Not so much an annoyance as a burning social injustice

Rosa Silverman on why toilets are a feminist issue:

Discussing “the tyranny of the toilet queue” on Emma Barnett’s BBC Radio 5 Live show this week, the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado Perez made a spirited and well-founded argument for why toilets are a feminist issue; not so much an annoyance as a burning social injustice.

“Everyone knows that women have to queue for the toilet and men tend to just walk in and out, and that’s because we have traditionally given equal floor space for men and women for their toilets,” she told listeners.

It might seem fair on the face of it but, she contended, it isn’t: “For a start, male toilets tend to have urinals in them, which take up less space and immediately mean men have more provision than women with equal floor space. On top of that there are all sorts of reasons why women both will need to go more often and also may take longer when they’re in there.”

As Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, went on to explain, women need to go more often when they’re pregnant; women are eight times more likely to suffer urinary tract infections, which means they will be going more often; they are more likely to be accompanied by young children (a time-consuming process indeed); and on any given day, a proportion of women will be menstruating. (Meanwhile, on any given day, some men can be found effortlessly relieving themselves behind trees or, in extremis, in the street.) So how can it be fair that the same amount of floor space be devoted to men and women’s facilities?

There’s also the anatomy aspect, which was perhaps awkward to cite on live radio, but it does add to the time women take.

Toilets are a feminist issue. As a blog post on the website of the charity WaterAid warned in 2017, “There are many times in a woman’s life when she particularly needs a safe, private toilet. When she doesn’t have one, the consequences are serious. Having a loo can mean the difference between living in dignity or shame, health or illness, between getting an education, or dropping out of school.”

Toilets are a feminist issue for the same reason period poverty is a feminist issue: because lack of provision holds girls and women back and affects both their health and their prospects.

Toilets are a feminist issue in this country too because we have had to fight for them. In Victorian Britain, the public sphere was for men, while the home was the woman’s domain. Since most public conveniences were for use by men only, women had to plan trips out of the house carefully. The Ladies Sanitary Association campaigned for women’s toilets from the 1850s onwards, and a few were duly installed.

When women entered the workforce in large numbers after the First World War, toilets were again a big issue, as workplaces had been designed for men, and therefore lacked women’s facilities. Some employers were reluctant to change this, fearful women were stealing men’s jobs.

I’ve posted some news stories about girls or women who were raped and/or murdered because of the lack of a safe, private toilet.

10 Responses to “Not so much an annoyance as a burning social injustice”