Last week, in a monumental move, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo officially axed the state’s “tampon tax”—the sales tax imposed on feminine hygiene products that women had been forced to pay since 1965. With the signing, New York became one of the first states to eliminate the sexist tariff since the cause gained political traction last year.
“This is a regressive tax on essential products that women have had to pay for far too long and lifting it is a matter of social and economic justice,” Cuomo said.
The controversy stems from the fact nearly every state with a sales tax—with the exception of Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, New Jersey, and more recently, New York and Connecticut—list tampons, pads, and other menstrual products as “luxury goods” as opposed to “necessities.” Which, as any woman can tell you, is bullshit.
Even President Obama acknowledged this injustice, telling YouTube star Ingrid Nilsen in January: “I have no idea why states would tax these as luxury items. I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed.”
So while the women of New York can now buy tampons tax-free—a move that Cuomo’s office estimates will save consumers a whopping $10 million a year—those of you in other states may be wondering when you, too, can buy your menstrual products without a side order of patriarchy. Which states are likely to overturn the tax next?
Since last summer, as calls for menstrual equality reach a fever pitch, lawmakers and activists across the country have galvanized to overturn the tax, with 15 states (and counting) presenting bills to change or eliminate sales tariffs on menstrual products. While bills have stalled or been voted down in some states, including Ohio and Utah, others are slowly forging ahead.
Connecticut, for example, recently slashed the tampon tax from its budget, which will take effect in 2018, and Illinois’s bill eliminating the tax awaits signature from the governor. California is also moving toward a ban. Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, a Florida woman filed a class-action lawsuit intended to repeal the tax—and refund millions of dollars to residents who have paid it.
I recently spoke with the lawmakers tirelessly leading the charge in three of these states to find out what they’re up against.
Senator Melinda Bush of Illinois is passionate about battling “the inequity women deal with throughout their entire lives.” In a phone interview, the Democratic lawmaker stressed that women make less money and “pay about 10% more for like items” over a lifetime—costs that add up, particularly for women who can “ill afford” such costs.
In her state, menstrual and incontinence products are taxed at the same rate as “luxury items” such as shampoo (no comment on whether soap should be considered a “luxury”), costing Illinoisans $14.7 million annually.
After some research, Bush got to work. “I went to most of the male legislators first and basically said, ‘Look, women have been paying a luxury tax on tampons, sanitary napkins and menstrual cups…I think it’s an unfair tax. Do you have any questions?’”
Working closely with the revenue department during a statewide budget battle, Bush was able to drum up bipartisan support to pass Senate Bill 2746 unanimously through the state’s General Assembly in April. On the day of the first big vote in the Senate, she handed out pink adhesive dots for her colleagues to don on their lapels in support of the legislation. She considers the efforts to remove the tax “the most fun legislation of the year.”
“I said men were going to have a period that day,” Bush joked.
Senate Bill 2746 now awaits the approval of Governor Bruce Rauner, who is expected to sign it into law soon, and strike down the 6.25% tax on menstrual products and adult diapers.
In Ohio, Rep. Greta Johnson has faced serious challenges in trying to pass House Bill 272, tampon tax legislation she sponsored and presented to the state’s House of Representatives in May. It is one of two such active bills in Ohio—legislative efforts joined by a class-action lawsuit filed in March that, similar to the suit filed in Florida, calls for the refund of some $66 million dollars to female consumers for costs associated with the “pink tax.”
According to the lawmaker, it’s not Ohioans fighting the efforts—she says the state’s women tell her “it’s about time”—it’s her peers, who oppose the woman-focused legislation.
Which, perhaps, should come as no surprise. Ohio’s state legislators are responsible for writing and passing the 17 anti-abortion and reproductive health provisions that have been signed by Governor John Kasich since he took office in 2010—provisions that arguably do not support women’s health. And the tampon tax is ultimately “a health issue.” Aside from one required hearing before the Ways and Means Committee, Johnson said, her bill has gone nowhere in the state’s “very heavily GOP-controlled State House.”
“When there’s food instability, there’s tampon instability. It’s not just a monthly period, it’s a monthly crisis for some women,” Johnson told me, adding that she feels “struck by having this front row seat to the systemic attack on women’s rights.”
And so, with her low-income Akron constituents in mind, the Democrat began drumming up support for a practical bill that, if enacted, would put money back in their pockets.
“When you’re talking about a woman who is trying to make it on her own, we already know she makes 77 cents on the dollar [compared to a man]—and that’s if she’s white. For that woman…paying for three boxes of tampons a month for her and her two daughters? That’s a lot of money over a lifetime.”
Because of the pushback from her fellow legislators, Johnson sees the civil suit as a window of opportunity that may allow Ohio’s women to see more timely justice. She’s staying optimistic— because, like Governor Kasich, she’s setting an example for two daughters of her own.
California Assemblymember Cristina Garcia did not mince words when we spoke: “The monthly flow is not something we can ignore or wish away, trust me if we could, we would.” (Agree.)
When Garcia introduced a bill in March to eliminate the state’s tax on menstrual products—a tariff that costs women in the state $20 million annually—she was met with great enthusiasm from her colleagues, garnering 43 Republican and Democratic legislators as co-authors.
At the end of June, California’s state assembly approved Assembly Bill 1561, which now continues on to the Senate for review. Garcia told me the enthusiastic bipartisan support the legislation has received sends a clear message that California’s elected officials value and respect “all aspects of a woman’s health” in a state where 4.6 million women live in poverty. She is hopeful it will pass.
“Men and women from both sides of the aisle agree that our tax code needs to reflect the fact that it’s no longer okay to tax women for being born women or to shame us for our biology,” Garcia said. “The money from these taxes should remain in the hands of our mothers, our sisters, and our daughters—period.”
Alli Maloney is a writer.