Most often I’d tuck it up the sleeve of my cardigan, turning my wrist in so it wouldn’t slip out. If I needed free hands, I’d hide it in my waistband. Dresses posed more of a problem. With no pockets and no long sleeves, I’d have to get creative. Worst case, it meant taking my whole, enormous handbag on the mortifying walk from desk to bathroom. The lengths to which I’ve gone to hide that I need a tampon from time to time are embarrassing. What is not, and should never be embarrassing, is needing one.
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After running the London Marathon tampon-free and bleeding last year, Kiran Gandhi wrote both about the experience and about her motivations for “free-bleeding”, as some have called it. She said, “As I ran, I thought to myself about how women and men have both been effectively socialized to pretend periods don’t exist.”
They do. Every month. Like your utility bill.
And we’re only now starting to talk about it. Earlier this year, NPR called 2015 the “Year of the Period.” Cosmo said it was “the year the period went public.” Apple added period tracking to its health app; Thinx introduced the first real innovation in the “feminine hygiene product” space in at least the last half century; and somehow, during a late-night TV discussion of a possible woman president, Nicole Wallace, Communications Director under George W. Bush, had occasion to reassure, “I worked in the White House, and yes, every 28 days I bled, but the country went on.” Everyone from Donald Trump to Key & Peele had menstruation on the mind.
But while acknowledging the reality that most women bleed once per month is long, long overdue progress, it’s time we discuss how baffling policies around menstrual necessities result in unjustifiable inequality.
I’m lucky enough to work in a place that stocks tampons right next to the pens and sticky notes in the supply room.
Tampons (and, relatedly, pain killers) are considered necessary to my workplace. But I know this is not common. While no one expects to have to carry toilet paper or soap or paper towels or even toilet seat covers with them at all times, for about half of each month, women don’t leave home without a pad or tampon because the vast majority of bathrooms don’t stock them.
For the men reading this (first of all, swoon) that’s not something the majority of you ever think about. But we do. Before we leave home each morning women consider whether there’s a chance we might get our period, and if we do how long we’ll be away from home and how many tampons we might need. Working late tonight? Better take 2 or 3.
There is no menstruating woman who has been spared the anxiety of being caught without a tampon when she needs it. What are our options? 1) Sending out the bat signal to the sisterhood (and by that I mean having to ask coworkers or complete strangers, usually in a sheepish whisper, if they have a spare), 2) a trip to the drug store, or 3) making do with some sort of hastily fashioned toilet paper substitute. In any case, it means unnecessary lost productivity.
Lost productivity hurts both the employer and the employee who is late to a meeting or needs to push a conference call back because she needs to find a tampon. The refusal to stock sanitary products puts women at a disadvantage in the workplace. It also hurts girls at school.
Just last week, a program introduced by New York City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland began providing girls at 25 public schools in Queens and the Bronx complimentary sanitary protection in school restrooms. “No young woman should face losing class time because she is too embarrassed to ask for, can’t afford or simply cannot access feminine hygiene products,” Ferreras-Copeland explained.
Having the necessary sanitary products is important to older students too—it means that women and men have the same ability to stay late at the library, or stick around for study group. One of the first things Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan did as dean of Harvard Law School was provide free coffee in classroom buildings and free tampons in women’s bathrooms.
Nancy Kramer, founder of Free the Tampons, a campaign to make feminine products accessible in all restrooms, says the cost of stocking restrooms at a school or business with sanitary supplies works out to $4.67 per woman for a whole year. That’s the price of my morning caramel macchiato, or a fancy cupcake.
Schools and employers should absorb the cost of tampons. It just makes (dollars and) cents.
But there’s a bigger issue still, and that’s the burden our policies around menstrual supplies place on the poorest among us: pads and tampons aren’t cheap, and food stamps don’t cover feminine hygiene products. While initiatives have been aimed at providing other necessities like cell phones and diapers to the poor, there’s been little talk on the national stage about how to get pads and tampons into the hands of poor women. Unlike toothpaste and shampoo, feminine hygiene products are rarely donated to shelters. And they’re so needed. It’s an issue of dignity.
What’s worse is that on top of failing to provide sanitary products to those who can’t afford them, government is actually profiting off their sale. New York, for example makes about $14 million per year taxing women’s products.
In January, YouTube vlogger, Ingrid Nilsen, asked President Obama why, while other necessities are exempt from sales tax, tampons and pads are taxed in 40 states. The President responded “I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed.” He also admitted he hadn’t known this was an issue.
This month a class-action lawsuit was filed against the State of New York for its tampon tax. The firm filing the suit explains:
“New York exempts medical items from sales tax. But taxing authorities impose a double standard when defining medical items for women and men. Rogaine, foot powder, dandruff shampoo, chapstick, facial wash, adult diapers, and incontinence pads are not taxed. Tampons and sanitary pads are.”
As the complaint states, “Justice Scalia once wrote for the Supreme Court that ‘A tax on wearing yarmulkes is a tax on Jews.’ A tax on tampons and sanitary pads is a tax on women.”
It’s time for equality. Free the tampons.
Update: On April 11, the New York State Senate passed S6726, a bill to exempt feminine hygiene products such as tampons and sanitary products from the New York’s sales and compensating use tax. According to the bill’s sponsor, Senator Susan Serino, “To consider that we exempt cupcakes and circus performances from the sales tax in New York State, but not sanitary napkins and tampons — products women depend on — is beyond comprehension. Today, the Senate took a significant step forward in finally applying common sense to our out-of-touch tax laws.”