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Hoosiers were invited to message their legislators during the Period Action Day hosted by MADVoters Indiana at the Statehouse. (Photo/Marilyn Odendahl)

By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

October 20, 2023

Before they try to sway lawmakers, activists first have to decide how they will advocate – mass protest, march, sit-in or informed discussion.

And when the issue is as contentious, and potentially embarrassing, as the desire to stop charging state sales tax on feminine hygiene products, determining how to push for change can be especially tricky.

MADVoters Indiana, a nonpartisan grassroots organization, plans to ramp up its advocacy for eliminating the “tampon tax” by holding a rally in January as the 2024 legislative session gets underway and then testifying at committee hearings during the session. But the group started its effort by hosting a Period Action Day on Wednesday at the Statehouse and focused on educating and informing through simple conversations.

Bills and amendments to end the sales tax on menstrual products that have been introduced in the Indiana General Assembly have been mostly met with silence. During the 2023 session, state Sens. Shelli Yoder, D-Bloomington and Kyle Walker, R-Indianapolis, authored House Bill 259, which would have eliminated the sales tax on feminine hygiene products, but it never received a hearing.

More than an inconvenience, the sales tax is a financial burden with one in four menstruating women in Indiana struggling to pay for feminine products, according to information from MADVoters. Each year, the sales tax costs Hoosier women an estimated $5.6 million.

In planning the action day, Chelsea McDonnell, co-founder of MADVoters Indiana, said her organization wanted to focus on educating and helping people understand the burden of the sales tax. The nonprofit picked a day when several interim study committees were meeting, so many lawmakers would be in the building.

“We tried to take a more holistic approach to reaching people,” McDonnell said. “That includes treating the whole person and in order to do that, we have to be willing to meet people where they are and educate them and be the ones that start the conversation in a positive manner.”

The approach contrasted with the protesters who filled the Statehouse when the legislature was debating controversial bills that would restrict abortion and ban transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports. At those times, the protesters waved handmade signs and yelled continually, while legislators were inside their chambers debating the bills.

Advocating for change is part of civic engagement, but does one form of public demonstrating work better than others?

Katie Blair, director of advocacy and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, said the different ways to raise awareness and push an issue all have their place. An advocacy day, like the Period Action Day, can do a lot to teach people about a topic or problem and build momentum to advance legislation. However, “when things take a right turn at the Statehouse,” then a protest can be an effective response.

“I think they both serve different purposes but very important purposes,” Blair said.

Questions lead to education

Several other organizations joined MADVoters to support Period Action Day, including the ACLU of Indiana, Women4Change, Love HER League and the All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center. Staff members and volunteers from the different groups passed out brochures, collected emails and talked to anyone who stopped by.

Also, MADVoters was collecting donated packages of pads and tampons which would then be given to abused and battered women. The table piled high with boxes and bags underscored McDonnell’s point that paying for these products month after month is a hardship for low-income women and girls.

Amanda Eldridge, a MADVoters volunteer, was working at the game table. T-shirts, pens, stickers and small, zippered cloth bags stuffed with pads were spread across the tabletop. A couple of trivia boards posed questions about menstruation and the sales tax.

The trivia game, Eldridge said, helped start conversations about feminine hygiene products and period poverty which, admittedly, are not the usual topics of public discussions. People often got the answers to their trivia questions wrong and that led them to ask more questions.

A handful of Democratic legislators milled around the tables and talked to their constituents. McDonnell said her group invited all state senators and representatives to the event and sent emails asking each of them to eliminate the tax on feminine products.

McDonnell speculated the loss of revenue for state coffers was fueling the resistance to changing the tax code. “Money is the main motivator,” she said, and lawmakers do not want to give up those dollars by ending the sales tax on feminine products.

She also acknowledged legislators might be reluctant to debate lifting the sales tax because they are uncomfortable and squeamish over talking about women’s monthly menstruation cycles.

“I’m sure that’s a part of it in some ways,” McDonnell said. “But, you know, if all these people were able to talk about abortion for months, I don’t know why we can’t talk about periods, which we need those in order to get pregnant.”

Senate Minority Leader Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, spent some time at the event. He said the first step to removing the sales tax on menstrual products is to determine the fiscal impact on the state. Also key to moving the legislation forward is showing how the tax affects every Hoosier household, bolstering the argument that many will benefit if the sales tax is nixed.

Taylor liked the approach MADVoters was taking to advance the issue. He said engaging in calm discussion to educate and build understanding “has always been more successful” than confrontation and demanding support.

“With all the frustrating politics that we have across the country going to today, it is nice to see this type of peaceful protest, so to speak, information-gathering for legislators,” Taylor said. “For me, you tune out people who just get in your face and holler, because it’s really not providing any good information.”

Pressure tactic, making an impact

Blair noted the message can be lost if the advocacy day or protest is not well-organized and well-attended. Legislators will interpret that low turnout as a lack of interest in the issue. Conversely, mobilizing large groups to rally at the Statehouse can show “you have an army behind you.”

And when large groups are waving signs, yelling and chanting, that can scuttle controversial bills by showing lawmakers that “legislation cannot pass in the dark,” Blair said. She pointed to the rash of anti-Critical Race Theory bills that sprouted during the 2022 General Assembly session. Protests that rose in response helped block that legislation.

Blair said lawmakers need to know people are watching the Statehouse. “It’s really critical for this not to feel like it’s something that’s just happening behind closed doors without the voice of Hoosiers,” she said.

Along with calm conversations, MADVoters was using a pressure tactic during the action day.

The organization encouraged women to gather their sales receipts from the purchase of feminine products and submit them with a tax refund request to the Indiana Department of Revenue. McDonnell explained that mailing the receipts to the revenue department would emphasize the financial burden of the tax.

She did not see the potential for the effort to backfire, since it would show legislators how much tax revenue is collected on the products. Instead, she said, the extra work created in the revenue department by having to open each envelope, pull out the form and input the information into the computer, would foster more calls for change.

“I think this will be a good way to wake people up who aren’t necessarily involved, but who will be involved in the process of filing these things,” McDonnell said. “And then you also have to think about the legislators who might be getting phone calls, (from revenue officials who say), ‘I don’t ever want to deal with this at work again. Can we do something about this?’”

Megan Flynn, a third-year law student at New York University who was representing the national organization Period Law, was working at the receipt table, helping women fill out the paper refund forms. The 28-year-old has participated in Black Lives Matter protests, been a regular at the Women’s March, joined community activist group to raise awareness about reproductive rights, and talked to legislators about asylum and immigration issues.

The large protests and marches can make an impact, when “they are so widespread and in strategic locations where they can’t be ignored,” Flynn said. But she sees the kind of advocacy practiced during the Period Action Day as doing more to bring about change.

“The times when I feel like I have the most impact is not really those protest-type situations, but when I get to talk to legislators or their staff directly, which can be really hard to find those opportunities,” Flynn said. “I have written a lot of postcards and done a lot of phone calling and can feel there’s not a lot of validation as to what impact that is having.”

Dwight Adams, a freelance editor and writer based in Indianapolis, edited this article. He is a former content editor, copy editor and digital producer at The Indianapolis Star and IndyStar.com, and worked as a planner for other newspapers, including the Louisville Courier Journal.

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