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Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, in the Assembly chambers in 2016.

PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

Wisconsin women would no longer be taxed for having their periods under a legislative effort Rep. Melissa Sargent is revisiting. 

Sargent, a Madison Democrat, plans to reintroduce two proposals aimed at increasing access to menstrual products this fall. One of them — which would require state-run buildings to offer free tampons and pads — she knows is a heavy lift because of the associated costs. 

The second — which would no longer subject those products to the state sales tax — has attracted bipartisan support in the past. Sargent is hopeful it will go somewhere this time around. The bill once again has the support of Rep. Adam Neylon, R-Pewaukee, who worked with Sargent earlier this year on an effort to have the exemption added to the state budget.

Women in Wisconsin pay an estimated $2.7 million per year in taxes on menstrual products, according to the state Department of Revenue. 

Although none of these bills have become law, Sargent said she's seen changes in policy and culture since she first proposed them.

The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse started providing free menstrual products in campus restrooms this fall, and UW-Madison launched a pilot program last spring offering the products in several buildings. 

Dane County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner led a 2015 effort to stock county buildings that serve low-income women with tampons and pads. Sargent partnered with Madison East High School to offer the products in the school's bathrooms, and the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County led a drive this fall to collect menstrual products for low-income students. 

"I feel like even though I don’t have a pen in hand from having a bill signed and it’s not in the statute books — and I will celebrate when that happens ... I think a win is the fact that all of these people and organizations are talking about it and addressing it," Sargent said.

Wisconsin is one of a growing number of states with efforts to address menstrual equity — a term coined by Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, an attorney and advocate whose book "Periods Gone Public" was published earlier this month.

Weiss-Wolf, of New York, visited Madison this week to promote her book. 

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"It’s not just a matter of free tampons, it’s about the ability to contribute fully to society, which is something we all benefit from," Weiss-Wolf said.

Before the national conversation about access to menstrual products began — led in large part by Weiss-Wolf — there were 10 states that did not tax tampons, whether because they were included in an exempted category or because the state doesn't have a sales tax.

In the last three years, 24 states have introduced legislation to stop taxing tampons and pads, Weiss-Wolf said. Four states, led by both Democratic and Republican governors, have signed those policies into law. 

Weiss-Wolf sees a few goals beyond the immediate outcome of removing a tax that only applies to one gender: removing the "taboo" of talking openly about menstruation and shifting society toward policies that don't treat women as "the other." 

"If we considered menstruation or the fact that the bodies of the people who live by these laws go through this process, maybe we could consider (other) laws differently," she said. "Maybe we could do better."

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.