Republican Or Democrat—We Can All Agree On Axing The Tampon Tax | Opinion

When it comes to reproductive health, there aren't many issues on which the two of us—a heartland conservative and a pro-choice New Yorker—find common ground. Yet one policy priority has enabled us to skirt partisan rancor: periods.

Our shared commitment to what appears, at first glance, to be a classic culture wars topic offers lessons on how to make meaningful progress for gender equality, even in America's polarized politics.

Given the vast shame and blame surrounding menstruation since, well, the Garden of Eden, it seemed an unlikely entry point. For our part, we've each played a role in making the issue a matter of domestic policy, starting with eliminating the so-called tampon tax. It is a relatively simple argument that has come to pack a big political punch.

In most states menstrual products are not sales tax-exempt, a category primarily reserved for food, prescription medications, and other "necessities of life." We contend—and have gained the backing of the American Medical Association, legal scholars, and hundreds of thousands of petition-signers—that this (mis)classification creates an unfair and discriminatory levy.

Democrats jumped on board in 2016, as expected, largely led by women lawmakers. Early on, a handful of Republicans joined the fight too, attracted to arguments for slashing taxes and limiting government—with the added bonus of appealing to women's pocketbooks.

Illinois became one of the first states to enact tampon tax legislation (with all but one vote,) and was the first to obtain signature by a Republican governor. New York, Florida, and Connecticut also passed laws—with bipartisan sponsors and votes, and signed by Democrat and Republican governors. So, too, have the City of Chicago and Washington, D.C. On Election Day 2018, citizens in Nevada passed the first-ever tampon tax ballot measure with support crossing party lines. And now in the 2019 legislative session, the issue has been taken up in dozens of states, including Republican strongholds like Georgia and Tennessee.

GOP strategist and political commentator Evan Siegfried helped cement conservative enthusiasm in the first days of the Trump presidency. In a post-inauguration New York Times op-ed entitled, "What Republicans Have to Learn from the Women's March," he specifically called out the tampon tax as an easy lift for Republican-controlled statehouses and a way to combat "the falsehood that the party is engaged in a 'war on women.'"

The story could have ended there, with a cheap nod to gender politics and a modest tax cut. But in Illinois, and other states and even Congress, period policy has made bolder moves.

For example, in response to reports that a lack of menstrual support for students can lead to compromised health, lost classroom time, and even disciplinary intervention, Illinois became one of three states to require that tampons and pads be provided for free in public school restrooms. (New York and California are the other two.)

Unlike the sales tax exemption, this bill is an unfunded mandate, the type that is routinely rejected by Republicans. Yet when debated on the floor of the Illinois House in 2017, not a single party member rose in opposition—highly unusual in that statehouse, and a signal of progress. The vote wasn't near-unanimous like the tampon tax, but both parties rallied support. Notably, it was signed by a Republican governor, as well.

In most states menstrual products are not sales tax-exempt, a category primarily reserved for food, prescription medications, and other “necessities of life.” iStock

The experience of incarcerated women also stokes conservative appeal. National polling research shows that 85 percent of Republican voters (and 94 percent who identify as Democrat) support providing menstrual supplies free of charge to women serving time in prison. Red states like Arizona and Kentucky are among those that have explicitly issued regulations or passed laws requiring product availability. In the 2018 lame duck session, Congress enacted the first-ever federal menstrual access provision, part of a broader bipartisan prison reform package, the FIRST STEP Act, championed by Senators Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Mike Lee (R-UT), and signed into law by President Trump.

We've been on the frontlines for much of this action—one of us as a lawmaker, the other as an advocate—and witnessed something quite remarkable: Menstruation as a catalyst for bridging the political divide. There are several factors to which we attribute this phenomenon.

First, periods became an unexpected equalizer. In Illinois, when the tampon tax bill quickly catapulted into the national limelight, there was little time to fuss with embarrassment. Minor as it sounds, this simple acknowledgement went a long way to create common ground.

Also important has been the deliberate framing of proposed interventions in the language of equity—"menstrual equity," to be precise. Equity-based arguments offer a more neutral articulation of principles of gender parity, economic fairness, and educational opportunity, as opposed to demands for entitlements or murkier claims of rights. Conservatives sources have embraced it: even the right-leaning Washington Times noted, "'Menstrual equity' is more a common-sense crusade than bullhorns screaming against 'the man.'"

Sequencing mattered too—starting with the easier sell for Republicans, a tax break, before moving on to costlier and more social justice-focused interventions.

And finally, there's the recognition from both sides that today's volatile political atmosphere calls for commitment to an affirmative agenda—policies to be for, not just against—a necessity in an era where the lines of division are rapidly shifting.

In Illinois, this has played out in potentially historic ways. Many Republicans who voted in favor of menstrual policies in 2016-17 went on to support the state's 2018 vote to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, a key advance in the national movement to enshrine gender equality in the U.S. Constitution. The same is true for efforts to advance proposed improvements to the state's Equal Pay Act. From an insider's perspective , the initial dialogue around and willingness to support menstrual equity did much to propel these later initiatives.

Our hope is that similar cohesion is invoked in other states, and that this leads to additional women's health and economic issues around which both sides can rally. We surely appreciate that periods won't smooth every chasm. (For starters, it is hard to imagine that the two of us will ever agree on abortion policy.)

But for now, the bipartisan spirit that has fueled the case for menstrual equity leads us to assert that periods are not only good for policy, but good for politics. It is a foundation from which to grow.

Steve Andersson served as a Republican member of the Illinois House of Representatives from 2015-2019 and served as the Republican Floor Leader.

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf is vice president and women and democracy fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, and author of Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.​​​​​​​​​