The state of Michigan’s tampons

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Menstrual products in Michigan can fall between $6 and $10 per box, all of which have a six percent sales tax.

Michigan legislators are joining the national movement against the tampon tax.

Today, a $7 box of 36 tampons or 40 pads in Michigan will include an extra 42 cents in sales tax. That doesn’t sound so bad, right? But consider that a woman will spend between $70 to $100 on tampons and pads over the 40 years that she menstruates and the extra cost of sales tax adds up to approximately $168 to $240 over a lifetime.

But for feminists, menstruation activists and women who have spoken out against the tampon tax, the economic toll staggers under the weight of something much bigger: government regulated gender bias.

“It’s significantly more about weighing the impact of gender in public policy,” said Lea Hunter, the author of The “Tampon Tax”: Public Discourse of Policies Concerning Menstrual Taboo. “Does our society value this gendered experience in the same way? And the continued existence of this policy I think shows that we still have a lot of fight left for gender equality.”

Michigan is one of 38 states that charge sales tax on feminine hygiene products. Since the beginning of 2016, it has been one of numerous states actively trying to change that.

A breakdown of each state that charges sales tax on feminine hygiene products.

A breakdown of each state that charges sales tax on feminine hygiene products.

While legislators like Michigan Sen. David Knezek don’t think the bias was intended when the 1937 Michigan Tax Policy was passed, they agree that it’s time for change.

“I don’t necessarily think that it was intentional or that it was malicious in the intent,” Knezek said. “But I don’t think that we would be in this position today if we had men who listened to women, or if we had women who were elected at the state level and able to give voice to these very important issues.”

But months after the tampon tax dominated social media feeds, what’s happened to the story? What are Michigan legislators doing about it? What’s the cost? And how has social media transformed tampons from an uncomfortable discussion topic into the buzzword of the last two years?

At the Statehouse

In 1937, when the Michigan Tax Policy was passed, the predominant feminine hygiene products were rags and the only women in the building were secretaries. Today, women make up 21 percent of the Michigan legislature and female legislators like Rep. Sarah Roberts are working to make sure that women’s interests are well represented.

The Michigan Capitol Building

Photo by Catherine Ferland

Roberts was the first Michigan legislator to introduce legislation about the tampon tax. After reading an article on Facebook about the New York legislature’s efforts to make feminine hygiene products tax exempt, she decided to push forward her own legislation.

“I cannot think of a more essential item for a woman than feminine hygiene products and I think that it should be defined as such under the law and we should be exempt from taxation,” she said, during an interview in her Lansing office. “Stop taxing women for being women.”

She’s not alone. Republican Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons, and Democratic state Sens., Knezek and Rebekah Warren, have all pushed forward their own legislation to achieve the same end.

A breakdown of the two senate bills and four house bills surrounding the Michigan Tampon Tax.

Catherine Ferland

A breakdown of the two senate bills and four house bills surrounding the Michigan Tampon Tax.

“I was not elected just to represent the men in my district,” Knezek said. “While I’ll never know what it’s like to have my period, I listen to the women who do.”

But while the legislators received praise from voters and colleagues for pursuing the legislation, the stigma around menstruation impacted their efforts. When seeking co-signers on her bill, Roberts recalled that many expressed words of encouragement, but couldn’t even say the word tampon, much less put their name on a piece of legislation surrounding it.

“And I want to take that stigma away and that discomfort in talking about periods,” Roberts said. “Because we’re women and it’s part of who we are and how our bodies work biologically and I think we should be supporting women and not making it difficult for them.”

“I have been very surprised by the number of men who don’t believe that feminine hygiene products are medically necessary for women,” Knezek said, while discussing the challenges he’s faced introducing the bill. “So there is an initial hurdle that you have to get over of educating colleagues and teaching them about the importance of these products and why I believe that they are being unfairly classified and taxed here in this state.”

For now, Robert’s and Posthumus Lyon’s tampon tax bills are waiting for review from the Committee on Tax Policy and Knezek and Warren’s bills are waiting for review from the Committee of Finance. All three are competing for the attention of the committee next to hundreds of other bills introduced in a legislative year.

And that legislative year is quickly drawing to a close. Roberts, who has reached her maximum number of terms in the House, has limited days left to push her legislation through before the slate is wiped clean. At the end of the year, all legislation that hasn’t made it to the governor’s desk will need to be reintroduced in January.

If the two senate bills fail to make it past the committee, Knezek and Warren said they plan to reintroduce them in January.

“We know that it’s getting attention on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers,” Knezek said. “I just want to continue to press forward and make sure that we’re giving this issue the attention that it’s due.”

Posthumus Lyons could not be reached for comment.

Show me the money

In September 2016, California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill to make feminine hygiene products tax exempt in his state, which would account for a $300 million dip in the sales tax revenue. In his veto statement, he wrote, “Tax breaks are the same as new spending.”

Warren is a member of the Committee of Finance and urged the Senate Fiscal Agency to examine the economic impact of tampon tax legislation. According to Warren’s office, the Senate Fiscal Agency estimated that the impact of making feminine hygiene products tax exempt in Michigan would be $5 million per year. This would account for 0.9 percent of the $56 billion state budget. Within the state budget, $10 billion makes up the general fund, where sales tax revenues go. Therefore, sales tax on feminine hygiene products is estimated to make up 5 percent of the general fund.

So is the cut in tax revenue too much?

“I think that’s a cop out,” Hunter said.. She referenced the Utah sales tax on feminine hygiene products in her 2016 tampon publication, which makes up 6.85 percent of the Utah State tax pool.

“They’re weighing the importance of certain things through their tax codes and if they’re going to exempt anything, they need to exempt tampons, in my opinion,” she said.

Warren said she doesn’t think the tax revenue cut would make a big impact on the state budget.

“This is money that women are spending every month right now,” she said. “If they were not paying that surcharge on their feminine hygiene products, I firmly believe that would be spending that money in other ways, so you would probably make up the sales tax in other purchases. But it just wouldn’t be charged a sales tax on something that is considered medically necessary by most of us.”

The Committee on Tax Policy employs a team of nonpartisan experts who analyze the economic toll of each bill, including the theory of unused tax revenue being recycled back into the economy by consumers.

Economists would analyze how the elimination of the tampon tax in other states impacted their economies, and therefore how it may impact Michigan.

“I think there’s enough data out there that we can look at to say, ‘Is this really going to have an impact on the economy?’” Warren said.

“But it’s really common for us to also look at, what is the outcome?” Warren continued. “What behavior are you trying to incentivize or disincentivize? The committee would definitely look at all sides of that issue and it wouldn’t just be a black and white issue.”

Warren and the rest of the legislators working on the tampon tax realize that they can’t ignore the economic implications of their legislation. But at the end of the day, it’s still about something so much larger than pennies on the dollar.

“Do we value women’s access to feminine hygiene products and are we going to do everything we can to make it more affordable and more accessible to women?” Knezek said. “I think to me, the principle of it all is just as important as any conversation about taxes and revenue.”

Run by social media

In January 2016, Ingrid Nilsen, a popular YouTuber and social media personality took the internet by storm when she asked President Barack Obama why feminine hygiene products were taxed in the majority of U.S. states.

Obama responded that he didn’t know why they would be taxed and that it would be “pretty sensible for women in those states to work to get those taxes removed.”

But the tampon tax movement in the United States started long before that.

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, one of the leading voices in the movement remembers when she published her first essay on the subject in January of 2015 in the New York Times.

Little did she know that she would become one of the most influential voices in the tampon tax movement.

More activists spoke out, more media picked up the story, new menstrual technology became available from companies like Thinx and Diva Cup, and #tampontax dominated Twitter. By October, Weiss-Wolf partnered with Cosmopolitan Magazine to start a petition: “U.S. State Legislators, Stop Taxing Our Periods!”

People were listening. NPR named 2015 “The Year of the Period.”

“What brought all of us to the table at the same time?” Weiss-Wolf said. “I have no idea, other than a good idea.”

When Chris Bobel, another leading voice in the movement, first began her menstruation research fifteen years ago, the only people who were interested in talking about it were “fringey” or longtime feminist activists. Now, her students at the University of Massachusetts have seen menstrual activism daily on Instagram and Twitter.

“The rules of social media are perfect for this. Clicks drive interest, the more visual, the more arresting, the more powerful, the more people get excited about it,” said Bobel, a women’s studies professor and President of the Society for Menstrual Research. “I think we probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for social media.”

“Money talks,” she added. “Even though it’s symbolic and it’s a relatively small amount, everybody can get on board with, ‘That’s not fair!’ You don’t have to actually talk about blood. The discourse is sanitized.”

Maddy Wheelock, 19, a sophomore at Michigan State University, is a self-proclaimed “child of the internet” and said that most of what she knows about social justice has been learned through Twitter and Tumblr.

“In the mainstream media it’s not always talked about,” she said. “Sometimes these stories go under the radar. But on social media you can post whatever you want, whenever you want to so if you want to get the word out and somebody picks it up and it goes viral, it can change.”

Before social media, internet users would have to stumble across an article or a blog, email it to friends, or print it out and post it somewhere. You were lucky if you could get people talking.

But now, 140 characters and a click away, thousands of people can view your opinion or statement and share their own. Topics start trending and social movements begin.

“It’s a way for people in underprivileged situations to connect build momentum,” Hunter said. “It has become one of the most effective ways to communicate ideas across diverse social groups.”

What’s next?

While the Michigan tampon tax legislators continue to push forward their legislation to see feminine hygiene products become tax-exempt, the national tampon tax movement has set a milestone for menstruation activism and feminism.

For Bobel, the tampon tax movement is just the beginning. A perfect world to this mensturation expert would include greener products, better access for girls in developing nations and for menstruation to drop the social taboo.

“I would like to live in a world where menstruation is normalized so we didn’t spend a lot of money and energy on hiding it, and it was okay to talk about it,” she said.

For legislators, menstruation activists and concerned citizens, the real victory will come when all 50 states make feminine hygiene products tax exempt, a process that could take years at the current rate.

Weiss-Wolf has consulted with state legislators across the country as they move to eliminate the tampon tax, but reform doesn’t stop at state government.

“This is one of those issues where there actually are a combination of federal, state, municipal or community legislative solutions that all of which are equally influential and equally productive,” she said.

While federal action is powerless against state tax codes, it’s difficult to deny the impact that the the first female presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, could have on women’s health and feminism in the United States.

“A national election always has the opportunity to provide energy in the states,” Warren said. “We have our first woman candidate of a major political party being nominated for president. I think you are seeing more women energized about voting and being involved in politics and policy. I think [issues like the tampon tax] can only get energy from having a woman at the top of the ticket.”

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