Conservative Tennessee is not known for its progressive policies, particularly when it comes to women’s issues.
But a few state legislators are looking to change that with a series of new bills aimed at increasing the safety and well-being of Tennessee women.
Nashville Senator Brenda Gilmore, who is new to the Tennessee Senate this year, is sponsoring two women-centered bills. The first would remove the sales tax on feminine hygiene products like pads and tampons, making them more affordable for low-income women, while the second improves workplace conditions for pregnant government employees.
After holding a pad and tampon drive for local schools this fall, Gilmore was inspired to take political action to alleviate part of the financial burden of purchasing feminine hygiene products. Though such products are necessities for many women, they are not tax exempt like are items like toilet paper or toothpaste.
“Young girls, especially from a disadvantaged community, shouldn’t have to miss school because they can’t afford to buy feminine products,” Gilmore said. “It’s valuable time that they’re losing in learning, and it erodes their confidence.”
In Tennessee, Gilmore is one of eight female state senators out of 33 total senators. She anticipates a challenge in “just trying to convince my male colleagues how important this is to the overall mental health and academic stress of young girls.” She noted that the difficulty of getting the bill through committee is hard to quantify until her bill receives a “fiscal note” that calculates how much it would cost the Tennessee government.
Gilmore’s second bill would require Tennessee to provide accommodations for pregnant women employed by the state.
Gilmore’s focus on women’s issue stems from her identity as an African-American woman, she said. She said that she feels called upon as an African-American woman to support women, minorities, and the disadvantaged in her capacity as a politician.
“In some ways, we’ve been kind of hard on the women of Tennessee. I’d like to do everything we can to protect them. I read somewhere that when women succeed, America succeeds. I’d like to think that’s true in Tennessee as well,” Gilmore said.
Another newly-elected African American female democrat, Memphis’ Katrina Robinson, echoed Gilmore’s words.
“There are 8 women [in the Senate], so we have a responsibility to inject into the conversation a woman’s perspective,” Robinson said. “Though we may be on different sides of the aisle, we’re all women, and we have dealt with issues whether it’s being a mother, being a woman in the workplace, a minority in the workplace. We were elected to advocate for everybody whether they’re a woman or a man, but if it’s a woman’s right issue then I expect a woman to speak up.”
Robinson is introducing a bill that would make feminine hygiene products free to female inmates. She was moved to create the legislation after speaking with incarcerated women who described the extreme shortage of pads in prison.
“You have to understand that even though these women are incarcerated, they’re still human,” Robinson said. “I understand we have our own issues with women’s rights, but this is an issue of humanity.”
Senator Robinson’s bill is an offshoot of the FIRST STEP Act, a bill aimed at reducing recidivism by making prison conditions more humane for inmates that was passed by the United States Senate and House of Representatives in 2018. Since feminine hygiene products are a component of that larger bill, Robinson was confident that her bill would receive little opposition from her fellow Senators.
She looks forward to collaborating with Senator Gilmore on their related bills and expects her support on legislation regarding women’s issues, she said.
“I think that’s what you’ll find with us: if it’s for women, we’re for it, and you’ll see a lot of collaboration moving forward,” Robinson said.
Dr. Laura Burkhart of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the Student Health Center described the importance of legislation that provides women greater access to healthcare and health products.
“Any bill that prioritizes the health of women, and especially vulnerable women, such as those who are incarcerated, is beneficial to Tennessee women,” Burkhart said. “As a healthcare provider, I am in support for any measure that will decrease or eliminate barriers of access to all women, not just a few.”
Progressive bills centered around female constituents are also percolating in the Tennessee House of Representatives.
Representative Jason Potts introduced a bill requiring diaper-changing tables in the bathrooms of newly constructed or renovated public buildings after he took his one-year-old son to the movies and discovered that the theater lacked a place for him to change his child’s diaper.
“If you’re a single parent and you’re out and about, you need to change your kid and you don’t want to sit on the floor. It’s a minor investment, they’re not very expensive, it’s not a difficult thing to do when you’re doing renovations,” Potts said.
Like Gilmore, he noted that he is waiting for a fiscal note to be added to his bill and cannot yet be sure of its financial impact.
The support of male and female legislators on bills targeted towards vulnerable women is a crucial element of making Tennessee a safer place for women. The state has been plagued in particular by rampant domestic violence against women, ranking fourth in the country in 2018 for men killing women in domestic homicides.
There are people who are working very hard to ensure that the health of all women remains at the forefront in Tennessee,” said Burkhart. “This process can be challenging to translate into laws, so it is important that we continue to advocate for changes where the system is breaking down.”