Until last year, the U.K. applied a value-added tax (VAT) on all period products, deeming them “non-essential” items. When Laura Coryton realized that as a student in 2014, she researched what items were considered more “essential”: Bingo, alcoholic sugar jellies and even maintaining a private helicopter.
She was shocked. Then she became angry – very angry. So much so that she started a petition to abolish the period product tax while still at university. In the seven years that followed, Coryton’s End Tampon Tax campaign became her mission as she teamed up with other activists around the world.
Her petition accumulated more than a quarter of a million signatures, support in Parliament from MPs Stella Creasy and Dawn Primarolo, former British Prime Minister David Cameron, and recognition from former President Obama.
Finally in 2020, the Chancellor of the Exchequer finalized the move to eliminate the 5 percent VAT on the cost of period products, moving those items from “luxury” to “essential” classification, which took effect at the beginning of 2021.
Coryton, now 29, has put the hard-won lessons she’s learned into a guidebook for girls and young women to build confidence, raise their voices and succeed in change-making as activists, “Speak Up!”
Know Your Value recently caught up with the British campaigner who also runs the organization, Sex Ed Matters, which teaches students about relationships, consent and period education in schools.
Know Your Value: You started the End Tampon Tax campaign back in 2014, while you were still a student. Talk about what prompted the issue for you and how you stayed committed to the cause?
Coryton: In 2014, I was in my second year of university and was just starting to question the sexism I previously accepted and brushed aside as part of life, like cat-calling. I spoke with everyone and anyone I could about the types of campaigns we could support to end these everyday examples of sexism.
Off the back of one of these conversations, my sister's friend sent me a news article which listed some 'ridiculous' things we pay tax on in the U.K. One of these was period products! I thought this must make sense on some level. Perhaps everything else was taxed more? I wanted to explore if this tax was unfair, so I delved into the not-so-sexy HMRC website and was startled by what I found.
Some items escape tax altogether as they're deemed "essential" goods. These include alcoholic sugar jellies, bingo and even maintaining our private helicopters! Yet, period products were deemed luxuries and were taxed accordingly.
At first I was shocked. Then I got angry. I searched for a campaign to end this tax so I could support it, but I couldn't find any online. So, I decided to start my own! I was a big fan of other petitions like the 'No More Page 3' petition, so I had a blueprint to follow. I jumped in the campaigning deep end and have never looked back.
I soon found out that generations have been campaigning to end the tampon tax, including my friend's mother and MP Stella Creasy! This gave me the motivation I needed to persevere through the years. I had to win, not just for myself, but for the generations of people who campaigned to end the tampon tax, as well as the 300,000 who signed my petition.
Know Your Value: Did you ever feel like giving up in this years-long campaign?
Coryton: Of course! I felt like giving up so many times. My campaign faced a lot of failures and each time I questioned if it would ever succeed. However, when something disastrous happened, I focused on thinking creatively and using this situation to the campaign's advantage.
For example, at one point we were targeting the wrong decision maker as the U.K. Prime Minister didn't have authority to amend taxation legislation while under the European Union at the time. I was so embarrassed!
Yet, I kept in mind the campaign is far bigger than me. There was no time for embarrassment!
Instead, I tried to involve the European Union by successfully lobbing the Prime Minster to travel to Brussels to ask for all member states to be granted the right to axe the tampon tax if they want to. This was successful!
For the first time in EU history, a taxation exemption was granted to one very specific item. This legislation should go through the European Parliament later this year. With it, we will end up freeing so many people from the tampon tax, and not just the U.K.!
I realized that creativity is key to making change happen. We just need to stay positive, focused and hungry!
Know Your Value: Your campaign galvanized an international movement, including recognition from former President Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama.
Coryton: It was incredible. I've actually just finished my training with the Obama Foundation, as I was nominated as a 'European Leader' this year.
As part of this program, I got to meet President Obama and I was able to thank him personally for the support he gave my campaign and all those fighting to end the tampon tax across the U.S. – it was a full-circle moment! He gave us an extremely strong endorsement for which I am so grateful.
Know Your Value: What prompted you to write the book?
Coryton: We are at a very exciting moment in history. The internet is changing the face of politics.
The generations of people who campaigned to end the tampon tax before me were ignored by their governments because they weren't able to shout loud enough. Today, we can all make our voices heard. The U.K. government couldn't ignore the will of the 300,000 people who signed my petition. Together, we made this change happen.
I wanted to write this book to not only encourage other young women to campaign and challenge the instances of everyday sexism we face, but to give them the tools they need to do so. I wish I had this book when I was still at school. If I had, I may have started my campaigning journey much earlier, and made a lot more change!
Know Your Value: What are some of the roadblocks you’ve seen in terms of getting young people involved in activism?
Coryton: A lot of young people feel they don't have enough power to make a difference. They often tell me "I can't vote, so how am I meant to make change?" This hopelessness inspired the book because I know young people can make waves! I hope this book is proof that anyone can make a difference, no matter how young you are.
Another roadblock is fear of making a mistake. Usually, we only hear about campaigns when they've succeeded. We don't often talk about pitfalls or failures we experience. This can make campaigning seem flawless. As soon as someone starts their campaign and they experience a slowdown in support, or something going wrong, they often feel like they have completely failed and should stop because they don't realize this happens to everyone.
In reality, every single campaigner I've ever met faced serious downfalls and they've had moments where they wanted to give up. This is a natural part of campaigning. Throughout the book, I talk a lot about my failures to normalize making mistakes. So long as we grow from these mistakes, our campaign will also continue to grow.
Know Your Value: Walk us through the 5-step toolkit for change. What do these accomplish?
Coryton: Sometimes, it can feel like the change we want to make in the world is so vast it's unattainable. These five steps are designed to combat this feeling, and make campaigning tangible and successful:
1. Make sure your goal is as specific as possible. This will help convince others to join you and your decision maker to back you.
2. Identify your decision maker. Who has the ultimate authority to make your change happen? For example, if you want to change a school policy you will target your school governing body, or if you want to secure more funding for a local community service, you will be targeting your local government.
3. Undergo a lot of research. You will need to showcase not only why your change is important, but how your decision maker can make it happen. This will not only demonstrate your credibility as a campaigner, but also it will be convincing to your decision maker, as their route to making change happen has been mapped out for them - how kind!
4. Choose your campaign platform. This is where you can be really creative. Think carefully about what kind of campaigning vehicle will be most effective for your cause. Is a petition best, or perhaps a social media account, a good old-fashioned letter or a protest? Determine the pros and cons of all these options.
5 Launch your campaign! This is where the fun starts. Campaigns will have dips and peaks when it comes to interest and success, but always keep focused and tenacious.
Know Your Value: You also address the topics of relationships and consent in this book. Explain why this intersects with activism, especially for young women.
Coryton: In 2019 I started a social enterprise called 'Sex Ed Matters'. We deliver workshops in schools on many topics, including periods and consent. I started this because I found young activists, especially girls, are often dealing with so many barriers to being confident, happy, healthy campaigners. This includes widespread unhealthy understandings about consent.
You can't arm someone with tools and not help them address other barriers to using them effectively. I hope this can help all young readers feel empowered, seen and heard, no matter who they are or what positive difference they are hoping to make in the world.