A President’s Day Tribute to Period Policy

Menstrual equity has rapidly morphed into a winning mainstream policy agenda–one of the very few in American politics that can claim honest-to-goodness bipartisan traction. Two campaigns, in particular, have seen notable support and success: the fight to exempt menstrual products from sales tax, and to provide them for free to those most in need.

Mark Dixon / Creative Commons

NPR heralded 2015 The Year of the Period. Cosmopolitan Magazine declared 2016 the era of Period Power. And at the January 2017 Women’s March, Ashley Judd gave a worldwide shout out to period activism from the stage in Washington, D.C. in her fiery anthem to all the “nasty women.” (I’ve been in the trenches and sharing all the progress here at the Ms. blog for the past two years.)

In 2016, both Illinois and New York succeeded in scrapping the “tampon tax,” with laws signed by each state’s Republican and Democrat governor, respectively. So did the City of Chicago. And Connecticut removed sales tax revenue from menstrual products from its forthcoming statewide budget. Meanwhile, New York City celebrated unanimous passage last summer of three groundbreaking new laws that mandate the provision of free tampons and pads for all of the City’s public schools, shelters and jails. And last month Los Angeles County passed an ordinance requiring free access to tampons in all of its juvenile detention centers.

This is exciting progress for an otherwise young movement tackling an ages-old issue. But will period policy continue to flourish in the era of Trump? Remember, this President actually singled out menstruation for a dose of derision early in the 2016 campaign when he taunted Megyn Kelly for having “blood coming out of her wherever.” As for the Vice President, as governor of Indiana, Mike Pence was the butt of a viral hashtag, #PeriodsForPence, when he signed a restrictive package of laws in March 2016 that included “fetal funerals,” requiring all remains from abortions, and even miscarriages, to be buried or cremated. Suffice it to say, disdain for menstruation looms large in the White House.

But misogyny that starts with menstruation inevitably bleeds far deeper. This Administration is hell-bent on trampling many hard won protections for women’s health. Among the first executive orders signed by the President not only reinstated but drastically expanded the scope of the “Global Gag Rule” – the Reagan-era ban on U.S. aid for international health programs that provide abortion (using other non-government funds) or even utter the word. The forecast is similarly bleak in Congress; and our rights hang in the balance at the U.S. Supreme Court. In statehouses across the country, emboldened legislators and governors fire off new attacks on women’s bodily autonomy every day, from six-week abortion bans to mandating written consent from men to obtain an abortion.

Against this backdrop, the very notion of a successful movement around menstruation offers a sliver of hope–new blood, quite literally, in the greater fight for our bodies and lives.

So far in 2017, a whopping 15 states–Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Vermont–have quietly introduced laws to exempt menstrual products from sales tax. California and Illinois have put forth bills to make them freely available in public schools; Maryland has called for the same in shelters. Connecticut is looking to go the furthest distance, mandating tampons and pads in all the state’s schools, shelters and jails.

Period policy creates an opening for some unusual bedfellows, too. Even in a state like Texas–home to the most punitive abortion restrictions and regressive laws in the country. State Rep. Drew Springer is one of the sponsors of a 2017 tampon tax bill there. A self-described “lifelong conservative Republican” he boasts endorsements from Texas Right to Life, Conservative Republicans of Texas, Young Conservatives of Texas and the Texas Conservative Coalition. And yet, his response to constituents who rallied him to oppose the tampon tax? “We have the ability to say, ‘I’m going to buy a Coke,'” says Springer. “I make that choice freely. Ladies don’t have the same option.”

Fascinating choice of words. Perhaps we can try to find some common ground after all.

Congress is riding the crimson wave too. U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Queens) announced this week her introduction of the Menstrual Equity for All Act of 2017 (H.R. 972), the first ever federal menstrual omnibus bill. It includes five far reaching proposals that would:

  1. Allow individuals to buy menstrual products with money they contribute to their flexible spending accounts.
  2. Provide a refundable tax credit to low-income individuals who regularly use menstrual products.
  3. Allow grant funds from the Emergency Food and Shelter Grant Program, which can be used by homeless assistance providers for essential household items, to be used for menstrual products.
  4. Require each state to provide menstrual products to female inmates and detainees, at no cost and on demand, as a condition of receiving funds from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program.
  5. Direct the Secretary of Labor to require employers with 100 or more employees to provide menstrual products to their employees free of charge.

Collectively, each of these provisions will help make menstruation more affordable for millions. Co-sponsors of the measure include an impressive showing of Democrats: Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Yvette Clarke (D-NY), Steve Cohen (D-TN), John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Robin Kelly (D-IL), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Betty McCollum (D-MN), Jim McGovern (D-MA), Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Gwen Moore (D-WI), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Donald Payne, Jr. (D-NJ), Darren Soto (D-FL), Dina Titus (D-NV) and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL).

Will Congressional Republicans join the movement? If they care about the physical and economic health of half of their constituents, they’d be wise to do so.

“When women have the same opportunities as men, families and societies thrive,” Bill Gates recently remarked. “Obviously, gender equity unleashes women’s potential, but it also unleashes men’s potential. It frees them to work as partners with women, so they can get the benefits of a woman’s intelligence, toughness, and creativity instead of wasting their energy trying to suppress those gifts.”

Which is exactly why menstruation belongs smack in the middle of our policy making, at every level of government. Indeed, President Trump, we do have blood coming out of our wherever. Every month. It is not a secret. Let’s push our leaders to make menstrual equity a political priority. It is a fight that stands to improve the lives of us all.

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf is a regular contributor to Ms. and author of the forthcoming book, Periods Gone Public (Arcade, Nov. 2017). Follow her on Twitter at @jweisswolf.

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