“We’re taking back the vagina, girls!” That’s what Ashlee Hawn, entrepreneur and star of the reality show Big Rich Atlanta, says while promoting her new service, RedCycle, a women-oriented Dollar Shave Club that delivers tampons to a customer’s front door in an attempt to make the most difficult portion of a woman’s month as simple as possible.
Charming and upbeat, RedCycle markets itself as a one-of-a-kind business that dares to challenge the various cliches associated with a woman’s menstrual cycle, but that’s not the only reason why RedCycle might be raising a few eyebrows. If Hawn and her business associates play their cards right in Georgia, theirs might be the first tax-free tampon sold in the United States.
The tampon taxation debate—and its current status as a taxable medical device—reveals an uncomfortable truth about gender and state legislation. According to most states in the U.S., products used to treat feminine hygiene are defined as a luxury rather than a hygienic necessity.
Ohio’s tax code, for example, excludes breast implants, contraceptives, and birth control—products that the state finds to be medically imperative—but still continues to place a 10% sales tax on tampons and pads. When a local politician, Rep. Greta Johnson, tried to introduce a bill that would resolve this overlook, she found its support statewide to be “lukewarm at best.”
“[T]here is a host of other tax-free items sold that hardly qualify as essentials,” Jennifer Weiss-Wolf wrote in the Spring 2016 issues of Ms., naming fruit roll-ups, barbecue sunflower seeds, and garter belts as examples of items that aren’t taxed as luxuries in states across the country. “A sales-tax exemption for menstrual products—a year’s supply can cost upward of $70—lifts a small financial burden for women. Perhaps more importantly, though, it speaks to gender equity.”
Women made up less than 25% of Ohio’s General assembly in 2015. As disparate as this statistic may seem, Ohio state government’s gender ratio is not anomalous when women only filled up about 24.4% of all state-level executive offices that same year. With so little representation for women in most states, male politicians can be slow to recognize the gender inequality in their state’s tax classification system; that’s why legislators in California, Virginia, Michigan and Wisconsin who are introducing similar legislation to Johnson’s will most likely be facing a long and—ahem—taxing uphill battle toward change.
RedCycle has, by skipping over the somewhat sluggish and cyclical process of politics, managed to accomplish something most politicians have failed to do: offer tax-free tampons to Americans. So far, only five states have managed to drop the tampon tax. Most countries, including Australia and the United Kingdom, have also been slow to do anything about it.
Hawn, tired of waiting for the rest of the country to catch up, is trying to build her company’s brand on the idea of independence and self-empowerment. Confidently, she cites the stigma tampon-buying still brings today as a motivating factor for launching her business. “A period is not a sentence,” she assures her viewers with a winning smile.
U.S. politics say otherwise, but Hawn’s enthusiasm and vigor suggests that the tide is starting to turn.
Nicole Pina is an editorial intern at Ms. and a rising junior pursuing an English degree at Yale University. She spends most of her time either reading medieval poetry or editing other people’s essays on medieval poetry. When not subjecting her friends to a rant about the lyrical virtuosity of Kate Bush’s >Hounds of Love, she works as an editor at her college’s multilingual magazine and helps host a feminist radio show.