As part of our International Women’s Day celebrations – a day dedicated to championing women’s achievements and challenging gender bias – we caught up with former Goldsmiths student Laura Coryton.
Laura, 25, led the International campaign against Tampon Tax and has now written a super empowering book, Speak Up! to inspire a whole new generation of rebel girls.
A former Politics and International Studies student, Laura first started her campaign during her second year at Goldsmiths and has proved that by utilising the power of the internet and social media, the everyday person really can change the world when they stand up for what they believe in.
Q. Hi Laura! So what inspired you to start the Tampon Tax campaign?
A. I think the fact that Goldsmiths is so activism focused was really helpful. I love how many students here question normalities and want to step outside of what’s expected. I was in my second year when I started getting into feminism and talking to my classmates about the issues we face… and one of them was this tax we pay on tampons. Initially I thought, ‘Oh this must just be a normal tax,’ but it wasn’t until I looked further into it that I realised certain things weren’t taxed because they were considered essential. Amazingly, tampons were taxed because they were considered a luxury. Items that aren’t taxed, which are deemed essential, are things like maintaining private helicopters! It literally made no sense to me that as women we have to pay into this for years. The government makes £15 million, annually, just from Tampon Tax. So that’s why I decided to start a petition on change.org.
Q. How did you fit in campaigning with your studies?
A. Well it was in May and I was gearing up to exams and I just really didn’t want to revise anymore so this was a distraction. Basically, I’m just a professional procrastinator! I remember sending it to some of my course mates and they were like, ‘what module is this for?!’
Q. What do you think made your petition so successful?
A. I never thought the campaign would go so far! It was just mind-blowing that people wanted to sign it because it’s about periods and taxation – two things that nobody likes to talk about. I suppose it wasn’t about convincing people this has to end, it was just telling people it was a thing. It was all tied into the idea that women should talk about their bodies and periods. Breaking that taboo was an essential part of the campaign.
Q. How quickly did it all progress?
A. The first year the campaign was basically spread across student media – and we got about 100,000 signatures, which shows you how powerful it is. The SU got involved when I was in my third year… they were really helpful. We then got MPs involved and some national newspapers. By the second year we’d secured 200,000 signatures and that was when we handed in the petition to Downing Street.
Q. And what happened next?
A. The government basically responded and said they couldn’t axe Tampon Tax because of EU legislations, which was really annoying, but they said they’d create something called a Tampon Fund. So ever since then (for the last three years), they’ve given £15 million to female focused charities. That’s where we’re at now. I didn’t quite realise it would take this long to go through Parliament!
Q. You must have experienced setbacks along the way. How did you cope with that?
A. Yes! I used to get trolled online a lot – they’d call me a poisonous witch spreading my poison around the world! You’re supposed to ignore it but I’d retweet the abuse to show how misogynous they are. It would only legitimise exactly why I was doing what I was doing. There’s also a lot of pressure to keep people who’ve signed the petition happy all the time. You’ve got to try not to be too political about it. At one point, though, Nigel Farage suddenly decided he cared about women and said, ‘Look, this Tampon Tax shows the EU is rubbish and doesn’t help us.’ Suddenly everyone thought we were supporting the Leave campaign – it was so bad! But then on the other hand it was really good, as it led to the success of the petition because David Cameron took that seriously and decided to put this whole issue to the EU Parliament. It was completely unprecedented, but he basically got it through EU law that every single member state should be able to axe Tampon Tax if they wanted to. It was so cool!
Q. Was that the highlight of your campaign?
A. The highlight of my life had to be when David Cameron said the word ‘tampon’ in Parliament. I was on a plane back from Thailand and when I landed and turned my phone on I had about 100 missed calls about it. Another highlight was when a famous YouTuber was interviewing Obama and they mentioned the Tampon Tax. Obama replied: ‘To be honest, if we had more women in politics then this isn’t even something we’d be talking about. I’m sure Michelle agrees.’ He was the first ever politician to really connect female underrepresentation in politics with policy decisions. We also got an extra 24,000 signatures in 48 hrs after that…
Q. So where are you at now with changing the law?
A. Now, it’s just a case of waiting, which is very frustrating. On the one hand we’re waiting for the piece of EU legislation to go through which will apparently take until 2022. But it’s so confusing with Brexit and whether that will happen… so potentially 2022, if not earlier. It will end… but there’s just a process we need to follow.
Q. How did your book, Speak Up! come about?
A. I’d just finished my Masters last year when a literary agent got in touch and asked whether I’d thought of writing a book. I’d been involved in a few talks in schools with students and found they were very interested, which was refreshing, so I decided to write something tailored to them. I want young people to know they do have a voice and they can change things, especially with the growth of the internet. The possibilities for the everyday person to make change are very possible.
Q. What’s the main focus of the book?
A. Basically, I outline the five golden steps needed to get a campaign from idea to launch, then I reflect back on the Tampon Tax and my experiences. It’s aimed for 12-17-year-olds but anyone can read it. I’ve also crammed in loads of stuff about speaking up on an everyday basis, consent and dating. I wanted it to be really empowering. To be a confident and good campaigner you have to be confident in other areas of your life too.
Q. And what would you say to other student campaigners who feel passionately about an issue but aren’t sure whether they’ll be listened to?
A. Keep going! Any campaign is going to be difficult if it’s something that’s never been done before. Also, pay close attention to the small victories along the journey as they’re just as important. If, for example, we never secure that legislation, I know the campaign has already been so successful because we’ve encouraged the conversation about female empowerment and it’s helped women to speak up - there are so many smaller victories that I don’t think I’ve even acknowledged yet. I’m really proud though of what I have been able to achieve so far.
To buy a copy of Laura’s book, click here.