More than 100 people from across the state of Michigan gathered on the Diag for the first annual Michigan National Period Day rally on Saturday afternoon. Sponsored by the non-profit PERIOD, the event was one of a series of rallies being held in every U.S. state to reduce the stigma around menstruation and to advocate for greater accessibility to menstruation products.
Part of PERIOD’s mission is to cultivate national conversations about the difficulty of affording period products for low-income individuals, which the movement refers to as “period poverty.” According to PERIOD’s website, the rallies were meant to kick off a yearlong campaign calling for free, clean, healthy and easily accessible menstruation products in prisons, shelters and schools.
The rallies also demanded the end of the “tampon tax,” a popular term used by menstrual activists to refer to the value-added sales tax on menstruation products. While some products are considered “basic necessities” under the tax code and are thus tax-exempt, Michigan is one of 34 states in which the “tampon tax” still exists because menstruation products are considered “non-essential goods.”
The Michigan rally was headed by Wayne State University’s PERIOD chapter and organized alongside chapters at the University of Michigan, Western Michigan University and Washtenaw International High School. The event was co-hosted with organizations involved in menstrual activism including Corner Health Center, Dot.org, Planned Parenthood, National Organization for Women, Taylor Law Firm and Helping Women Period.
Along with chants and spontaneous read-outs of poetry on the topic of menstruation, the event featured speeches by student activists, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., state Rep. Tenisha Yancey, D-Harper Woods, and 2018 Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed.
Dingell told the audience she used to hear menstruation referred to as “the curse” when she was in high school. As someone who had endometriosis, Dingell said she felt like she couldn’t talk about it because men would minimize her pain.
“I cannot tell you what it means to me, as a woman … to be with women talking about a subject that’s been way too taboo for too long, and to be here on the first day we’re gathering for it. I want to thank all of the women that are here ending the stigma that should’ve ended years ago,” Dingell said.
Tenisha Yancey spoke about two bills, House Bill 4165 and 4166, she introduced alongside state Rep. Brian Elder, D-Bay City, to eliminate the tampon tax in Michigan. She urged the audience to contact their representative in support of the bills.
“If you happen to be low-income or homeless, you might often find yourself having to make a decision each month that’s unthinkable for many of us: Do I eat, or do I pay for tampons and pads?” Yancey said. “‘Do I feed my children, or make sure I have the sanitary products that I need?’ every 28 days. No one should have to be faced with those choices ever.”
A 2019 survey of low-income individuals in the U.S. who menstruate found almost half of those in the study had to choose between buying food or menstrual hygiene products. In lieu of products such as tampons and pads, individuals used alternatives such as toilet paper, paper towels, rags, socks and diapers instead.
Acknowledging his privilege as someone who has never menstruated before, El-Sayed drew on his experience as a doctor to discuss the health implications of period poverty. When individuals have to ration menstruation products, El-Sayed explained they are more at risk for disease and toxic shock syndrome. He also said the stress of inaccessibility can weigh heavily on an individual’s mental health.
“When we advocate for access to basic goods that people need to live their lives, we are talking about a matter of human rights,” El-Sayed said.
Wayne State University student Emily Tujaka, the co-president of her campus’s PERIOD chapter and lead organizer of the rally, said she believes abolishing the tampon tax would be a good step toward alleviating period poverty.
“There’s a lot of stuff — Viagra, corrective shoes, canes — that are exempted from the sales tax, because they’re considered necessary,” Tujaka said. “Period products are not one of those, which we think is ridiculous, so we want that tax gone.”
One table with free donuts also had a sign providing attendees with food for thought: why are donuts exempt from sales tax but my tampons aren’t? Public Health junior Sarah Jang, a member of the University’s chapter of PERIOD, said she created the sign to draw attention to the “ridiculousness” of the tampon tax.
“One of the members of our club was buying donuts and she found out that there are no taxes on these donuts, but then tampons are taxed,” Jang said. “It’s absurd. Donuts aren’t essential, you don’t need them to live. But you need tampons.”
Public Health graduate student Ashley Rapp explained she became involved in efforts surrounding period poverty after a friend working in Detroit public schools asked for product donations because her students couldn’t afford them. Rapp noted the University doesn’t provide free menstrual products, unlike some other schools across the country, such as University of Texas at Austin, Yale University, Saint Louis University and others.
“What’s interesting about that, to me, is that we have the money to be able to do things like that, and we also have students at the University who are food-insecure, who don’t have enough money for (menstruation products), and yet this is something that’s ignored,” Rapp said. “The University of Michigan provides free toilet paper, hand soap, paper towels in all the restrooms, which shouldn’t be any different from providing menstrual products.”
In 2018, a study published by period product brand Always found one in five girls in the U.S. have either left school early or missed school entirely during their periods because they did not have access to menstruation products.
Rapp also emphasized the importance of ensuring the menstrual movement is inclusive, noting she purposely refers to tampons and pads as “menstruation products” instead of “feminine hygiene products.”
“It’s really important to remember … that not all menstruators on campus and in the community are women,” Rapp said. “Not all identify as women, and not all women menstruate. So, it’s important that, when we’re talking about this issue … we keep it intersectional.”
Jang said she hopes the energy at the rally translates into further activism around the issue of period stigma and period poverty.
“I think it’s a start, that we’re getting a little closer to reducing the stigma and getting the conversation out there,” Jang said. “But it’s only a start, and there’s a bunch more work to do.”