a single unused tampon
credit: Ji Kim

“Hallelujah that I don’t have my period anymore!” said Angela, a client of Thrive D.C., which began in 1979 as a dinner program for homeless women. Now over fifty, Angela recalled how difficult her menstrual period had been before she had a hysterectomy, especially since her abnormally heavy flow was due to fibroids. “Before then, I was bleeding all over the place—through my panties, pants, everywhere.”

This “blood coming out of her wherever,” as President Trump once remarked to a news anchor, is menstruation: the “period” of time every month in which a woman’s uterus sheds its endometrial lining if there is no fertilized egg.

Many women know first-hand that a heavy flow can be a tremendous inconvenience and women of all economic and social strata know that feminine products are costly, prompting D.C. to join eight other states that have specifically exempted feminine hygiene products from sales tax.

In December 2016 the District passed legislation that will end taxes on feminine hygiene products, diapers and incontinence products. However, before the Feminine Hygiene and Diapers Sales Tax Amendment of 2016 can be enforced, approximately $3.3 million in expected lost tax revenue will have to be accounted for in the city budget.

The law was championed by At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds, whose chief of staff expressed confidence in the bill’s implementation, citing a $66 million surplus in funding for the 2017 fiscal year. D.C. Council will hold budget hearings throughout the next several months before proposing and passing a  final budget with Mayor Bowser in June.

Meanwhile, New York City will be the first city in the nation to ensure, by law, free pads and tampons to females in its public schools, correctional treatment facilities and homeless shelters. The NYC law will be implemented at the same time D.C.’s tax relief law will take effect, assuming it receives funding.

Currently, the District’s public schools, correctional treatment facilities and homeless shelters provide feminine hygiene products via government funding and grants. The funding is for general health costs, not specifically for feminine hygiene products, according to Susana Castillo, public relations specialist at Mayor Bowser’s office.

D.C. Public Schools reported that they provide students with feminine products in the health or nursing suite, funded through DCPS’ nursing contract with the D.C. Department of Health. This contrasts with New York City’s initiative, which will set up free, easy to access pad and tampon dispensers in public schools. Providing female students the ability to discreetly access free health products without taking time away from class to see the school nurse was a prime reason for NYC’s bill, NYC Councilmember Julissa Ferreras-Copeland has said at public meetings.

New York City’s free feminine hygiene movement was powered by activist Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, the same advocate behind the national “Stop Taxing Our Periods!  Period.” petition and the main person who stirred NYC Councilmember Ferreras-Copeland to help lead the cause for free health products in NYC schools, prisons and shelters.

In most jurisdictions in the United States, tampons are taxed through a generic sales tax that states independently regulate over goods and services.  Some items, such as food and medicine, are exempt from sales tax because they are necessities.  Erectile dysfunction medicines such as Viagra are not taxed in most states because they are prescription drugs. Likewise, birth control pills, as a prescription drug, are not taxed.

Until recently, policymakers had neglected to think about exempting feminine hygiene products from the sales tax as necessities, explained Weiss-Wolf in an interview with NPR.

Not everyone is in favor of eliminating the sales tax on feminine products. A “good tax policy” should “tax everything,” wrote David Brunori of Tax Analysts, a group self-described as the “only independent, nonpartisan multimedia organization dedicated to fostering an open and informed debate on taxation.” After having been called by numerous reporters and legislators, Brunori posted an article in March 2016 in hopes of “putting it all to bed.”

He wrote: “They [exemptions for necessities] narrow the base, complicate administration and compliance, distort markets, and often cost a lot of money. Besides, they are heavy-handed ways of providing relief to the poor since the rich benefit as well.”

In the same year the American Medical Association spoke in support of legislation to remove all sales tax on feminine hygiene products, deeming them a “regressive penalty.”

Thrive D.C. confirmed that they do not receive funding specifically for feminine hygiene products. Greg Rockwell, community relations manager, stated that they are able to maintain supplies of pads and tampons through a steady rate of donations.

“In the past years, there may have been a few times where we’ve run out of pads but now we have a steady supply,” Rockwell said, “People just know now, through more awareness, that one of the things we need are pads and tampons.”

A Thrive D.C. client who wished to stay anonymous spoke about availability of feminine products. “Depends where you go,” she said, “They’re OK here [at Thrive D.C.].  Most places, you can get what you need, but at one place they gave me just one pad, just a single one.”

There is no formal, centralized distribution system to provide feminine hygiene products to in-need women in D.C. At Erna’s House, a part of N Street Village that provides housing and social services for homeless and low-income women, advocate Rabiah Frazier stated that the organization keeps supplies of feminine hygiene products mostly through donations as well. At Thrive D.C., Rockwell said that the staff exchanges resources with other organizations and individuals in need through informal networks of peers and friends.

When he was an at-large councilmember, Vincent Orange proposed the Mobile Hygiene Pilot Program Amendment Act of 2015, which would have enabled D.C. to re-purpose a bus as a mobile unit for showers, restrooms and hygiene products. No action on the bill has been taken since it was published in the D.C. Registrar in October 2015 with a Notice of Intent to Act.

Frazier, from N Street Village, only recently heard of NYC’s initiative for free feminine hygiene products and she gave her support for it as something that could happen in the District. Responding to criticism of the initiative and the funding it would require, Frazier said, “One reminder to everyone is that a lot of the homeless here have worked before and paid taxes before.  This would be something that they would have, in a way, paid for already.”

While feminine hygiene products are costly for any woman and potentially hard to come by when needed most on the street, many women interviewed during one of Thrive D.C.’s recent women and children only dinners brushed off the topic and shifted focus to their greater concerns.

Periods—that stuff coming out of wherever—happen once a month. The women at Thrive D.C. cared more about overcoming daily struggles such as housing applications, navigating the maze of nonprofit service providers and a general lack of mental care readily available to those most in need.