At the start of 2015, lawyer and policy maker Jennifer Weiss-Wolf didn't know anything about the tampon tax. Or period poverty, where those on low incomes can barely afford to deal with their menstruation. That all changed when a leaflet from a local teen group collecting sanitary products for homeless women landed at her front door. "Once you know, you can't unknow," she tells IBTimes UK .
Fast forward three years, and Weiss-Wolf has testified in front of legislators in the US, seen four states ditch the so-called 'tampon tax', and written the book: Periods Gone Public: Taking A Stand for Menstrual Equity. In it, she charts how the stigma surrounding the part of that population thatbleeds for once a week once a month has fallen away in recent years. In 2016, the UK announced it would scrap its levy on sanitary products, and in October Bodyform is believed to have become the first company to depict period blood in a mainstream advert, rather than blue liquid.
But Weiss-Wolf says her work – and that of other campaigners – is nowhere near done. IBTimes UK asks why.
So, why are women so ashamed of periods?
I think the better question is why does our culture or society expect us to be? No one is born inherently ashamed of an aspect of their body. But it cuts across lots of ways women live their lives in terms of body image and other matters. It's not that we are ashamed, but that we live in a society that makes us ashamed.
Even in the educational policy I propose I'm eager to tease menstruation out from discussions more broadly on sexuality, because at its core it's a part of how our bodies function. Managing it shouldn't be different to managing other functions.
Are there any cultures where periods aren't seen as embarrassing?
Historically there are some from all corners of the world. Sikhism, for example, is positive about the menstrual cycle, and suggests that a woman's menstrual blood is natural and a fundamental component of life. The Greek philosopher Aristotle saw menstruation as a sign of female inferiority, but also attributed a mystical prowess to menstruating women. There are cultures and religious ceremonial aspects where it is celebrated, but they are pretty few and far between.
What was the catalyst for this new wave of activism? A few weeks ago Bodyform aired the first advert to show blood instead of that weird blue liquid.
NPR wrote a feature called Why 2015 Was the Year of the Period. But that was just a slice of the activity in 2015 around the world. My piece in the New York Times was one of them, but so too was Lisa De Bode's for Al Jazeera America, about the plight of homeless women in managing hygiene. There was a piece in The Nation about incarcerated women not having access to menstrual products. One of the first projects this sparked was in the UK called #thehomelessperiod. That year an inspiring young American-Indian woman called Kiran Ghandi ran the London marathon, got to the start and decided to "free bleed". She thought it would be the safest and easiest thing to do, but it created a political statement around it as well.
The poet Rupi Kaur posted a photo on Instagram depicting a woman who had stained her bedsheets with blood, and it was taken down for violating decency standards. Her rejection of that rationale also went viral. And no one in the US can forget that in August 2015 when there were still 17 candidates in the Republican nomination for the US election and they had the first debate in Ohio and Donald Trump accused the moderator Megyn Kelly of having "blood coming out of her wherever". This was interpreted as a dig at women and menstruation.
The internet exploded with #periodsarenotaninsult. All of that activity exploded in 2015. The policy agenda here that I've been forging started in Kenya, which was the first nation to eliminate to sales tax on menstrual products in 2004. In 2015 Canada succeeded in doing away with their national tax. And the petition in the UK is the gold standard. All of this activism marked 2015.
Well, that's amazing!
It's is amazing! And nothing has been the same since.
In the context of the policy successes in Canada and the UK and in Kenya around sales tax on menstrual products we caught up really fast in the US. Taxes are levied state by state, so we have to go to each legislature if we want to see it lifted. So far in this campaign I've been forging, 24 of the US states have introduced legislation to exempt menstrual products from sales tax in just two legislative sessions. And four have gotten it done: Illinois, Florida, New York, and Connecticut.
Once we got male legislators saying words like "period" and "tampon" the idea was to take the agenda further
It's important to add that in our polarised US politics, two of those bills, in Illinois and Florida, were by Republicans. In my mind, it was always the starting point to get people to think about the economics of menstruation. And once we got legislators saying words like "period" and "tampon", the idea was to take the agenda further. In 2015 and 2016 I worked with the New York City council to pass three laws to provide menstrual products in schools, homeless shelters and correction facilities. That set of laws has taken off as a gold standard to be replicated.
In the past year Illinois and California passed laws to ensure products are free for public schools. And at the federal level at the House and Senate bills have been introduced for menstrual affordability. It's called the Menstrual Equity Act and is focused on access and affordability. It includes everything from tax credits to workplace standards.
In the Senate, three high-profile senators from New Jersey, Massachusetts and California introduced a bill called the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act. I'd like to point out to people who have any doubt that it's a bipartisan issue, these were followed by guidance issued by the US Department of Justice mandating menstrual products that came under Jeff Sessions, and there is no one further to the right that him. That's a good signal to other Republicans interested in the economic empowerment of half of the population.
What is the next stigma surrounding women's bodies that we need to tackle?
I think that first we have a long way to go with period stigma, in my own echo-chamber everyone is talking about it. But I travel in the country and talk to people about it and they still haven't heard 95% of what I'm saying. I want everyone talking about and understanding the issue of menstrual equity: the idea that we are half the population and our body experiences a natural function otherwise completely off the table from any aspect of our lives. And it's almost unthinkable that our laws don't take that into account.
I think we've only scratched the surface and I won't stop until all 50 states don't have a tax on tampon products
I think we've only scratched the surface and I won't stop until all 50 states have no tax on tampon products, until access to those who need it is given, no matter who they are. But that said, what I think has been fascinating is the complete unleashing of anger following these scandals around sexual assault and harassment in the workplace, in particular by powerful leaders of particular industries.
It goes back to the point that our bodies and experiences and realities are not listened to or taken seriously. People still claim to be surprised that woman after woman after woman is speaking up about being targeted, which was laid bare by #metoo. We [women] can't believe it! We are banging our heads against the table thinking has no one listened to us for all of time?! You know what? No one has listened to us for all of time!
Do you think that men have a part to play in menstrual equity and making them less of a taboo?
One of the questions I get asked a lot is if I'm uncomfortable when I speak in front of legislatures, as in our current political system they are mostly made up of men. I'm not, but if they are uncomfortable then it's their problem. There is nothing to be uncomfortable about. It's natural, and it's normal and there isn't a man who doesn't know someone who has experienced it, starting with their mother.
And if they are uncomfortable it makes me more empowered to be direct and they catch up quickly enough. But we don't need their recognition or validation, but we need everyone fighting for it. When women succeed we all succeed.
What do you want people to take away from your book?
That changing our way of thinking changes every way we look at the rules and laws and policies by which we live. If you look at laws that govern bathrooms, people don't give a second thought to what is in the bathroom: hand soap, towels and toilet paper.
The reason they are there is because lawmakers have deemed these to be good for the public and society. Once we start to think this way we can demand change – whether it's from the media or companies who we can ask 'why the hell are you putting blue liquid on that?! no one bleeds blue' – it's incredibly empowering.
People will say it's so small, don't you have better things to do? But it's the tip of the iceberg. Menstruation isn't a small thing to talk about – it's actually the centre of everything.
Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity is out now.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
This article was corrected after it wrongly stated that federal bills on menstruation and guidance from Jeff Sessions on the topic were linked.