Last summer, many were surprised when the U.S. Department of Justice -- led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom few would accuse of being a coddler of prison inmates -- issued a memo encouraging federal prisons to provide free feminine hygiene products, such as pads and tampons. That recommendation reflects a movement that has been percolating in statehouses and city halls for the past couple of years. Hygiene equity is having a moment, and not just behind prison walls.
Four states have passed legislation eliminating sales taxes on feminine hygiene products in the past two years. Maryland OK’d a bill this year to provide female prisoners with free pads and tampons, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the products would be available for free in schools. Meanwhile, other states have moved on the related issue of infant care needs. California Gov. Jerry Brown, citing budget concerns, vetoed a bill to repeal the so-called tampon tax in 2016, but last year he signed a law that provides a $30-a-month subsidy for diapers to parents on welfare with children under 3.
For advocates, these policy changes reflect an increased interest in making the lives of women in poverty a little easier. Diapers are not covered by food stamps or WIC, the federal assistance program for new mothers and infants. And while things such as sunscreen and specialty shampoo aren’t taxed in many states, feminine hygiene products usually are. “Cleaning and personal care products are especially hard for the working poor,” says Joanne Goldblum, CEO of the National Diaper Bank Network, which started an initiative this year to offer feminine hygiene supplies. “As a society, we don’t talk about the little things, and small things impact big things.”
In Maryland, for example, the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services partners with the Greater DC Diaper Bank to enable social workers to bring hygiene products on home visits. “If you provide a new mom a box of tampons or diapers, there’s a switch flipped there, where she realizes, ‘Oh, this person really is here to help,’” says Corinne Cannon, executive director of the DC Diaper Bank.
Outside of that social services setting, however, hygiene equity has suffered some setbacks. For every tax repeal that has passed, several have failed. Among other things, skeptics worry that once tampons and diapers aren’t taxed, people will start pushing for exempting other hygiene products, such as deodorant and toilet paper. “We’re seeing a lot more movement, but it’s a slog,” says Alison Weir, chief of policy, research and analysis at the National Diaper Bank Network. “A lot of states have introduced legislation and it hasn’t gone anywhere. But they are introducing it.”
The Nevada Assembly passed legislation last year to end the sales tax on feminine hygiene products and diapers. It died in the Senate, but the legislature did pass a bill that will bring the issue to the voters: Nevadans will decide this November if they want to ditch the state’s tampon tax.
Assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel, who has worked on gender equity bills, credits this new wave of legislation to more women being elected to office, resulting in new conversations -- though not always pleasant ones. “One of my male colleagues turned to me and said, ‘Where’s my tax break on jockstraps?’” Spiegel recalls. Nevertheless, she says, “it becomes much easier to pass these bills when you have people who’ve experienced the issues firsthand.”