Laura is a feminist activist and campaigner who was successfully able to get tampons excluded from VAT. We were incredibly excited to get this interview with her!
Are you a feminist, and if so, what was your ‘feminist awakening’?
I've always been a feminist because it just makes sense. Anyone of any age should feel able to call themselves a feminist. You don't need to be a woman, or an activist, or young. You can be yourself, whatever that looks like, and still be a feminist hero. That's one thing that transcends everything else. It's one thing that should connect everyone. As I didn't have a feminist awakening as such, instead, I had my activist awakening at university, when I learnt the history and technique of campaigning and making change. That's when my campaign to tackle period stigma began.
Can you tell us a little bit about your period campaign: what it is, and how it all began?
In 2014, my friend Verity shared a BuzzFeed article with me, listing all the items taxed as luxuries. Nestled amongst this list was period products! I was in my second year of university, desperately trying to avoid revising for my summer exams, and this seemed the perfect excuse. So, I started researching our tax system.
Soon, I found there are heaps of menial items which escape tax altogether because they're considered essential, including maintaining our private helicopters and eating alcoholic sugar jellies. At this point it seemed blatant what kind of person wrote taxation legislation and what kind of person was left out of the consultation process altogether. Tampon tax was established in 1973, when there were merely 19 female Members of Parliament (MPs), to 631 male MPs. No wonder their ability to influence legislation was limited.
I didn't want to pay into a system which actively capitalised from misogyny, so I went to sign a petition to end tampon tax. Only, I couldn't find one. So, I started one of my own, which I shared with a few friends online, who shared it with their friends, and suddenly complete strangers were sending supportive messages! Soon, we got a few hundred signatures, which turned into thousands, and 318,000 signatures later, we change UK law and the tax was axed.
How did you start championing your cause?
Through loads of means! The trick to campaigning is to be creative. We shared the petition online, held protests in and around parliament, got my Student Union involved with printing stickers and posters, met with MPs, organised mass emailing to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and so much more. Additionally, we started a global movement. Today, there is a tampon tax petition in every continent, spanning countries such as Tanzania, Japan, states all across the USA and Australia, France, and countries have won including India, the UK and Canada. We are all connected which is great as we can learnt from and strengthen each other.
What do you believe are the reasons that tampons weren’t excluded from VAT earlier?
I think online campaigning was key. When I went home to Devon in 2015 when the campaign was still quite small, my friend's mum Gill said she signed my petition because she campaigned to end tampon tax when she was my age. Similarly, when I met with Stella Creasy MP to discuss the campaign, she also said she campaigned for the exact same goal when she was at school.
While politicians could easily ignore a group of women in Devon, or a schoolgirl in Hertfordshire, it is much harder to cast aside a petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures from across the country. Moreover, sites like change.org give us organisational tools we never had access to before. I can email all 317,778 petition signers, asking them all to write to their MP or tweet the Chancellor about one very specific thing, and many will do so to support. That kind of organising really works. That's why online activism is helping widen the political arena, as it gives people a
voice who may never have been taken seriously before.
Have you ever faced sexism: at school, university, or broader life in general?
Yes of course. Everyone has faced sexism, whatever their gender, age, race or circumstance. We're all held to certain expectations shaped by what we look like and how we present ourselves, and part of that is down to sexism. Nobody wants to be judged against expectations constructed before they were even born. It feels limiting and unfair. However, it also feels like it connects you to generations before us who faced more deeply ingrained sexism and sparks motivation to create change for the generations to come.
What is your biggest piece of advice for girls who want to campaign and get their voices heard?
Be ambitious! I was on a panel with Gina Martin once, who made upskirting illegal, and she said her one regret is she hasn't been ambitious enough. Hearing her say that was shocking because she's one of the most ambitious people I know! Yet in her mind, she was still constrained by seeds of doubt. Those seeds are completely natural and normal, but they're important to recognise so we can minimise their impact. Also, be collaborative when you can, rather than competitive. Working together with others, especially people who don't look like you or come from the same background, will always get you closer to your goal.
Do you have any feminist role models or inspirations?
So many!! It's so hard to choose but if I HAVE to choose one it would be bell hooks. I would recommend everyone read 'All About Love', her academic exploration of relationships and what it means to be truly caring. She argues relationships cannot be coercive and caring at the same time which is so obvious and clear and yet, it goes against everything we learn about relationships in pop culture. In TV, film and pop songs, relationships are sold as sexy when they're explosive and dangerous. Really, hooks argues, that assumption is just modern-day misogyny, as they paint women to be irrational and in need of controlling. That's in part why I co-founded Sex Ed Matters, through which we deliver relationships and sex education workshops to UK schools, specialising in consent and periods.
What still needs to be done to combat period stigma and poverty in the UK and abroad?
So much! There are tampon tax sister petitions you can sign across the world, but also please see more petitions below:
Ella Daish wants all period products to be plastic free: https://www.change.org/p/make-all-menstrual-products-plastic-free
Make sure your school has opted in to the government's free period scheme. Make sure they know that they can get free period products via PHS Group as a means to end period poverty amongst their students - (and teachers!). Thank you Free Periods for your campaigning on this issue!
And finally, what is your favourite type of penguin?
Can I choose Penguin Books?