The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed life as we know it—ravaging public health, crashing global markets, shuttering local businesses and bringing the cadence of daily life to a halt.
Contrary to the notion that the virus is a great equalizer—a claim made by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at his daily briefing, and echoed by Madonna on Instagram—this crisis surely has a disparate impact on marginalized communities.
The national policy response has featured a handful of provisions that aim to advance gender and economic equity, both federally and in some states. Good news? Sort of.
Among the highlights:
- Menstrual equity in the federal stimulus package. When President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Securities (CARES) Act on March 27, one long sought reform was ushered in—the designation of menstrual products as a qualified medical expense under the IRS Tax Code. The practical result is that tampons, pads, cups and other similar products are now eligible for inclusion in health savings and flexible spending account allowances. These enable employees to set aside pre-tax earnings to pay for expenses ranging from doctor visit co-pays to sunscreen. Until now, menstrual products were deemed ineligible by the IRS since they do not “alleviate or aid in the treatment plan of a specific illness.”
The reform proposal itself is not new. A similar effort to expand the IRS classification passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018 with bipartisan support, but never reached the Senate for a vote. It has also been a staple of the Menstrual Equity for All Act, championed by U.S. Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-NY) since 2017.
Gratefully, the federal government finally got the memo: Periods don’t stop for pandemics.
- Progress in the fight to eliminate the ‘tampon tax.’ In a similar vein, Washington State, the initial epicenter for COVID-19 cases in the U.S., passed legislation on March 10 requiring that menstrual products be sales-tax-exempt—becoming the latest state to scrap the so-called tampon tax. Gov. Jay Inslee set a national example when he signed the bill just weeks later on April 3, in the height of the crisis, underscoring the argument that a tax exemption is one way to lessen the financial burden of menstruation. The American Medical Association is among the experts who have voiced support of that perspective, deeming the tampon tax a “regressive penalty” for women, who not only earn less than male counterparts but are overrepresented in low-wage work and care-giving roles—disparities further heightened and exacerbated by the pandemic.
There are currently 30 states that still do not exempt menstrual products from sales tax. Eliminating the tampon tax nationwide is the focus of a policy and legal campaign led by the organization Period Equity and grassroots activists across the country.
- A clamp down on the ‘pink tax,’ too. And in the heart of the crisis, New York State, Gov. Cuomo’s April 1 budget includes a long-sought ban on the pink tax—a moniker sometimes used interchangeably with tampon tax, though the two are not the same. The pink tax is shorthand for the insidious private industry practice of gender-based pricing—that is, price gouging goods and services that are targeted at women. (For those keeping score, New York was among the first states to eliminate its tampon tax, back in 2016.)
A 2018 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office confirmed that the practice is widespread; products intended for women consumers cost more than the men’s equivalent a whopping 50 percent of the time.
An earlier New York City Department of Consumer Affairs study comparing nearly 800 products from 91 brands found that on average, items for women or girls cost 7 percent more than comparable ones for men and boys.
Now, under the new law, any business that is found to engage in gender-based price discrimination in New York will be subject to stiff civil penalties. Similar legislation has been introduced unsuccessfully at the federal level, most recently by Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Congressman Tom Reed (R-NY) last year. The bipartisan Pink Tax Repeal Act would allow the Federal Trade Commission to enforce violations and also give State Attorneys General the authority to take civil action on behalf of consumers wronged by gender-based pricing.
The Gender Equity Road Ahead
Despite these modest advances and affirmations, seemingly neutral laws and interventions in the age of COVID-19 still adversely impact women, some in life-or-death ways.
At least ten states—Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas—are using the pandemic as an opportunity to exert executive power to restrict abortion access in the name of public safety. A reprehensible display—and doubly disingenuous with an overwhelmingly conservative judiciary now in the role of ultimate arbiter.
And as experts warned from the outset of a predictable surge in the rates and severity of domestic abuse under current conditions, public support systems remain woefully inadequate—leaving the safety of millions needlessly compromised. These are unacceptable burdens for women to bear.
And so, let us posit that the three legislative wins above—in which gender equity principles broke through the morass and made their way into core budgetary reforms—are not so much a consolation prize, but a clarion call.
For example, now that the federal government has acknowledged that menstrual products are indeed a medical necessity for those of us who use them, new groundwork can be laid for more expansive policies on core issues of menstrual access and affordability, product safety and transparency, and more far-reaching acknowledgment of the intersection of women’s health and the economy.
Women deserve governance and policies that fully reflect our realities—at all times, and especially when crises threaten to hit us hardest.
The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving. During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.