The nearby men’s room had a fireplace

A few years ago Soraya Chemaly pointed out that very mundane bit of everyday sexism, the long line to get into the women’s restroom.

Faced with a long restroom line that spiraled up and around a circular stairwell at a recent museum visit, I opted not to wait. Why do we put up with this? This isn’t a minor pet peeve, but a serious question. Despite years of “potty parity” laws, women are still forced to stand in lines at malls, schools, stadiums, concerts, fair grounds, theme parks, and other crowded public spaces. This is frustrating, uncomfortable, and, in some circumstances, humiliating. It’s also a form of discrimination, as it disproportionately affects women.

After counting the women, I tweeted, “Dear @britishmuseum there are FIFTY women and girls standing in line for the loo while the men’s room has zero line #everydaysexism.” Immediately, people responded with the suggestion that women use the men’s room. But even more responses were defensive, along the lines of “How on god’s green earth did you arrive at the conclusion that this was sexist?”

Let me count the ways.

Women need to use bathrooms more often and for longer periods of time because: we sit to urinate (urinals effectively double the space in men’s rooms), we menstruate, we are responsible for reproducing the species (which makes us pee more), we continue to have greater responsibility for children (who have to use bathrooms with us), and we breastfeed (frequently in grotty bathroom stalls). Additionally, women tend to wear more binding and cumbersome clothes, whereas men’s clothing provides significantly speedier access. But in a classic example of the difference between surface “equality” and genuine equity, many public restrooms continue to be facilities that are equal in physical space, while favoring men’s bodies, experiences, and needs.

Everyday is every day – needing to pee while away from home does tend to occur several times every day for people who work, go to school, do sport, socialize, shop, visit theaters and libraries…the list is endless. New building design is starting to catch up but there are still quite a few old buildings around.

In the United States, for example, women in the House of Representatives didn’t get a bathroom near the Speaker’s Lobby until 2011. Prior to that, the nearest women’s room was so far away that the time it took women to get to the bathroom and back exceeded session break times. The nearby men’s room, meanwhile, had a fireplace, a shoeshine stand, and televised floor proceedings.

Close by and a fireplace.

Additionally, old building codes required more space for men, as women’s roles were restricted almost entirely to the private sphere. That reality has often confused the “is” with the “ought.” As scholar Judith Plaskow noted in a paper on toilets and social justice, “Not only does the absence of women’s bathrooms signify the exclusion of women from certain professions and halls of power, but it also has functioned as an explicit argument against hiring women or admitting them into previously all-male organizations.” She cites examples, including Yale Medical School and Harvard Law School, both of which claimed that a lack of public facilities made it impossible for women to be admitted as students.

We’d love to but we just ain’t got the terlets.

And when things are fixed…men complain.

When spaces are changed so that everyone experiences equal waiting time, backlash has been quick. In 2004, for example, new rules resulted in men waiting in line to use the bathrooms at Soldier Field in Chicago. They complained until five women’s rooms were converted to men’s. The result was that, once again, women’s wait times doubled. No protests have yielded a commensurate response to reduce them. That women are socialized to quietly deal with physical discomfort, pain, and a casual disregard for their bodily needs is overlooked in the statements, “No one is making them wait,” or “Why don’t they demand changes?”

Yeah, why don’t women do more demanding? It’s not as if they ever get punished for doing that.

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