The cost of being a woman

A state bill to remove California’s “tampon tax” returns, and a student-led effort to make tampons more accessible shows promise

illustration by sarah hansel

As a movement to end “period poverty” gains ground nationally, two UC Davis students are pushing to put menstrual products in bathrooms across campus.

Annie Wang and Wei-Wei Chen head the university’s chapter of PERIOD, an international nonprofit that supplies tampons and menstrual hygiene supplies to those in need, and that advocates against the cultural stigma surrounding the natural bodily function. UC Davis’ student population is about 60 percent female, according to campus statistics, which means around 17,000 students or more likely menstruate.

“We found through a lot of students who have had periods suddenly on campus, have an experience of having to ditch class, or work, or another academic or career opportunity because period products aren’t provided in the bathrooms, even though it’s a basic hygiene necessity like toilet paper,” Wang said.

In May, the two undergrads started a local campaign under the larger “United For Access” movement, in which they and volunteers install and replenish supply containers filled with 40 pads and 30 tampons in 10 bathrooms. Through their test program, Wang and Chen track usage and get feedback from students, which they plan to present to UC Davis administrators to ask for funding.

In high-traffic bathrooms, the program appears to be a success, with 32 products used per day on average at a cost of around $25 a week (11 cents per unit). Wang and Chen say that the products are meant to be used for emergencies, not hoarded, and that students tend to respect that policy.

More than 290 students responded to a survey; half said they missed some or all of class or work at least once during the 2017-18 school year due to lack of access to menstrual products.

“Once I forgot to bring pads with me in my backpack. So I tried using the dispenser things on the wall at Hunt [Hall], but nothing was in there,” one student wrote. “So I just stuffed toilet paper till a friend could meet me after class to give me a pad. Mind that my class was 2 hours and I sat cross-legged hoping I wouldn’t leak through.”

Fifty-eight percent of survey participants said menstrual products are a financial burden, and 23 percent of students said they have trouble affording food. Wang and Chen argue that low-income students shouldn’t have to choose between buying a sanitary pad and eating a meal.

“It’s really about having the same ability to excel in [academic] spaces without having to worry about this natural part of our bodies, that it’s not strange, that it’s not weird—I mean it’s just a period,” Chen said.

In December, a bill eliminating the “tampon tax” was introduced at the California Legislature for a third time. If passed, Assembly Bill 31 would exempt tampons, menstrual sponges, sanitary napkins and menstrual cups from sales taxes starting in 2020.

Then-Gov. Jerry Brown first vetoed a similar measure in 2016, after it had passed through the Legislature with bipartisan support. The proposal was met with a cost counter-argument; it was estimated that the bill, AB 1561, would have reduced the state’s 2016-17 budget by $10 million.

“Tax breaks are the same as new spending,” Brown’s veto message said.

The bill’s supporters called it a tax on women.

Meanwhile, Wang and Chen say they plan to continue the pilot program in the next academic year and to present a final report to the university this fall. Eventually, they want to take their movement across the UC system.

“Having UC Davis start this program here changes the conversation and cultural idea of menstrual products and periods,” Chen said.