Trigger warning: This column contains mention of menstruation, specifically Assembly Bill 1561, a proposal to exempt feminine hygiene products from state sales tax.
Scanning the page for something else to read? You’re not alone. Even Sen. Joel Anderson, a San Diego County Republican and anti-tax hawk, who will co-author the measure, doesn’t like the topic.
“This is probably the one bill I cannot comfortably talk about,” he told me last week. “You would expect women to author it but not men, and some would make the argument you really wouldn’t expect Republican men.”
It’s to his credit that he resisted the knee-jerk reaction that the proposal – crafted by Assemblywomen Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, and Ling Ling Chang, R-Diamond Bar – received from media and colleagues of both genders when it was announced earlier this month, before he signed on.
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Feminists aside, responses ranged from “there goes crazy California again” to some commentators dubbing it “cringe-worthy” and an ill-reasoned attempt to find conspiracies against women when all sorts of necessities – toilet paper and deodorant were favorite examples – are taxed.
Both responses miss the point.
The bill is less about the 80 cents the average woman would save each month and more about the bigger issue of equality in governance. What topics are worthy of our attention?
The bill, Garcia says, is “a way to start a conversation.” It just happens to begin with accessibility for all women, and affordability for low-income women in particular, to products that enable them to fully participate in society and in the professional world.
There are fair arguments to be made both ways about whether these items should be taxed, but Garcia’s hope is that it won’t stop at that policy issue.
Some girls start their period as young as 8 years old, third grade. School nurses are a luxury of the past. Maybe we need formalized access to free feminine hygiene products in elementary schools?
Under Internal Revenue Service rules, you can use pre-tax dollars in flex pay plans to receive reimbursement for condoms and pregnancy tests but not tampons. Maybe we should discuss those rules.
What about our flex-pay standards? Currently, under Internal Revenue Service rules, you can use pre-tax dollars to receive reimbursement for condoms and pregnancy tests but not tampons. Which gender do you think drafted those rules?
And maybe for those women in poverty, it would be real relief if products were covered by insurance or otherwise provided without charge – opening up a bit of money for other necessities such as food or diapers for kids and ensuring that a period doesn’t cause women to miss school or work because she can’t afford a tampon.
Garcia says she had young women telling her of purchasing tampons one at a time out of gas station vending machines because that’s all they could afford.
On average, a woman has her period from three to seven days a month beginning at age 12, according to the office on Women’s Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It lasts until about age 50, when menopause hits.
It tallies up to somewhere between about 1,300 and 3,200 days during a lifetime. Tampons, which about 70 percent of women use, need to be changed every 4 to 8 hours to reduce the risk of humiliation and toxic shock syndrome, which, although rare, is something that worries women.
That’s roughly 13,500 tampons, and 4 to 9 years spent actively menstruating for the average woman. From a financial viewpoint, the numbers aren’t huge – about $360 in total individual taxes during those fertile years, with the state losing about $20 million in annual revenue out of a proposed $170 billion budget. But periods impact women’s lives. Period.
So the issue isn’t the tax, it’s the mindset.
I get the discomfort with the topic. There are plenty of male issues I’d rather not discuss. Fantasy sports come to mind. And I’m old enough that I grew up in an era when it was taboo to even mention periods, especially with the opposite sex.
But it would be a shame if that outdated approach to this basic biological function keeps us from having the conversations Garcia envisions. It may be a women’s issue, but we are all adults.
Anita Chabria is a freelance writer in Sacramento. Her most recent piece for The Sacramento Bee, “Police need to rely more on science, less on their ‘gut’,” appeared Jan. 10. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.