When it comes to menstruation, activists say it’s time for the conversation to move out of the restroom and into the public spotlight.
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf almost single-handedly has pushed for “menstrual equity” as a campaign. Ms. Weiss-Wolf is the vice president for development at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University and an author, but she has worked on behalf of menstruating women on her own.
As Ms. Weiss-Wolf and others frame it, “menstrual equity” is more a common-sense crusade than bullhorns screaming against “the man.”
The crux of her campaign, which has enjoyed strong bipartisan support at the state and federal levels, concerns access. Public bathrooms rarely offer menstrual pads or tampons, incarcerated women have not always had such necessities, and the IRS prohibits women from using their health savings accounts to buy the products, although Viagra and sunscreen are allowed.
Sales taxes also come into account. Although four state legislatures have moved to change their tax codes in the past three years, most states tax menstrual products even though scads of other personal hygiene and health care items bought at stores every day are exempt.
“It might sound silly at first, but when you get down to some of the things we’re talking about, many of them are no-brainers,” Ms. Weiss-Wolf said. “These are already things we regulated and see as part of the social contract with government: You don’t walk around with toilet paper and soap in your pockets because those are required to be in restrooms and you expect to find them there.”
Ms. Weiss-Wolf, 50, does not shrilly denounce those facts as proof of a patriarchal cabal, although she finds it telling that items only women use — by necessity rather than choice — are the ones excluded.
“Really, what’s happened is that lawmakers never gave the topic any consideration or thought,” she said.
Last year, the Justice Department directed the federal prison system to provide inmates with free menstrual products, and the same requirement is in a bill that passed the House on a 360-59 vote in May. President Trump has said he would sign the bill.
On July 28, the House also passed a bill that would allow HSAs to cover menstrual products and require companies with more than 100 employees to provide them.
Legislatures in another 24 states have introduced or are considering bills regarding sales tax exemptions for the products. Before the recent moves by Florida, Illinois, New York and Connecticut, only 10 states had such exemptions, although half already had no sales tax.
Other states have enacted laws regarding public hygiene and required menstrual products to be provided in their jails and prisons or, in some cases, public schools.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, New York Democrat, fumed on Twitter in June that he was denied reimbursement of $37 spent for menstrual products used by visitors and staff in public restrooms. He sought reimbursement from the same taxpayer fund that pays for tissues and hand sanitizer, as well as “embellished letter openers, brass bookends, gavel sets with engravable plates and wooden ‘executive tissue holders,’” Ms. Weiss-Wolf wrote.
The issue crossed Ms. Weiss-Wolf’s path at the end of 2015 when she noticed on her Facebook page a local food pantry drive that asked for tampons and pads as needed donations.
“So, until 2016, no one was asking about all this,” she said.
Since her “Periods Gone Public” book was published in October, many more politicians have backed than blocked her proposals, she said. Democratic and Republican governors have signed bills dealing with the issue, and the measures introduced in Congress have had bipartisan sponsors.
“We’ve had buy-ins and interest from both sides,” Ms. Weiss-Wolf said.
Ms. Weiss-Wolf said she deliberately calibrates her arguments to avoid being pigeonholed or misconstrued and is careful to shy away from extreme positions. While some have suggested that women be given “menstrual leave” from work, it isn’t a step Ms. Weiss-Wolf said she is willing to embrace. She also relentlessly characterizes the omission of menstrual products from enacted policies as neglect rather than animus.
Still, that hasn’t stopped many liberal outlets from describing Ms. Weiss-Wolf as a hero of menstruation. “Women are finally winning the period rights fight,” ran a Newsweek headline. She was characterized as “Feminism’s official period warrior” by Refinery29 online, and “The Tampon Crusader” by Vice, while Bitch Media raved, “Loud, proud and bleeding: ‘Periods Gone Public’ fights for menstrual equity.”
Ms. Weiss-Wolf is amused by such descriptions but doesn’t seek them.
“That’s the media,” she said, laughing. “Not me.”
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