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Are tampons as essential as toilet paper? Menstruation goes mainstream

After years of being the thing women blushed over when their purses overturn and spill, tampons are finally coming into the spotlight.

Relax. They’re not radioactive or anything.

Spurred by a confluence of a TED talk, think pieces, newsmagazine covers and female policymakers (and a few male ones) sensing a change in the zeitgeist, a movement has cohered around the idea that women’s sanitary supplies need to be acknowledged as health necessities, unavoidable purchases, and treated as such.

The Michigan Legislature is now considering bills that would make sanitary products available free in public schools, and state-owned buildings, and exempt from the state’s 6-percent sales tax. Both are currently in committee, introduced by Rep. Sarah Roberts (D-St. Clair Shores). In the Senate, SB897 and SB898, sponsored by Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor) and Sen. David Knezek (D-Dearborn Heights) are touted as an effort to ensure that girls and women have wide and tax-exempt access to a product they say is as indispensable, as much a fact of life, as toilet paper.

“I want to push a conversation,” Roberts said. “There shouldn’t be any embarrassment, or shame, in discussing this.”

Discussing it is one thing. Getting a legislative hearing on the bills, much less getting them passed, may be something else.

House Tax Policy Committee Chairman Jeff Farrington (R-Utica) said the House version of the tax-exemption bill was worthy of consideration, but wasn’t yet scheduled for a hearing.

“I think the subject has some relevance,” Farrington said. “I won’t close the door,” but “I have about 200 bills to consider.”

In the Senate, Sen. Jack Brandenburg, chairman of that chamber’s Finance Committee, didn’t return calls from Bridge for comment.

Warren said she was hopeful her bills would at least get a hearing. She pointed to recently signed legislation exempting data centers in the state from sales and use taxes and said, “There are more women in Michigan than there are data centers.”

While similar legislation has passed in a few states, there has also been criticism, mostly around cost. Some worry about the cost of providing feminine hygiene products for public schools and buildings, others about lost revenue from exempting these products from state tax collections.

In Utah, recently, an all-male tax panel voted against dropping the tax on menstrual products, saying that variations on what’s taxed would make the tax system less predictable. Republican House Speaker Greg Hughes said legislative budget staff estimated that dropping the tax would cost Utah’s general fund more than $1 million annually, at a time when he said the fund is already shrinking from Medicaid costs.

An unequal bathroom burden

Women learn early in life that while menstrual periods are regular occurrences, they frequently arrive unexpectedly, leaving one in a public bathroom stall calling for help, or digging in a purse for a quarter to use in a vending machine that may be broken or empty, if it’s there at all.

“We’ve decided, from a hygiene perspective, that we will provide free paper towels, toilet paper and soap in public restrooms,” Roberts said. “For women and girls, (sanitary supplies) are essential products. Why wouldn’t we be supportive of this hygienic need?”

And for girls and women as young as middle schoolers, she adds, “Why put them into situations where, if they don’t have a quarter, they have to go to the principal’s office, or to a teacher, or the school nurse, and announce that they’re having their period? It’s personal. We all know it happens, so why would we object to providing something medically necessary and important to young women?”

To be sure, for all the publicity this idea has garnered in recent months, not everybody, and not every woman, is on the Free the Tampons train. Writing in the Daily Beast website, Samantha Allen called rhetoric around the idea of repealing the sales tax on these items overblown.

Any savings would amount to “pennies on the dollar,” Allen wrote, and require separate campaigns in the 40 states that currently charge sales tax on the items. (And most of those states tax toilet paper, too, which everyone who uses it considers an equally essential hygiene item.)

“The not necessarily a patriarchal privileging of candy over feminine hygiene but a refusal to see tampons, toilet paper, and other personal hygiene products as being comparable to food in terms of necessity. That’s less of a feminist issue, specifically, and more of a public health issue with a feminist bent,” Allen wrote.

An idea is launched

The free-tampons movement may have started in 2013, when a Columbus, Ohio marketing executive named Nancy Kramer gave a TED Talk on the subject. She recalled visiting Apple, a customer, in 1982, and found the women’s restrooms in the company’s headquarters were stocked with free tampons and pads for employees and visitors. It was a revelation.

“I thought, ‘Why isn’t this the case everywhere? Why isn’t every restroom like that?’” Kramer said in an interview with Bridge. She left Apple’s restroom and proceeded to become a crusader for this amenity, which she said would be welcomed by every woman of childbearing age who finds herself without one unexpectedly. Which is to say, every woman.

Over the years, Kramer said in her TED Talk, she has persuaded other companies and her own daughters’ schools to follow Apple’s example. She followed it herself after that first trip, when she started offering sanitary supplies in her own company’s restrooms. As an evangelist for the idea, she presents the same argument that Roberts does: We expect to find free toilet paper in public restrooms; why not menstrual supplies?

The answer may well be as simple as squeamishness, Roberts said. Despite having a number of male co-sponsors, she said a few of her colleagues have been uncomfortable discussing the issue with her.

Another may be cost. Kramer cites the expense for her company: $4.57 per month for each female employee. Some estimates put the annual cost of menstrual supplies for a typical woman at around $60-80 per year, but no one really knows how much it would cost the state of Michigan to provide them on a one-at-a-time basis in schools and public buildings. Roberts said an informal House Fiscal Agency estimate put the cost of the sales-tax cut at roughly $5 million a year, a figure she said is inflated. (As no hearings on the bills have been scheduled, there is no formal House Fiscal Agency analysis yet.)

“I’ve heard (legislators) say, ‘(Students) will just steal them,’” Roberts said. “And some might. But if that happens, that’s a different sort of problem.”

Exempting menstrual supplies from state sales taxes -- and making them free in schools and other public buildings -- is taking a tenuous hold elsewhere. One New York City councilwoman is pushing an ordinance similar to Roberts’s, and successfully got them added to bathrooms at one city high school. And various bills are under consideration in Virginia and Wisconsin.

In Michigan, as in most states, sales taxes are assessed on a mix of items in your shopping bag. Food bought in a grocery store isn’t generally taxed, nor are prescription drugs, but similar personal-care products commonly purchased there, such as toilet paper, are. And only a handful of states dropped taxes on sanitary products.

A different sort of (period) problem

Tears and menstrual periods sometimes go together, but Lysne Tait wasn’t expecting them from a man.

But when Tait, who co-founded a charity called Helping Women Period, offered packages of free menstrual supplies to a clergyman who runs a charity in the Lansing area, he responded in just that way, she said.

“He was so grateful that he could offer them,” she said.

Like Roberts and others, Tait and her charity partner, Amy Stephenson, caught a wave in the popular culture when they decided to start Helping Women Period -- the group was founded after they both read the same Huffington Post story last year about the difficulty homeless women have obtaining and changing pads and tampons, as well as general hygiene during their menstrual periods.

“We thought that was silly, that they couldn’t get what they needed,” Tait said. She and Stephenson decided to hold a fundraising breakfast, attract 30 friends and acquaintances and raise around $500. After 125 people responded to their Facebook invitation, they expanded their ambitions.

“We raised $4,000,” she said. “And then we incorporated as a nonprofit.”

The two finished 2015 having collected $11,000 in donations. They distributed bags of tampons and pads to food banks, homeless and domestic-violence shelters in Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties.

The work has driven home how even this relatively small expense can have an impact on a household budget for a poor family.

“One woman (in Lansing public housing) is a single mom with three teenage daughters,” Tait said. “Living on $738 a month. Four women under one roof. The fact we could take that (expense) out of her life? That was something.”

Similar charities are appearing around the country. One, Sister Supply, started in Tennessee, and its founders have deputized a recent Eastern Michigan University graduate, Alyxandria Hanoian, to run a Michigan program under their name. Hanoian has been running product donation drives for about a year, and hopes to pick up the pace now that she’s finished with school.

“I’m donating to shelters that deal with abuse, and families,” she said. “(Menstrual supplies) aren’t expensive, but for poor people, it’s one more expense they don’t need.”

Some tampon manufacturers will donate supplies on a case-by-case basis. Laura Dressman, communications specialist for Procter & Gamble, which makes Tampax and Always brand products, said in an email that the company donates pads and tampons after natural disasters like floods, tornados and hurricanes, and will donate to some organizations helping women in need.

'Get over it'

Menstruation is as old as the human race, but outspokenness about it has a distinctly modern, cheeky edge. For a recent story on the subject, Newsweek magazine put an unwrapped tampon on the cover and announced THERE WILL BE BLOOD in type usually reserved for stories about military invasions. Sister Supply is holding a “Red Panty Party” fundraiser later this month, and serving cocktails with “blood” in the name, red velvet cupcakes and “you get the idea,” the invitation states.

To Tait, it’s all something to laugh about – and something we won’t be laughing about for long.

“My teenage son talks about menstruation all the time,” she said, adding that he regularly helps with Helping Women Period’s collection and distribution drives. “He’s completely comfortable with it.”

As for Kramer, the Ohio woman who started a movement by noticing a company perk in 1982, she says she no longer has time to flatter anyone’s sense of propriety.

Now in her 50s, she states that she’s aged out of having a direct need for menstrual supplies, but is still pushing for the next generation to never find themselves having to improvise.

“My pledge to my daughters was that before I die, I wanted to change the social norm around this issue,” Kramer said. “Men have no idea what it’s like for us, because there’s no equivalent (experience). If men got periods we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.”

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