WASHINGTON – Rep. Grace Meng, a Democrat representing New York’s 6th District, introduced legislation (H.R. 3117) in early Feb. that would allow women to buy feminine hygiene products with Flexible Spending Account funds (FSA).
FSA can currently be used to cover certain medical costs, prescription drugs and items for a first aid kid, but not sanitary pads or tampons. Meng aims to amend the IRS tax code classification of menstrual products to include them in the allowances. The legislation has been referred to the House Ways and Mean Committee where it awaits further action.
According to a press release on Meng’s site, women make up 50.8 percent of the U.S. population, and in an average lifetime, a woman will use about 10,000 tampons or pads.
Meng is not the only one leading a movement regarding feminine care products. Five women filed a class action lawsuit March 3 against the state of New York over the state’s “Tampon Tax.” They are demanding an end to the four percent luxury tax on feminine hygiene products as well as refunds for millions of women targeted by the sales tax.
In addition to the Tampon Tax, an initiative named “Free the Tampons” is gaining traction.
Founder and Chairman of the movement, Nancy Kramer, said the goal of the movement is to provide all public women’s restrooms with free tampons and pads because “women should not be subjected to the humiliation of the consequences of not having access to these items – it’s a public health issue.”
Kramer backs the movement to get rid of the Tampon Tax for the same reasons she thinks tampons and pads should be provided for free in restrooms.
“My point of view is that tampons and pads should be treated just like toilet paper. If toilet paper is taxed, so should tampons and pads,” Kramer said. “These items are just like toilet paper. These items are there to tend to our normal bodily functions that we have absolutely no control over.”
Kramer is pushing especially hard for tampons and pads in middle and high schools because when most girls find themselves without a tampon or pad and they need it, they are sent to the nurse’s office for one and Kramer doesn’t like that.
“Sending our girls to the nurse’s office sends the wrong signal – like they are sick,” Kramer said.
New York City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland joined the movement for free tampons and pads after she noticed girls skipping class to go home because they were too embarrassed to ask for pads or be seen in their already stained clothes.
Ferreras-Copeland pushed for the installation of free dispensers in 25 public middle schools and high schools in Queens and the Bronx that will provide products to 11,600 girls. According to a
According to a press release from her office, since the installation of the free dispensers, attendance at the school increased from 90 percent to 92.4 percent and fewer girls asked to be excused from their classes throughout the day.
“Providing young women with pads and tampons in schools will help them stay focused on their learning and sends a message about value and respect for their bodies,” Ferreras-Copeland said in the press release. “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.”
According to the press release, the Department of Education estimates initial costs for the installation and supplies to be approximately $160,000.
Meanwhile, women continue to fight the Tampon Tax.
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, writer and advocate for menstrual equity, has been leading a national advocacy strategy in support of the removal of the Tampon Tax. Along with Cosmopolitan magazine, Weiss-Wolf started a Change.org petition that begins, “We demand that the 40 U.S. states that impose sales tax on feminine hygiene products stop taxing our periods. Instead, follow the example of those states that have eliminated this unfair tax: Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.” The petition has garnered more than 57,600 signatures.
Weiss-Wolf said the two main concerns that have been raised against the removal of the Tampon Tax are the desire to avoid subjectivity in tax codes and how to make back lost revenue from sales tax on tampons.
“Most states have very subjective exemptions already; it is a specious argument to suggest this is the only or first carve out. For example, Indiana has a specific carve out for BBQ sunflower seeds and Wisconsin [has an exemption] for gun club memberships,” Weiss-Wolf said. “On the second concern, my response is that states can recoup the lost revenue from sales tax on tampons on a product that the entire population uses, not just women.”
The Free the Tampon movement faces criticism, too. Most comments on stories about the movement question what would keep someone from stealing all the free products. Kramer said there are prototypes of a design that would allow the items to be given out on a timed basis, so someone couldn’t repeatedly press the lever for free sanitary products.
“People used to more readily steal toilet paper, and the restrooms have innovated a way to help discourage that,” Kramer said. “The same innovation needs to be applied here.”
Others question if free tampons and pads is really a problem that needs solving right now, but supporters are stalwart in defending its importance.
“Access to menstrual hygiene is not a frivolous issue. It is indicative of gender norms that stigmatize this simple biological process, and thereby stigmatize women. Just think about how politicians still use women’s menstruation as a way to discredit or discount women,” said Amanda Klasing, Specialist of Rights to Water and Sanitation at Human Rights Watch.
“From a human rights perspective, access to adequate menstrual hygiene is a gender equality issue,” Klasing said. “If costs of feminine hygiene products make them inaccessible to women and girls, governments should consider what steps are necessary to overcome barriers to access—that may mean subsidizing or providing them out right in some circumstances.”
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.