Being a woman can be difficult in many ways. Even apart from of the social disadvantages imposed by sexism, women deal with certain physical issues that men just don't. There are, however, certain areas where these physical burdens and sociopolitical pressures collide.
I'm talking about menstruation. For a long time, the stigma surrounding this event in women's lives prevented discussion. But, as more and more women are willing to speak up about their periods, we are finally able to construct policies better for the sake of women's overall health.
The absurd expense of tampons is one of these circumstances that policy makers are now addressing.
Democrat Cristina Garcia recently introduced AB 1561, or "Sales and use taxes: exemption: sanitary napkins: tampons", which is a California bill that would legally re-label feminine hygiene products such as pads and tampons as being medical necessities. This would make them exempt from taxation. This bill is extremely important. Taxes such as those on tampons are harder on poor women, even though all women menstruate. More and more policy makers are accepting that proper menstrual management is important essential to women's health and wellbeing. Tampons are expensive enough as it is.
According to Conscious Period, a company that provides menstrual products to homeless women, 247,174 women in the United States are currently homeless. While shelters receive many very helpful donations, they rarely have a surplus of feminine sanitary products. This means that homeless women are left to fend for themselves during their periods. When you're living on the streets and struggling to feed yourself, the added expense of tampons or pads can be too much to bear.
For a woman making decent money, a simple tax on tampons may be unnoticeable, but for someone who is poor who spends a larger percentage of her money on tampons, a "small" difference may strip away her ability to afford a product entirely.
Having a period can be difficult for some women. However, there are a lot of things more affluent women are able to do to manage any inconvenience. My usual routine consists of warm blankets, chocolate, and Tylenol. But those are just luxuries, and realistically I can probably do without most of them. Certain menstrual products, however, are medical necessities, and the tampon is one of them.
As Christina Garcia points out: "Having a period is not a choice for women." If women don't have the resources to handle their periods effectively when they arrive, there can be severe impacts on their health, and day-to-day activities.
According to UNICEF, it's important to use clean feminine products, and to change them often: "Not doing so can result in you getting fungal infections. Repeated infections lead to serious reproductive tract infections and can cause infertility in the long term."
Increasingly we are seeing stories about women in less developed countries leaving school at puberty because of period shaming. The Girl Effect reports: "In Sierra Leone, more than a fifth of girls miss school because of their periods. In Afghanistan and Nepal, three out of 10 girls miss school for the same reason."
Unfortunately, this period shaming is not a narrative unique to countries in the global south. As Chris Bobel from the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research writes,
...from my living room in the US, steps away from a washing machine/dryer and a reliable bathroom, I didn't dismiss the possibility (of girls missing school due to their period) too quickly. The menstrual taboo, after all, does complicate period management when you spend the day with boys, boys who must not know what your body is up to-this takes time and energy.
I too can remember stepping out of class when I was in high school to wash menstrual blood out of my skirt. It was a rural, small town, conservative community. I was always so worried at such moments that someone else had seen the stains on my clothes as I left the room; bullying is not uncommon, especially in high school or middle school. A young woman caught in the act of menstruation, with bloodstains on her clothing to prove it, is a visible target for harassment. For me this situation was a mishap; but for a young woman who simply can't afford menstrual supplies this embarrassment would be a daunting reoccurring risk.
Last year, Huffington Post author Jessica Kane reported that, over her lifetime, the average woman will spend $18,171 on period-related purchases. Kane estimated that the cost of panty liners and tampons alone would be over $2000, however this cost may be an underestimation.
I spoke with my former high school friend Mandie Fagerness, from Dolores Colorado, about this usage metric. She and I used to bond over our menstrual management troubles when we were young. She says that today, even a "super" sized tampon won't remain effective for more than two hours for a woman with a heavy menstrual flow. One woman in twenty has periods of this kind. One seven dollar box comes with only 36 tampons. For women of any kind of menstrual flow those recurring costs add up quickly.
While passing AB 1561 would be a huge step in creating more equal treatment across gender lines, more progress must be made. Currently, only five states don't tax feminine hygiene products. On a positive note, three other states, California, New York, and Ohio, have introduced new bills pushing for a similar change. You can use the BillCam embedded in this article to talk to your representatives about this solution for women's health and well-being, and together we can push for true equality.