This week tampons were finally made exempt from the goods and services tax (GST) in Australia. For eighteen years women campaigned to have them made exempt so they could sit right alongside condoms and lubricant which were already on the exemption list.
Eighteen years for the men in Parliament to step toward us and start to comprehend what it is to be a woman with a uterus lining that sheds itself every month.
When it was first suggested that tampons be exempted from the GST the then health minister declared, ‘As a bloke, I’d like shaving cream exempt but I’m not expecting it to be.’
Apparently we live in a world where shaving your facial hair is perceived, by some, as similar to a woman’s monthly bleed.
Of course, that’s the real problem isn’t it? No valuing of women’s experiences in society. No placement of motherhood or reproduction in the heart of community values. Tampons seen as some sort of lifestyle or cosmetic choice.
Women’s stories and lives don’t sit in the heart of public affairs in Western societies. They exist on the periphery which means we’re always fighting for some level of inclusion. Always arguing for sovereignty over our own bodies.
Time and time again men have demonstrated that they don’t understand the lived experiences of women and yet, feel they’re entitled to sprout all sorts of opinions about how women should live their lives. Across the Pacific just this week Idaho Republican lieutenant governor candidate Bob Nonini declared women should be punished for seeking abortions and that punishment should include the death penalty. He later softened his position but by then, his views had been made clear. These kinds of things can only be said by people who’ve never lived with the fear of an unwanted pregnancy, or who’ve never been left carrying a baby in a society which provides very little support to mothers in the raising of children.
A coinciding problem is that democracy has left us with the idea that we’re all entitled to have a say about all issues. And of course, people are entitled to their opinion. The problem arises when ill formed opinions intersect with structural power and unacknowledged privilege.
Patriarchy has left men with the impression that they’re entitled to make decisions about issues relating to all genders. White supremacy has left white people with the idea that they can appropriately prioritise their lives above the lives of people of colour. And heteronormative values have dominated society for so long that the LGBTIA community had to seek approval from the Australian public just last year in order to marry one another.
This intersecting mess of hierarchical ideas about who’s on top and who’s on the bottom, on who has the right to impose their world view on others, is causing cultural and societal chaos. Turn to social media and you’ll immediately see how often people are stepping out of their lanes, expressing opinions on topics about which they know nothing.
That’s what unexamined privilege does. It leaves you with a false sense of confidence. An idea that you’re entitled to express ideas about anything, even if you’ve no experience, no knowledge, and no lived experience of what you’re talking about.
When it comes to social media, that might be annoying, frustrating, or even distressing but the reality is that you can always put your phone away or stop using the platform all together. The much more significant problem arises when the same approach spills out into businesses and government agencies, court rooms, and parliaments. Because in those spaces, unexamined privilege walks hand in hand with structural power.
This is why increasing the visibility of women and girls, of people disabled by society, of the LGBTIA community, of people of colour, and of refugees all matters so very much. Because seeing and hearing other people’s stories sparks change. Listening leads to learning and to an awareness that the experiences you may have assumed to be universal are in fact the experiences of one class, one race, or one group of people.
If we lived in a society that actively sought out the stories, perspectives and experiences of all the people it hasn’t prioritised and hasn’t heard from, then we might start to develop discernment. We would come to see what we don’t know. Importantly, we’d understand that it’s not always appropriate to have everyone in the room for every conversation.
We might even up creating a governing system which actually reflects society and where decisions about tampons are by a room full of women.
That’s essential because men don’t understand what it is to bleed every month. They don’t experience menstrual cramping and tiredness. They don’t know what it is to need to rest for a few days each month in a world that expects the same energetic output from you day in and day out. They don’t know the pressures on girls and women to pretend you’re not menstruating and ‘just get on with it’. They don’t know the ease that a tampon brings to a young girl who has swimming practice that day and who doesn’t live in a society that makes it easy for her to say ‘Actually, I can’t swim today, I’m menstruating.’
In the end, the decision about tampons being taxed was made by the treasurers of the respective state, territory and federal governments of Australia (consisting of seven men and two women). The decision was made by those men and women because the entire issue was being debated on economic grounds.
People often question whether having more women in the room would make a difference to public policy and decision making. Just as I’m sure there are many issues on which women and men would reach similar conclusions, when it comes to tampons, I’m one hundred percent certain that if the parliament were filled with women, not only would it not have taken 18 years to exempt tampons from the GST, they would in fact always have been GST exempt.