As we celebrate Women’s Equality Day this week, I want to talk about another type of equality, menstrual equality. I know this subject does not often grace the pages of newspapers, but in recent years it has been talked about in publications as mainstream as The New York Times and in legislatures across the country.
Menstruation is the monthly shedding of the uterus lining that occurs in women from the onset of puberty until menopause. The average onset of puberty occurs at about 12 years of age, and the onset of menopause occurs between 45 and 55. Most women will have their periods for 3-7 days each month except during pregnancy. Half our population will spend on average 6.5 years menstruating. During that time, women use menstrual products, tampons, sanitary pads, panty liners etc. to catch the flow of blood and tissue as it is expelled.
This is a normal bodily function, yet the products necessary to care for our bodies during this time are not readily available to all women. One problem can be the unpredictability of exactly when you get your period, especially in young women. I don’t know any woman who hasn’t been surprised by her period on occasion and had to dash around looking for appropriate hygiene products. They aren’t currently available in every public restroom — even for sale.
Then there is the cost. A box of tampons costs about $10. On average, a woman will purchase 7 boxes of tampons over the course of a year. If there is more than one woman in your household, the costs multiply. And that’s just the beginning. There is the occasionally ruined underwear to be replaced, the additional liners or pads, medications for cramps and headaches and the sometimes necessary chocolate intervention.
But as a baseline, feminine hygiene products will cost each woman $70 to $150 per year. This may not sound like a lot of money, but it can be significant for young women, low-income women, homeless women, and incarcerated women.
The consequences of insufficient access to menstrual products can be that women are not able to fully participate in society. If you are worried about bleeding through your clothes, you are less likely to participate in the normal activities of working, going to school or church, meeting up with friends or volunteering with your neighborhood group.
Minnesota has taken a few steps towards menstrual equality. Minnesota is one of only a handful of states that don’t impose a state sales tax on feminine hygiene products. A legal advocacy group called Tax Free. Period. is working to eliminate the sales tax on feminine hygiene products in all 50 states by Tax Day 2020.
Their position is that the tampon tax is not just an unfair economic burden but an illegal and unconstitutional form of sex-based discrimination. Tampons and other feminine hygiene products are not a luxury but a necessity for good health.
In addition, this year the Minnesota House proposed a new law (HF 2903) that would require schools to stock disposable feminine hygiene products free of charge in at least one girl’s restroom in the schools serving grades 7-12. So far that law hasn’t been passed, and there is no companion bill in the Minnesota Senate.
At the federal level, U.S. Rep. Grace Meng from New York has introduced the Menstrual Equality For All Act of 2019 in the House (HR1882). Minnesota Reps. Betty McCollum and Ilhan Omar are co-sponsors. The bill is currently working its way through committee. Again, there is no companion bill in the Senate. The Menstrual Equality Act would address access to menstrual products in several areas:
- Require menstrual hygiene products be provided free in elementary and secondary schools
- Require menstrual hygiene products be provided free to incarcerated people
- Allow the purchase of menstrual hygiene products with grant money provided to nonprofits running emergency food and shelter programs
- Allow women to use health savings accounts to purchase menstrual hygiene products
- Ensure menstrual hygiene products are covered by Medicaid
- Require employers with over 100 employees to provide free menstrual hygiene products in their facility restrooms and
- Require public buildings to stock restrooms with free menstrual products.
When you think about the wider issue of women’s equality, menstrual equality may seem like a minor thing, but only if you’ve never menstruated. For women, this monthly function that keeps the body healthy can be an added stressor in our society.
We plan for it; try not to be caught without supplies; try not to discuss it with men, as there is still quite a bit of stigma in our society associated with menstruation; and try to make sure we have access to appropriate facilities when working, traveling and going to school.
Menstrual equality, or equal access to hygiene products for all women, is a step towards alleviating gender-based economic discrepancies, and it’s a gateway to a wider discussion on the implications of menstruation in our society. One day, the awareness of menstruation will be so commonplace and normal in our society as to not warrant discussion or discrimination.