset the costs of providing realigned services, including criminal justice, health, mental health and social services,” the association wrote.

“I respect the need for California to be fiscally sound,” Garcia countered, “but the state budget should not be balanced by a tax of a person’s uterus. The same goes for local governments; our tax codes should be gender neutral.”

A legislative analysis said the bill, if enacted, would cost the state of California $9 million in lost revenue in the first year and $19 million in the second year.

To be clear, there is not an extra tax on tampons and pads. But unlike food and medicine, they are not exempt from California sales tax because the state considers them not necessities, but luxuries.

Thus far 10 other states including New York, Florida, Connecticut and Nevada and D.C. have banned sales taxes on period products. Across the globe, Canada, India and Australia have long since eliminated the tax and a battle is underway to end it in the United Kingdom.

“Today, the most progressive state in the union is behind the curve in providing a gender-neutral tax code that doesn’t profit off of a woman’s basic biological functions,” Garcia said.

Menstruation is about equity and engagement as much as it is about health, said Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, vice president of The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University who co-founded Period Equity, an organization that is behind the tampon tax campaigns nationwide. It produced a glitzy ad that has model and actress Amber Rose fondling a bezel-set diamond pendant from which a bejeweled locket contains a tampon, asking “Where else would you keep something 36 states tax as a luxury?” The ad’s kicker: “Tell the government where to stick this tax.”

“The taxes and the challenges of access are unfair and discriminatory toward women,” said Weiss-Wolf.  “It’s an enormous distraction and at worst a hindrance to being fully present.”

“The tampon tax is not the issue that will solve period poverty but it sends a message that menstrual hygiene is necessary and it’s a right,” said Nadya Okamato, who at age 16 founded PERIOD., The Menstrual Movement, a nonprofit that donates products and works on menstrual policy and education with 350 chapters across the world. “It’s something that happens to the majority of the global population for an average of 40 years of life and it makes human life possible. It’s not something that should be treated with shame and stigma, it should be normalized.”

The group, celebrities and a period products company recently co-signed a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asking for free products at all schools.

Some critics on social media, however, warn that once the government makes products available at no charge, costs to taxpayers could escalate because some people who can easily afford to buy their own tampons and pads will instead avail themselves of the free ones.

“This not about whether I can afford it,” Garcia said, noting that she’s asked for free products to be available in state Capitol bathrooms. “It’s about how my biology does not behave in an expected matter,” she said. “If I’m tracking down period products I’m missing out on work.”

After Wang’s embarrassing moment at school, she started a campus chapter of PERIOD., which is petitioning the UC Davis administration to provide free products in all campus bathrooms. UC approved and funded a pilot program to provide free products, stocked by student volunteers, in up to 13 campus bathrooms.

The chapter surveyed students and reported that 52 percent of student respondents said they missed class or work in the last school year because they could not access a tampon or pad.

This post has been corrected to note that the Period Equity ad asks “Where else would you keep something 36 states tax as a luxury?”

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