Required Bathroom Reading

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
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

, 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
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
Since 1997, Caring Hands’ Director Denise Decker, has
offered women information about the time-tested practice of
urination while
. 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
— just another piece of evidence that the public
commode has the potential to be more, not less, controversial.

(Louise Antony’s quote was taken from an article titled
‘Back to Androgeny: What Bathrooms Can Teach Us About Equality,’ by
Louise Antony, printed in the
Journal of Contemporary Legal
Issues, Spring, 1998.)

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