Episode 020: Policy, Advocacy & Social Change with Emily Bell McCormick
Emily Bell McCormick is the founder of The Policy Project: a nonpartisan group of individuals and organizations that advocate for healthy, long-term U.S. policy changes at the local and national level. She started the collective after a visit to South Africa’s Apartheid Museum awakened her to the massive power of “a thousand tiny policies.” Now, she spends her days harnessing that power to tackle gender-based inequities that limit women and girls.
In this episode, Emily talks with us about a wide range of policy issues affecting menstruators in the United States, including the tampon tax, lack of free period products in public buildings and gaps in menstrual health education. She also offers pearls of wisdom for aspiring advocates – and shares why women claiming a seat at the table (through bipartisan advocacy) is the only way to create long-lasting, meaningful change.
“The more voices we can add to these kinds of issues, the better. These issues don’t belong to one person, or one organization. They belong to all of us. So we all have a role in ensuring healthy policy moving forward. And that role can be pretty simple; it can be as simple as calling your elected official and just saying, ‘Hey, I care about this’ …and feeling empowered to do it. Because it’s their job to listen to you, and to hear what matters to you.”
- The origin story of The Policy Project
- How to turn inspiration into action in the advocacy space
- The problem with the lack of gender-equitable representation in U.S. legislature
- Why providing period products in schools, homeless shelters and prisons should be a legislative priority – and how education that fights menstrual stigma can help these policies gain traction
- All about the tampon tax
- The importance of using strategic, audience-targeted messaging and language when trying to pass disruptive policies
- What’s next in the pipeline for advocacy work that supports gender equity in a post-pandemic United States
Instagram: @emilybellmccormick or @thepolicyproject
Emily Bell McCormick is founder of The Policy Project— a group of individuals and like-minded organizations that help move forward healthy, long-term policy at a local and national level. Emily is also the editor of Utah’s NBC affiliate KSL Studio 5 “Smarter” series–informing viewers about issues, government, policies and politics of the time and helping to empower viewers to find their place in it all. Emily is an experienced communication strategy consultant with a history of working in a myriad of industries including government, policy, NGOs, tech and fashion. Skilled in public affairs, advocacy, public policy, public speaking, public relations, campaign management, investor relations, strategic communication planning, events and writing. Master’s degree from The Ohio State University and a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University.
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Jessica Williams 0:47
Welcome to the Days for Girls Podcast, a show about breaking barriers for women and girls around the world. I’m your host, Jessica Williams, Chief Communications Officer at Days for Girls International. At Days for Girls, we believe in a world where periods are never a problem. We are on a mission to shatter the stigma and limitations associated with menstruation by increasing access to sustainable period products, and menstrual health education for all people with periods.
Today’s episode is with Emily Bell McCormick. Emily is the founder of the Policy Project: a group of individuals and like-minded organizations that help move forward healthy, long-term policy at a local and national level. Emily is also the editor of Utah’s NBC affiliate KSL Studio 5 “Smarter” series, informing viewers about issues, government policies and politics of the time, and helping to empower viewers to find their space in it all. Emily is an experienced communication strategy consultant with a history of working in a myriad of industries, including government policy, NGOs, tech and fashion. She has a Master’s Degree from Ohio State University and a Bachelor’s Degree from Brigham Young. I really loved this conversation today, I think it’s fantastic. We dive deep into different policies and issues that affect women and in particular, menstrual health. I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I did. Now, let’s go on to the show.
Emily, oh my gosh, so exciting to have you on the Days for Girls Podcast! How are you today?
Emily Bell McCormick 2:21
I’m doing so well. I’m so happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
Jessica Williams 2:24
Yeah, for sure. Well, you’ve created quite the reputation at Days for Girls. So everybody was really excited. They said, “oh my gosh, you’re gonna interview her? Oh, we can’t wait.” So this is going to be really fun. You are the founder of the Policy Project, and you do some other things that I definitely want to get into. But I thought we could start with the inspiration that brought you to creating and founding the Policy Project, which is such an interesting organization. So can you take me into that? Because that’s a fun story. I read about it on your website.
Emily Bell McCormick 2:56
Yeah, absolutely. It’s so funny, because, you know, life takes us all different directions. And I think especially as women, we often face a lot of different choices and crossroads. And I’d been working in the private sector for years just doing other things. And I had this kind of nagging feeling that just wouldn’t go away, you know, about what am I doing to kind of better the world? What am I doing to, you know..and not the entire world. Not many of us have the chance to impact the whole world. But what am I doing to kind of help out with these needs that I see in society or in my community? And how am I going about this? So I puzzled on this, probably for a decade, you know, doing little volunteer things here and there, but nothing super concrete and not the majority of my time. And it actually happened that we were visiting South Africa, my parents were living there. And one of my good friends who’s with Days for Girls was living there as well. And we visited the Apartheid Museum there. And it’s an incredible place. I mean, they’ve done a wonderful job with that museum. But as I was walking through it, and they’ve got all these artifacts from apartheid, you know, they have photos and documents and all kinds of things that museums have. But we kind of walked up to this wall that was super tall. And on it were these little plaques. And I’m looking at them thinking, what is this? Because there’s this massive wall. And as I look closer, I see that every single tiny plug has listed a policy, you know, something that the government – some little law that the government had passed, that slowly enforced apartheid. Apartheid was not done overnight. You know, it was something that took years to become what it was, which was one of the most impressive things, one of the most impressive things to 90% of South Africa’s population. And really hindered their freedom. And it was so fascinating to me. Because in that moment, I realized that that this massive kind of evil was born of these tiny little policies, that had created this structure that people could not overcome.
So in that moment, it was that it was a total aha moment for me, like, oh my gosh, this is what I’ve been puzzling on for so many years, this is what I’ve been wondering – how do you work on these grand things? And the answer is, you do it one thing at a time, you do it little policy by little policy. And for me that answer, you know, we all kind of come into what we feel is going to be most impactful. For me, it really was, it’s policy, it’s the way that the government enacts rules or laws to either create more freedoms, or to oppress freedom. And, specifically for me, I’m interested in women and girls, you know, policies that really can help women and girls, and my focus is mostly the United States. And so kind of taking that and saying, if this can be built, if such a massive destructive structure such as apartheid can be built, you know, by the creation of hundreds and maybe even thousands of these little policies, then can we not build ourselves out of difficult things by implementing lots of little good policies, right? Like policies that benefit women and girls. So that was the big aha moment.
And, you know, coming out of that, and knowing and having that feeling that I needed to do something, it slowly turned into the Policy Project. And actually, interestingly, Days for Girls played a huge role in the beginning of this and in the first policy that we took on, because I was working with a friend of mine, your global advocacy director, Diana Nelson. And she and I sat down one time when she was in town, visiting and kind of looked at, hey, here are all these needs. We just got into a big conversation about what needs are women and girls in this world facing? And then kind of broke it down to okay, well, what about in the United States? And as we started talking about this, we realized that there is a whole breadth of policy that is lacking in the United States around menstruation and menstrual policy. So it was actually in that conversation that we kind of nailed down on which policy to take on first. And it was it was what we call the tampon tax, which is basically ridding – menstrual products in the United States have, like surplus sales tax, that we pay on them here. Whereas men’s products don’t incur that same type of sales tax. So that was a really long winded answer for saying, I went from something broad, just a feeling, to kind of honing in on, you know, how do you kind of work around this? And it ends up being policy to me that that’s one of the most impactful ways that we can kind of work to empower women and girls in our communities and in society. So that’s the beginning of the Policy Project.
Jessica Williams 8:17
Yeah, that’s amazing. I love it. And, you know, as I’m listening to your story, I’m thinking… so many of our listeners might be sitting there thinking, well, how do you go from being inspired to actually feeling like you have the knowledge and the resources and the connections to take on policy and legislation and advocating and lobbying? So my question for you then is, what advice do you have for someone who’s like, I want to get into this. And I want to become an advocate or perhaps even lobby for an issue that I care about. What do you advise advice do you have for them?
Emily Bell McCormick 8:54
Yeah, that was a wonderful question. Because you’re right, it feels so grandiose, especially, you know, most of us weren’t born advocates, right? We may have felt the feeling of it, but we maybe haven’t been doing it forever, or you know, would have an interest in getting into it. But it feels like such a different world. So I would say a few places to start – the first thing is just find an organization that speaks to you. That’s going to be the easiest, best way to do this. You know, to be honest, I couldn’t have started this without the support and help of friends who had already been working as advocates. So look at who do you know, or what organization are you interested in? Organizations are always looking for help, you know, in advocacy work, and then just start small. It feels so huge, but especially depending on what country you’re in, if you’re in America, you have elected officials who represent you. And that’s a super easy place to start. Just by identifying you know, who has been voted to represent me. Because they actually owe it to you, you know, that is their job. Their job is to represent you – the way that you feel about policies or laws or you know, things going on in your community. So identify them, identify an organization that you might want to work with. And then of course, identify the policy that you’ve felt passionately about. Now, some people are just gonna know straight out of the gate, like, this is what I feel passionate about, this is what I want to work on, and be able to go ahead and do that. But for a lot of us, that might take a little bit of research. So I think it’s identifying maybe those three things, that’s a great place to start. And then just knowing and feeling empowered, that if you’re not speaking to this…we tend to make this assumption that, oh, somebody else is doing this, somebody else has got this, oh, this is a really important issue. So someone in the world is definitely doing this. And a lot of times that might be true, but the more voices we can add to these kinds of issues, the better. And these issues don’t belong to one person, or one organization, they belong to all of us. And so we all have a role in in kind of ensuring healthy policy moving forward. And that role can be pretty simple. It can be as simple as calling your elected official and just saying, hey, I care about this, I want to meet with this, and feeling empowered to do it. Because it’s their job to listen to you, and to hear what matters to you.
Jessica Williams 11:27
As someone who has, you know, stretched myself in my life and in my career for issues that I care about, I agree. Just finding someone who’s already in it, who can you know, mentor you, show you the way or allow you to volunteer What great, great advice that is.
So, my next question is…you focus on policies and legislation. What are the most important policies or pieces of legislation or things that you want to bring to light for our listeners? Like before I came to Days for Girls, I did not know that there was a tampon tax. Like this was just – mind blown. What else can you blow our minds with? That we don’t know about?
Emily Bell McCormick 12:11
Sadly Jessica, there are many, many things to blow our minds, especially when it comes to policies for women and girls. So yeah, I think you’re exactly right. There’s so much – you don’t know what you don’t know. And none of us know most of this stuff. And there is a great dearth of legislation for women and girls. And there’s a lot of, you know, there’s a reason for that. At least in America, you know, it’s probably less about oppressing women and girls, and more about the lack of representation, the lack of women and girls at the table, right? Because Congress in the United States has been, you know, was exclusively male for hundreds of years. And then as women joined, we’re still not anywhere close to 50% represented at that level. And in state legislatures, you know, the state in which I live, women only make up 20% of the legislature. So we lack it, partly because men – and I’ve heard this a lot from different legislators in Congress – men that I’ve worked with say well, we don’t talk about menstruation because that’s not like, it’s out of place. It’s a private thing. That’s a woman’s issue. You know, it’s kind of this private, like, we don’t want to delve into that. So until we say something and almost give people permission to talk about it, they’re not going to talk about it.
Okay, so you specifically asked about what kind of legislation is still needed. Alright, the tampon tax is still one, right? We just have over 30 states who have gotten rid of tax on menstrual products. And we don’t tax in the United States things like Viagra, Rogaine, you know, there are the all of these men’s products that aren’t taxed. As well as some, like… depending on which state you live in, there are totally silly things, like I live in the state of Utah and we don’t tax arcade tokens, snow cannons (which are essentially snow making machines). And in other states, things like doughnuts aren’t taxed. I mean, the list is just long and kind of crazy. But menstrual products are taxed now. It would be difficult for any human to argue that menstruation and products to care for menstruation were not necessities right? They’re clearly necessities. We don’t control our menstruation. We can’t hold our menstruation. You know, if we’re standing in a grocery store line, we don’t have the ability to say, oh, we’re going to deal with this in a minute -it’s just coming. So these are necessities. These are things that we need to deal with.
So actually one really exciting field of policy work that will immediately impact the lives of women and girls is around menstruation. Because it just hasn’t been talked about in the past, hasn’t been done until the recent years. There’s been a movement these recent years to get rid of the tampon tax, the other things that a lot of us are working toward is getting tampons, pads, menstrual products into public schools. And the reasoning behind that is, we do provide, you know, toilet paper. OSHA, this organization, this actual organization provides toilet paper and paper towels, but we don’t provide menstrual products. Now, the real life consequences of that is that there have been studies that have shown that, you know, more than 60% of girls have missed some school in America, have missed some school because they have not had access to menstrual products. And I’m guessing, Jessica, you and I, we probably both miss something because we think, oh dang, we forgot this, and we can’t find a product, you know. And it doesn’t allow for us to sit through a business meeting, or go to lunch with a friend or go to class and be fully present when you’re worried about menstruating. So one of the things that we’re working on is really helping governments understand, you know, this is a bigger issue, because it does impact. It impacts our ability to be educated, to be fully present in the workplace, to be fully able to do things, if you don’t have a menstrual product in the United States – and definitely in other countries as well. You know, a lot of places where Days for Girls is really prevalent and has a large presence, the lack of menstrual products really leads to the lack of productivity for women and girls. And so we’re really looking at getting menstrual products into public schools. That’s one of the big priorities. And then, of course, other places like homeless shelters and prisons, places where they’re not actually mandated. But we think because they’re getting federal funding in all three of those places, that maybe those things are being mandated. Like that seems so natural, right? Band aids are, you know, there. We’ve got the government paying for band aids in all three of these places, but not menstrual products. So just recognizing that, listen, menstruation is something that we need to start thinking about.
And one of the big ones – this is just kind of a funny thing that listeners may find interesting. One of the big things that we hear when we start talking with different government officials, like, hey, we really need to get menstrual products into schools. A lot of people say, well, we don’t want to do that, because they’re going to hoard, you know, students are going to hoard menstrual products, or they’re going to waste them, they’re going to throw them on the ceiling, you know, get them wet, and throw tampons on the ceiling, whatever. And it’s this funny stigma that we have about that…like how many times have you gone into a bathroom, and just unrolled the entire toilet paper roll and shoved it in your pockets? You’re not. Like, that’s not happening. You’re not putting the paper towels all in your purse, because you’re using what you need. And then you leave. And part of the reason that you’re able to do that is because you know, with confidence, that when you enter a public restroom, they’re going to have toilet paper there for you, right? So the idea is, maybe in the beginning, there might be you know, people taking two or three tampons, whatever, something. But ultimately, this becomes just like every other product that we’re used to in a public restroom, where you’re not feeling threatened that it’s not going to be there. So you’re going to use what you need, and you’re going to leave. So that’s one of the big things that we’re working toward, is just the access to administration. And there are other things like education, you know, even though a lot of people have maturation programs and other things, there’s so much more we can do around education that would include both, you know, all genders in the conversation. So that there’s an awareness and it kind of gets rid of the taboo, so much of it. That’s a part that Days for Girls absolutely exels at, just talking about menstruation and ridding our cultures have that kind of shame. And really just stigma around menstruation. So talking about it and and then increasing access to education.
Jessica Williams 19:15
Oh my gosh, so much there. So, okay, one of the things I want to go back to is that you were talking about policy at the state level in the United States. And you went through it really quickly. So I just want to go back for emphasis the there. Did you say there are 30 states who have passed a law that tampons cannot be taxed? Is that what you said?
Emily Bell McCormick 19:39
Right. So there are around…last time I looked, it’s around 32 states that have gotten rid of the tampon tax. Well, we call it the tampon tax. So 32 states are saying yeah, no more, we recognize these as necessities. This is something that needs to be done at the state level because it’s state government that control the sales tax. So anyway, 32 states. Yeah. Which is 18 states ready to, you know… we still need to get rid of it in those 18 states.
Jessica Williams 20:09
But doesn’t this… I’m going back to our hero, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, right. Her work around not being discriminated on the basis of sex. Doesn’t this violate, like, even though it’s a state tax code? Doesn’t this violate federal precedent laws in some way?
Emily Bell McCormick 20:32
Yeah, that is such a good question. It’s so interesting, because there’s actually another organization out there called Period Equity. And they talk a lot about their approach to ridding the states of tampon tax. It’s super interesting, because they essentially say this – you’re exactly right. This is discrimination on the basis of sex. And they’ll go through and actually sue, they actually sued the state for charging a tax on menstrual products when they don’t have a similar tax on men’s products. So yeah, it absolutely is. Now, whether or not that has been effective in some states… I believe that it was effective in I think Michigan and a few other states. I’d have to look back to tell you for sure. But that that is absolutely a violation of our rights. And in some states, that’s going to be a really appealing message. And one that, you know, as soon as the legislature is made aware of this – Maryland, I think we kind of had this experience there, where as soon as the legislature was made aware of it, they were like, oh dang, yeah you’re right, we’re going to take care of this, we’re going to get rid of this. That’s not okay. Other states, interestingly, and shockingly to you and I, it doesn’t resonate as well. They still kind of want to [say] well, you are getting preferential treatment, or we’re not going to do that, because we don’t want to mess up our tax code. We don’t want any extra, any carve outs from our tax code. Even when in each of those states, a lot of carve outs already exist. So that’s where really being aware, that’s why we need advocates in every single state. Because you have to kind of be aware of the environment in which you live.
I mentioned before that I live in the state of Utah, and politically, it’s a pretty conservative state. And one thing, you know, we actually got rid of the tampon tax in 2019. We got rid of the tampon tax, you know, it passed in a big tax reform. And it was like, really exciting for our state, because it actually had been proposed here, for I believe the previous five legislative sessions, it had been proposed in the state of Utah, and it kind of was brushed by. It wasn’t really discussed, and never went to committee, you know. They kind of just said, no we’re not doing this, this is really not that important. And so then we get it passed. And ironically, it happens to be the year that because it was attached to a big tax reform bill, there were other issues in that tax reform bill, and it ended up getting turned over. So we were tax free for one month, and you know, that was a great source of pride for some of us. And then on the tampon tax feedback. So one of the interesting things we found this last year as we were advocating for this in my home state, was that people were really hesitant to do a carve out. And in some places, you’re going to find that it seems so natural and so intuitive to some of us, and it just doesn’t to others. So just being wise about your messaging, like when you go forward, working on some of these issues, talking about equity in a way that is maybe talking about fairness. More than equity, you know, using certain terms that are going to resonate more with your audience is a really important thing, as you’re looking at actually getting this stuff passed. Because, yes, most of you and I and most of the listeners are going to agree, yeah, this stuff needs to be done. But this is why it’s so interesting, and why this advocacy is so needed, because you still are dealing with a lot of personalities, in trying to get a lot of stuff done. And you have to be aware of that and cognizant of what that means in your state.
Jessica Williams 24:24
Mm hmm. It’s it’s like anything, right? Like people. I always say, people want to work with people they like and they trust and so you know, building trust and likability is oftentimes about thinking about your audience and the messaging that you’re using, right, so that they can relate to it.
So I have a question and I’m sorry if this sounds stupid. But when we talk about the tampon tax, are we talking about tampons and menstrual care products being taxed an extra amount over regular state taxes, or are we talking about making making sure that they aren’t taxed at all? Like in the state of Washington, you know, there’s a pretty high tax rate or sales tax there, are they taxed an extra level? On top of that? Are we asking for them to be at the normal level are not taxed at all? Does that make sense?
Emily Bell McCormick 25:17
Yeah, it makes perfect sense. You’re so wise to ask that question. Because there have been, you know, articles written about this. And yeah, it is a little bit more of a topic of conversation. I’m hoping some of your listeners have heard about the tampon tax. One of the things that is sometimes associated with tampon tax is that writers will talk about it being taxed as a luxury good. So the actuality of that in the United States is a luxury good, is just incurs full sales tax. So it isn’t any more, it isn’t. When you say luxury goods, it really kind of sounds like, oh, my gosh, we’re thinking I’m buying a Chanel purse and tampons at the same rate, you know. It’s not that. It’s just that it’s taxed atl the full sales tax rate. Now, like we talked about before, something like Rogaine, which is a hair growth product, or Viagra, which is a men’s product as well, those are not taxed at all. So they don’t incur any sales tax. So for example, in my home state, sales tax is about 6.75%. Right now. And most states are close to that, for sales tax. Some states don’t have sales tax at all. But you’re thinking like, you’re paying an extra almost 7%, probably. On average, in the United States, for those products that are absolutely necessities. So that was a great question. And that is the answer: that they’re not taxed more, it’s just their tax at the full rate.
Jessica Williams 26:59
Right. And when you see something like Viagra not being taxed at all, you’re like, okay, that’s an – let’s talk about necessities people, right? I mean, we’re not saying like…well, just make it fair is what you said, right? And I go back to this book a lot – I need to interview this woman – ‘Invisible Women.’ I don’t know if you’ve seen that book. But it’s all about – oh, it’s by Caroline Criado Perez – about data bias in a world designed for men. It’s all about this, like how women are left out of decisions for all kinds of products and services in tax code and everything. Because we don’t have a seat at the table where these decisions are being made. And there’s no one out there advocating for us. So coming full circle, that’s what you’re doing, right? You’re a woman out there advocating for women?
Emily Bell McCormick 27:56
Yeah. And I mean, that’s such an interesting point you bring up because that’s exactly the problem that we talked about in the beginning of the show. It really is, it’s that we’re not there. We’re not at the table, you know, we’re not having those conversations, we’re not showing that it’s important. And historically, it’s not our fault. But it’s time that we get involved. You know, it’s time that we give voice to these things, because the more of us that say something, the more that people in government can see that this bleeds across parties. This is not a a one-party idea. This is really just something that is kind of standard human rights. But because we haven’t been there, we haven’t been able to say it. So you’re exactly right. That’s where we really – where women really get hurt in the United States. It’s that we’re not there, standing up for what we have. And actually, you know, even when people hold political power, you know, when women do, sometimes they feel alone. So making sure that those women in power feel supported in kind of promoting these ideals.
Jessica Williams 29:07
Mm hmm. Because they really are pushing against a pretty heavy tide, right?
Emily Bell McCormick 29:12
Right. Very heavy.
Jessica Williams 29:16
Well, Emily, this has just been a fantastic conversation. I feel like we could go so many different ways. I’ll have to have you back on the show again, sometime in the future. If people want to get involved with the Policy Project and the work you’re doing, how can they contact you?
Emily Bell McCormick 29:31
Yes, that would be great. So the the website is just thepolicyproject.org. And there’s contact information on there. Or they can find me on Instagram, @emilybellmccormick or @thepolicyproject. And I would love to have any help that anyone would like to offer.
Jessica Williams 29:52
And on that note, looking at the future a year out, now that places are kind of opening back up, sort of. What are your plans for the next year or two? Like, are you tackling anything in specific? Do you have any rallies, anything going on that you want to let people know about?
Emily Bell McCormick 30:15
Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think this last year was very consumed with – we had a few things come up policy-wise to do with the pandemic. But legislatures and Congress were really, really, really focused on pandemic work, and not much got done in the way of helping women. That’s another topic that we could absolutely delve into, at some point in time, how the pandemic has absolutely handicapped women. And, you know, there wasn’t a lot of policy around kind of getting it back to where they needed to be. And so this year, we’re really going to talk a lot about just work on on putting things to where they should have been pushed, in 2021. But we’ll be waiting for the 2022 legislative and congressional sessions to get some of the things done that we were hoping, like getting tampons and pads in schools and, and having people kind of reconsider those things and help us catch up again. You know, it’s been tough with the pandemic, because there are a lot of other things like childcare and other issues that have been bought to the forefront, especially for women who have more socio economic needs. There’s a lot of work that we need to do around that. So we’ll start looking at some of those childcare issues as well.
Jessica Williams 31:31
Oh, I love that idea. Fantastic. We’ll put all those links you mentioned in the show notes. And Emily, if you want to share your upcoming stuff as things start to move forward, let us know. And we’ll give a shout out at Days for Girls so people who are interested can stay in touch with Days for Girls as well to get involved. Thank you so much for being on the show. And for the incredible work that you’re doing. It’s so inspiring. I really appreciate it.
Emily Bell McCormick 32:00
Thank you so much for having me! And thank you for the great work you are doing as well.
Jessica Williams 32:05
The Days for Girls Podcast is produced by Days for Girls International. For show notes and resources mentioned in this episode, visit daysforgirls.org/podcast. If you’d like to support the work we do on the show, leave a rating or a review wherever you listen, subscribe to the show and share episodes on social media or with your friends. To learn more about Days for Girls and to join our global movement, please visit daysforgirls.org Thank you for listening. See you next time.