Required Bathroom Reading

Activists put their minds in the toilet

| February 2005


In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Phyllis Schlafly and other opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) argued that if the legislation passed, three disastrous things would happen: women would fight in combat, gay marriage would be legalized, and traditional restrooms would be replaced by unisex bathrooms. It was the last argument that caused middle-Americans to gasp the loudest. Women and men urinating in the same room? Preposterous! Feminists dismissed the charge with a snicker, failing to address the concern. The ERA eventually died a sad (but hopefully not final) death in 1982, and women's rights opponents essentially labeled bathroom politics 'too hot to touch' until the late Eighties, when University of Missouri environmental design professor Sandra Rawls released the 'potty parity' study.

Rawls argued that it takes longer for women to use the restroom not because they spend too much time fussing in the mirror, but because there are fewer facilities for them to use, even when the square footage of women's and men's rooms are equal. As a result, potty parity legislation, designed to equalize the wait time, passed in several states in the early 1990s, and still resurfaces occasionally. For example, in 2003, a New York City ordinance was proposed that would require all new buildings to construct two women's restrooms for every men's. It's still under consideration.

Though the unisex bathroom as not been widely discussed in political circles since Schlafly's heyday, women's rights advocates have recently joined forces with transgender activists to push for 'gender-neutral' bathrooms. One such organizer is Mary Anne Case, a professor at the University of Chicago who, like Rawls before her, has been studying restroom facility disparities. Her work spawned a college forum and a 'Bathroom Avengers Bootyshakin' benefit to raise awareness about bathroom dilemmas faced by transgender students.

Other schools, such as the University of Vermont, the University of New Hampshire, and the University of California-San Diego, now offer gender-neutral bathrooms on campus. In San Francisco, an organization called People in Search of Safe Restrooms (PISSR), conducted a 'toilet tour' to develop a resource list of safe bathrooms. Likewise, the Lesbian Avengers and the Boston Transsexual Menace have developed The Relief Map of Boston, a listing of gender nonspecific bathrooms in Bean Town.



Sex-segregated bathrooms are intimidating to transgender people, and according to some feminist-scholars, such as Ohio State University professor Louise Antony, they're not that great for women, either. Antony has long argued that sex-segregated bathrooms do not 'secure the safety of women in a sexist world' but rather, are 'arguably more dangerous than unisex facilities would be, since a would-be assailant has a reasonable expectation that he will find potential victims, and only potential victims, in a ladies' room.' For example, most of the stalls in the women's bathrooms at New York University have emergency buttons, though the men's stalls lack such a feature.

The case for gender-neutral bathrooms is made all the more interesting by a non-political nursing home health agency in Idaho called Caring Hands Inc. Since 1997, Caring Hands' Director Denise Decker, has offered women information about the time-tested practice of urination while standing. Decker, who is also a registered nurse, argues that historically women peed standing up by simply placing pressure on each side of the urethra and releasing. As evidence she points to the fact that dresses in the 19th century often featured front plackets that could be opened or closed just like the fly on a pair of jeans. In addition to the fact that sit-down urination takes longer than standing, women who hover over the toilet seat generally only empty about a third of their bladders each session -- which means they have to go more often. As an aside, Decker's site also includes a lengthy article about designing Muslim-friendly bathrooms -- just another piece of evidence that the public commode has the potential to be more, not less, controversial.