Time to toss the tampon tax

By Alexis Grenell |  

February 11, 2016 |  

(Daniela Staerk)

It’s that time of the month when I get to pay an 8.8 percent sales tax on tampons: a luxury item I must afford, born of a necessity I do not choose. Or at least that’s the logic behind the New York state tax code, which treats menstruation as an elective function, but exempts condoms as “medical equipment.”

President Barack Obama was recently asked why.

“I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed,” he opined.

Real talk.

While men may have caused the problem, they’re also part of the solution. State Sen. Joe Robach has introduced a bill in Albany to exempt feminine hygiene products from the sales tax. And Assemblyman David Weprin introduced a same-as bill before Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal became the prime sponsor:

“I just thought it sounded wrong coming out of a man’s mouth because it’s not something they experience,” Rosenthal said. “It’s something women experience. It can be spoken about more authentically by someone who has experienced it.”

She has a point. Most of the men I talk to about this issue practically choke on their words, defaulting to euphemisms and awkward sentence structures to avoid saying “tampon” entirely.

Although the tampon tax is evidence that the paucity of women in politics results in bad policy, the role of personal experience in policymaking is a tricky one.

The political philosopher John Rawls believed that the personal should be irrelevant to matters of public interest. His famous thought experiment, the Veil of Ignorance, challenged decision-makers to form policy as if their own interests were veiled to them, thereby arriving at the correct moral outcome for society as a whole.

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican who opposed marriage equality until his son came out as gay, epitomizes Rawls’ argument to exclude personal experience as a controlling factor in public policy.

Like gay rights, women’s rights are vulnerable if personal experience is the standard for policymaking.

The National Bureau of Economic Research found that having a daughter makes male lawmakers more likely to support reproductive rights and matters related to gender equality, implying that men without daughters are less able to represent the interests of half their constituents. This may seem like an argument in favor of personal experience, but the “daughter effect” is problematic.

How should women who oppose the ill-conceived Women’s Equality Party seek redress when Gov. Andrew Cuomo characterizes his support, “not as a governor, frankly, but as a father of three girls”?

This framework puts women at the disadvantage of having to distinguish themselves from lawmakers’ female relations (and all the baggage that goes along with it), and the question of “Would I want my daughter to X?” is a paternalistic metric for judging matters of general concern.

But when we’re talking about a marginalized group advocating on behalf of its own interests, as opposed to representing those of another group, personal experience can be particularly relevant.

The literature on the relationship between gendered leadership and issue advocacy is consistent: Female lawmakers are more likely to support bills that promote gender equality and improve the status of women. They are also more likely to view themselves as responsible for the broader interests of their sex, as opposed to just their constituents.

The success of gendered leadership is another matter. A study published in the journal “Politics & Gender” found that a bill is less likely to pass if it has overwhelming support from women, and minimal support from men. There are several reasons for this. One is that the legacy of male leadership means that women are generally less powerful in seniority-based systems. Another is that the framing of “women’s issues” minimizes legislation into a niche category.

In New York, the percentage of women in either body of the Legislature (23 percent) is close to the national mean (21 percent), which researchers found correlates to a 3 percent and 5 percent predicted probability of passing legislation.

Rosenthal is better qualified to lead the fight against the tampon tax because her arguments are likely to be more forceful and more relevant to the target population (of which she is a direct stakeholder), and her commitment stronger.

But the data is clear: Gender balance on a so called “women’s issue” is necessary for it to succeed. Currently her bill has 13 co-sponsors, three of whom are men. We need more.


Alexis Grenell is a Democratic communications strategist based in New York.

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