Legislation aims to provide free tampons to MI schools and state buildings

Wednesday, March 9, 2016 - 4:38pm

In a bid to increase access, two bills were introduced in the Michigan House of Representatives last week to provide tampons and sanitary napkins for free in women’s restrooms in public school buildings and state-owned facilities.  

House Bills 5427 and 5426, introduced by Rep. Sarah Roberts (D–St. Clair Shores), follow another bill focused on access, HB 5234, introduced in January 2016 that aimed to remove sales taxes from all feminine hygiene products. The bills join a nationwide push to make feminine hygiene products more accessible to women, which started in January when California State Rep. Cristina Garcia (D–Calif.) introduced the first piece of state legislation to abolish the “tampon tax.” As of now, only five states have gotten rid of the tax: Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

Roberts said she was first inspired to work toward making feminine hygiene products more readily available after hearing about the work of an advocate in New York. The three bills concerning tampon access currently in the House, she said, are part of a package to open up conversation on women’s health and menstruation.

“We need to have more conversations about this topic because menstruation is a taboo subject and a girl has to feel embarrassed to ask for a feminine hygiene product,” Roberts said. “They should never feel embarrassed about a completely natural thing that happens in a woman’s body. I want to take the shame away from this issue.”

The recent push in legislation parallels a change in advertising for tampons, such as ads from U by Kotex poking fun at older commercials that avoided any talk of blood or the actual function of the products the commercials were trying to sell. Joanne Bailey, director of the Nurse Midwifery Service and professor of women’s health in the Women’s Studies Department at the University, said she sees the changes in legislation and advertising as a break in the taboo previously placed on menstruation.

“If we look at social media or advertisement, there’s been a real change in the messaging around feminine hygiene products. Even the name is kind of bizarre; it whitewashes it and doesn’t talk about what is going on,” Bailey said. “If we look at the changing language and openness around it, this indicates that, as a society, we are changing our perspectives as our ability to talk about it changes.”

LSA sophomore Ashley Wilson, social media director for Students for Choice, said she believes this legislation is key to opening up dialogue about the necessity of feminine hygiene products.

"Periods are not this secret, shameful thing. If these products became openly available at your local secretary of state, in public schools and courthouses, it would be much harder for our society to pretend like they do not happen,” Wilson said. “The sooner we put an end to all of the stigma, the sooner we have a healthier society that is more comfortable discussing reproductive health care without fear of alienation."

Robert said she sees herself as a voice for young girls who worry about getting their period while in school, potentially taking away from their ability to focus while in class.

“I felt really passionate that these were free and available because oftentimes a girl’s period can start and she doesn’t know it, and you need exact change and the dispenser may not need work,” Roberts said. “Or they have to ask a friend or ask a teacher — and why should we make young women go through that?”

Bailey said she thought an increase of women in both the legislature and advertising companies, such as Roberts, is a testament to gender equality as more women are able to take leadership positions and break taboos on issues like menstruation.

“Fifty percent of the population are women, so it’s a huge marketing opportunity. It is a taboo that is breaking because more women are able to participate in the advertising and decision-making that is changing it,” Bailey said. “It feels completely invisible to men and it’s uncomfortable and a taboo topic, so it’s easy to keep it invisible, so it certainly is female lawmakers. You can’t imagine a man doing this. More women in power are challenging those questions.”

Members of College Republicans were not available for immediate comment.