Let’s talk about menstruation. It’s the natural biological function of a woman’s reproductive system during her child-bearing years. It begins at puberty and continues through menopause. Once every lunar month the ovaries release eggs. As an egg makes its way through the reproductive system, the lining of the uterus becomes engorged with blood to provide a nutrient rich environment for the fertilized egg to embed itself. If the egg is not fertilized, the excess blood and tissue from the lining of the uterus are discharged through the vaginal opening. Women don’t choose to menstruate. It just happens.
In order to manage this evacuation of blood from the uterus, women with the means purchase feminine hygiene products such as pads, tampons, liners, cups and douches. But for low-income women the purchase of these products can be a luxury. They manage as best they can. Young women who are not able to afford fem-care products miss school. Women with jobs miss work. This lack of access means they fall behind and our economy loses their promise and their productivity.
A Tax on Being Female
The fact that women menstruate provides a basic, vital social benefit. And yet, society stigmatizes and punishes women for their natural biology. A Tennessee lawmaker, Sen. Brenda Gilmore of Nashville, has put forth a bill this legislative session that would provide some relief to Tennessee women from the monthly expense of managing menstruation. Her bill, SB0060/HB0095, would remove the state and local sales tax on all feminine hygiene products. It is a measure that has been proposed in previous sessions but has failed to gain the support of the 84.1 percent of Tennessee legislators who are male.
Women Helping Women
The revocation of Tennessee’s sales tax on feminine hygiene products will benefit all women. But it doesn’t go far enough to help women who are economically or otherwise marginalized in American society. The government continues to turn a blind eye to this problem. But Tennessee women have stepped up in meaningful ways to deliver care and comfort to their challenged menstruating sisters.
This past August, Dr. Lakisha Simmons of Belmont University, through her nonprofit, The Achiever Academy, launched The Period Project. She challenged Nashville women to donate feminine hygiene products that were then made available to young women attending targeted metro middle schools. Her effort was so successful that it has become self-sustaining. Donations from the community are now regularly dropped off at a Metro Nashville Public School central warehouse for delivery to schools. Dr. Simmons, through her ongoing Period Project, continues to help young female students navigate the demands of managing their periods.
Sen. Katrina Robinson of Memphis has proposed SB0075/HB0129. This bill would make feminine hygiene and other hygiene products readily available to all women in Tennessee correctional facilities at no cost and in a quantity that is appropriate to the needs of the women. It also proposes that these products be made available without having to secure a medical permit and that the products be available in housing units, not just in medical areas. SB0075 would allow menstruating women to manage their natural function without having to declare a medical crisis. Menstruation is not an illness.
On the third floor of the downtown Nashville library, back by the community area and public computers, the women’s restroom has a new feature. Affixed to the tile wall next to the hand dryers is a clear plastic dispenser filled with pads and tampons. The sign on the front reads: “Compliments of the Friends of the Library. Please only take what is needed in order to sustain this service. Thank you!” For the economically challenged women of our city, it is a welcome and generous gesture. Aside from providing much-needed feminine hygiene products, it says to these women, “We see you and we care.”
The fiscal note on Sen. Gilmore’s bill, SB0060/HB0095, estimates that women spend $120.00 a month on feminine hygiene. That’s a lot of money for a young student, for low-income women, for homeless women living on the streets with few resources, for mothers who struggle to provide for her children, for trans men who are often forced to the fringes of society. The women of Tennessee have stepped up to do what they can to provide care for these disadvantaged groups. But the burden of managing menstruation, a function of vital social benefit, should not continue to be relegated to women alone. It’s time for all of society to step up.
*To voice your support for SB0060/HB0095 and SB0075/HB0129, contact your Tennessee state Senate and House representatives.
*Since the writing of this piece, the plastic dispenser that held feminine hygiene products in the women's restroom on the third floor of the library has come off the wall. Fem-care products are now held in a blue basket on a shelf next to the hand washing area. If you would like to donate a sturdier dispenser to hold the feminine hygiene products, please contact the Friends of the Library at their website, nplf.org, or at their office in the library, 615-880-2613.