Tampons are not necessary, or so Australian women are being told. July marks the kickoff for the Australian Goods and Services Tax (GST), the new system that will reduce the government’s slice of workers’ paychecks while slapping a 10 percent levy on the price of almost all consumer goods, except most food and necessary health products.
While any woman beyond menarche (and let’s face it, that’s a lot of us) would define sanitary products as “necessary” rather than as a luxury, the distinction seems lost on the conservative Liberal-National Coalition government, which has refused to add them to the list of GST-exempt health goods-a list that includes condoms, lubricants, and sunscreens.
“I wasn’t aware that menstruation was an illness,” Health Minister Michael Wooldridge told the Australian media in defense of the decision. In an apparent attempt to defuse charges of gender inequity, he added, “As a bloke, I’d like shaving cream exempt, but I’m not expecting it to be.”
It’s enough to make a woman see red. “If five million women did without these products, our public health would be compromised,” countered Jenny Macklin, health minister for the opposing Labor party. “The same cannot be said of shaving cream. It’s a very sad day when the public health benefits of female hygiene products have to be explained to the health minister. But unfortunately, that day has come.”
To imply that a tampon is an indulgent purchase-a special payday treat -is to invite a groundswell of indignation. And indeed, protesters mobilized rapidly over the Internet. The Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL), a national nonpartisan political organization that has been a strong voice for Australian feminist lobbying, posted a petition on its Web site that attracted more than ten thousand names in just four weeks and was presented to Parliament in mid-February. The WEL campaign also included downloadable labels proclaiming “No Taxation on Menstruation” and “No Bleedin’ Tax!”
Outside Parliament House in Canberra, Erica Lewis, the national spokesperson for the WEL, read from a “Sanitary Pad Declaration,” printed on red paper and stuck onto sanitary pads, which presented the WEL’s arguments to the waiting press contingent. Students from the University of Wollongong calling themselves the Menstrual Avengers, clad in red capes and wearing mock blood-stained underwear as outerwear, pelted several senators with tampons as they attended a federal cabinet ministers’ meeting in the East Coast town of Nowra. Although Minister for Education David Kemp was reportedly struck on the head by a tampon, reports of injury, to his ego or otherwise, have yet to be confirmed.
In the coastal town of Murwillumbah, where Prime Minister John Howard was meeting with rural voters, one inventive protester, a.k.a. Tanya Tampon, clad in a full-body tampon outfit, shadowed the prime minister, her tampon string in one hand and a placard proclaiming “Stick your GST” in the other. Meanwhile, women’s groups around the country who had been communicating with the WEL and the National Union of Students through the feminist mailing list, Ausfem-Polnet, prepared a national day of action. On February 25, women took to the streets in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide, Darwin, and Perth. Some wore T-shirts that read “I bleed and I vote.” Others chanted “Keep your bleeding tax off our Tampax.”
When the liberal-national Coalition won the federal election in 1998, it did so on a platform of far-reaching tax reform. In a parallel ballot, however, Australian voters elected the small watchdog party, the Australian Democrats, to its traditional position of holding the balance of power in the Senate. The Democrats pledged to make some food and health products exempt from the new GST, and when they allowed the bill to pass into law in 1999, their amendments were written into the legislation.
What was missing from the fine print, however, was the