Recently, urgent necessity caused ‘chaos’ in Lower Regent Street when a bus drove the wrong way down that one-way thoroughfare. Upon sighting the Number 23 double-decker bus moving into oncoming traffic, were ‘forced to set up a roadblock’. Sergeant Izzy Harrison said she ‘had not seen anything like it in her 25-year career’. The driver was warned, but no arrest ensued. As Harrison explained: ‘When we stopped [the bus] the driver jumped off and said “sorry, I needed the loo”.’
Earlier, women took the ‘occupy’ movement in new directions, entering conveniences labeled ‘Gentlemen’ or ‘Men Only’ without regard to the niceties of obeying the signs. Carrying banners protesting ‘bladder injustice, Indian women celebrated International Women’s Day by ‘intruding’ into the Manas Chowk men’s toilet. For a time, at least, they did not jump from foot to foot in a ruse to prevent ‘accidents’ whilst waiting.
Evidencing town planner and architects’ lack of consideration for physiology or physique, the problem lies with space. Whether it be lavatories, loos, toilets, bathrooms, public conveniences – these facilities have a plethora of names – there is no plethora of the facilities themselves, at least for women.
The notoriety of queues outside women’s lavatories is worldwide. So too the lack of queues outside washrooms allocated to men. At the opera, cinema, pop concerts, Olympic events; at the showground, art galleries, the beach; at railway stations, coach stations, and almost anywhere in the city; in town halls and civic centres, country halls and shire halls; in court buildings and buildings housing tribunals, and in other public places; indeed, wherever human beings gather – too few loos for women. Everywhere, in every country, the problem is identical: too few loos labeled ‘ladies’ or, more bluntly, ‘women’.
Although culture and physiology do play a part, the major problem is not that women need lavatories more often than men, nor that women spend longer in cubicles than men do, whether they use cubicles or urinals. The major problem is that urinals take less space and women do not urinate standing up.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, women did take a stand, proving it was possible for women to ape men in this most intimate of human activities. In Australia, women proved the point in a sit in at Parliament House. Several stood to express (or lay bare) their prowess, shocking two Members of Parliament who braved the assembly. The demonstrators’ display did not, however, have the repercussions that may have been hoped for. Following the Parliament House demonstration, no reconfiguration of toilet blocks occurred, no architects took on board the possibilities of adapting the urinal to accommodate women, no greater number of female lavatories was erected in Canberra nor, indeed, anywhere. Nor did building designers follow-through by getting the message: that to ensure women equal access, more cubicles must be incorporated into ‘bathrooms’ for women.
Although a variety of ‘modified urinals and personal funnels has been invented to make it easier for women to urinate standing up’, none has become sufficiently widespread so as to ‘affect policy formation on potty parity’. In any event, at minimum equality requires cubicles-for-women in the numbers allotted to men’s urinals as well as the number of cubicles constructed in toilet blocks designed for men.
Nevertheless at least, today, the need for ‘toilets-for-women’ is accepted. Not so in the past. When the first public conveniences were erected in London in 1855, that women might require them was hardly acknowledged. ‘Polite company’ refused to accept that women’s physiology, like men’s, has a waste function; that women’s bodies, like those of men, engage in this most basic of human activities. George Jennings’ campaign for ‘Halting Stations’ (as he termed them) did not result in broadly-based recognition that when women, like men, need to ‘go’ – they, like men, need somewhere to go to!
The Victorian era spawned not only demonstrations and demands for women’s right to vote, but a massive struggle for women’s loos to be included in the building programme erecting men’s facilities throughout London, under- and overground. Yet to speak of this was akin, almost, to lese majesty. Just as Victoria Sax-Coburg-Gotha ‘was not amused’ at so much, it may be presumed she’d have been little amused at a contention that public conveniences should be built to accommodate women.
When in the late 19th century he campaigned expressly for ‘loos for women’, George Bernard Shaw discovered that ‘decency’ was offended. His call for women’s rights in the building of equal numbers of public lavatories met with little acclaimin those polite circles. Yet the polite along with the allegedly discourteous were equally assisted by Shaw’s focus on the inequity in providing for men whilst women were expected to control their bladders mercilessly.
The problem does not end there. Crib rooms and ablution blocks in mines, factories and ‘dirty’ workplaces have been noted for their ‘all male’ configuration. Yet such a constriction was not isolated there. ‘Lack of facilities’ was a time-honoured excuse for keeping women out of Parliament, the judiciary, universities and other spaces, places and jobs reserved ‘for men only’.
When, in 1985, the first woman was appointed to the County Court of Victoria, she found that loos for judges were labeled ‘Gentlemen’, whilst ‘Women’ applied to loos for court-cleaners. When, in the following decade, Glenda Jackson visited Australia after having been elected to Parliament as Member for Hampstead and Highgate, she spoke of ‘Members’ lavatories being allotted to men, whilst women had to seek toilet-access in less salubrious surroundings.
Even apart from job opportunities, this is not a trivial nor an inconsequential concern. In every culture, health and comfort are essential requirements, and culture can dictate more time for women than men spent in ‘going to the loo’. Physiology can make a difference, too. Ageing and incontinence often go hand in hand, and as women live longer, the problem is likely to be increased amongst the female population. And other stages of the lifecycle can be influential. Urinary tract infections contribute, along with menstruation and pregnancy. Additionally, women are more likely to take responsibility for changing babies and toddlers’ nappies, as well as taking older children to the lavatory.
Expelling waste is not the only imperative. Sadly, in too many unfortunate instances, restaurants and other venues seek to isolate breastfeeding women, as if feeding a baby and ‘going’ are somehow related. In a notorious Melbourne incident, a Casino security guard ordered a breastfeeding woman to remove from a café to the lavatory. When she objected, the then Premier, Jeff Kennett, endorsed the security guard’s action. In response, women held a ‘breastfeed-in’ on Spring Street’s Parliament House steps. Journalist Catherine Deveny wrote a column about her own breastfeeding experience: in devoting a day to the task, she found no objections, nor objectors, when she breastfed her youngster whilst tram-travelling, parkbench-sitting and even trying out the Myer cafeteria in Little Lonsdale Street.
Yet change is afoot. At Westminster, the situation has improved beyond measure – at least in comparison with the past. Now, there are several additional ‘lady members’ rooms’ – a euphemism for loos and showers. Elsewhere, for outdoor events and onsite construction, portable and freestanding ablution blocks are now designed to suit any specifications. The UK firm Port Container Services proclaims:
‘Port Container Services design and construct ablution blocks and deliver directly to your site. We have a range of designs available, though if you have a particular layout in mind we can create an ablution block or portable bathroom to your specifications. Our ablution blocks can be fitted with toilets, urinals, wash basins, benches, showers, fans and mirrors and come in a range of sizes. Our portable toilet blocks are useful at construction sites, holiday parks and music festivals …’
In the US, state and local legislatures have recognised ‘the washroom’ as vital. Some 21 of the 50 states, together with New York, Chicago and several other major cities, have passed ‘potty parity laws’. ‘Potty parity’ confirms that ‘equality’ in lavatories for women and men is not a question of equal cubicle numbers. Under the 2005 New York City ordinance, equality requires a ratio of two women’s cubicles for every cubicle provided for men. This conforms to international building standards which advocate the 2:1 ratio. Under some other ‘potty parity’ jurisdictions, ‘equality’ is not so generous, requiring only a 3:2 cubicle construction, although this is stated as a minimum.
Returning, now, to Regent Street, imagine George Bernard Shaw’s response. Along with police, he would not be advocating the busdriver’s arrest. He’d surely be taking once more to his pen and the streets, renewing his call for more public conveniences labeled ‘Women’. In the words of the Americans, let our voices rise too – in a plea for more ‘potty parity’. All women – like the women of Chicago and New York– deserve it.
Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister & Human Rights Lawyer, Filmmaker and Historian. Her books include The Sexual Gerrymander – Women and the Economics of Power and Taking a Stand – Women in Politics and Society. Footnotes for this blog are available from her on email@example.com
Glasgow Women’s Library holds archival material documenting the celebration of International Women’s Day. Here are just a couple of examples picked from our collections:
In 1975 International Women’s Day was given official recognition by the United Nations. This edition of the International Women’s Year Tribune marks the beginning of the UN Decade for Women which ran from 1976 to 1985. The Tribune newsletter included letters from some of the 6000 participants in the non-governmental IWY Tribune held in Mexico City concurrently with the intergovernmental UN World Conference of International Women’s Year. It was intended to provide a means of communication so that members were aware of all the different kinds of activities taking place across the world. These included a rest house for rural women in Chile, literacy programmes and mobile crèches in India, a women’s soap making project in Ghana and a leadership training programme for women in South Africa.
Copy of IWY Tribune: A Newsletter, September 1976
Copy of International Women’s Day News
This copy of the International Women’s Day News was produced by a collective in London and included articles in different languages. In its editorial it stated that:
This newspaper is part of a protest. The group of women who produced it wanted to express anger at the way our experience is distorted and ignored by the Fleet Street press. We felt that an essential part of our protest was creating an alternative newspaper.
Individuals in the group don’t necessarily agree with all the contents. We’d like to know what you think about it, and to discuss producing another…. Contact us, the Fleet Street Group, c/o A Woman’s Place, Hungerford House, London WC2. The newspaper is available free on tape for women who are partially sighted or blind. If you know any woman who might like to receive a taped copy, please let us know or her about us.
The production collective: Camilla, Judy, Sasha, Veronica
With intense thanks to: Andrea, Denise, Julia, Katrina, Kris, Ruudi, Sara, Sheila, and all the other women who helped and shared our moans, groans, sleepless nights, and even joys!
20 Years Old
This year, 2011, also marks another anniversary – Glasgow Women’s Library will be 20 years old this September. It grew from the grassroots organisation, ‘Women in Profile’, which was begun in 1987 and triggered by the announcement that Glasgow was to become European City of Culture in 1990.
Office of Women in Profile, c. 1987
After a series of events held throughout 1990, including art exhibitions, talks and screenings, the group thought that the best way to continue to celebrate the history and achievements of women would be to set up a library. In 1991 Adele Patrick and a few other women took the bold step of opening the first Glasgow Women’s Library space in a small shop in a local community.
Since 1991, the library’s collections have grown considerably. Everything in the library has been donated by different women and women’s organisations.
The collections include the archives of Scottish Women’s Aid, Women’s Church Resource Group Archives, Scottish Abortion Campaign archives, and many newsletters, journals, fanzines, pamphlets, badges, banners and campaign materials from relating to post war feminism and activism in Scotland and the UK.
In 1995 the library received the Lesbian Archive, which had originally been founded in London in 1984. Its rich and varied collections range from a banned first edition of Radcliffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness (1928), to editions of the rare journals, Urania and Arena 3; to British and American lesbian literature and pulp fiction; archives from groups and individuals such as the Camden Lesbian Centre and Black Lesbian Group, Jackie Forster and Anna Livia; and regional newsletters, banners, badges, oral histories and ephemera from the 1960s onwards.
The library also holds artworks by female Scottish artists, such as prints by the Glaswegian Jewish artist Hannah Frank, knitting and dress making patterns, and some objects from the early 20th century women’s suffrage movement.
Copy of The Suffragette newspaper commemorating the death of Emily Wilding Davison, 1913
To find out more please contact us:Glasgow Women’s Library 15 Berkeley Street Glasgow G3 7BW Email firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: 0141 248 9969.
Hannah Little is an archivist at Glasgow Women’s Library. To find out more, check out their website.
Today, we celebrate 100 years of International Women’s Day (IWD), so it seems appropriate to provide some historical context. International Women’s Day has its origins amongst the socialist and communist parties campaigning for rights for the working-class at the beginning of the twentieth century. The left had been historically ambivalent about suffrage for women, in an era where the vote was withheld from working-men, but in 1907, at the Second International Working Man’s Association (SIWMA- an international meeting for socialists and communists from across the world), the issue of women’s rights was put on the agenda. In 1908, the Women’s Committee of the American Socialists held a rally in New York to demand suffrage for women on the 8th March. At the same time, they declared the last Sunday in February ‘National Women’s Day’. In 1909 and 1910, the American Socialists held rallies – some attended by thousands of people – in various parts of New York, campaigning for suffrage and economic equality for women. Meanwhile, in Europe, under the leadership of Clara Zetkin (who eventually sat in the German parliament as a member of the Communist party) and Louise Zeitz, a group of socialist women started organising events to raise the profile of women’s rights and to fight for equality in all areas of life. Following a meeting at the 1910 SIWMA, they arranged to celebrate Europe’s first International Women’s Day on the 18th March 1911 (while their American counterparts continued to celebrate the last Sunday in February). IWD was mainly celebrated in central Europe- Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Sweden- where millions of men and women took to the streets.
Celebration of IWD continued throughout the First World War in central Europe and the USA, where messages of women’s rights often intermingled with pacifist demands. On IWD 1917, female socialists in Turin, Italy hung posters demanding the end of the war. More significantly in Russia, female Socialists used IWD (23rd February) in 1917 to campaign against rising food prices, leading to widescale demonstrations and the beginning of the ‘February Revolution’. By the 12th March, the Russian Tsar had abdicated and a provisional government was put in place (which would eventually lead to the Bolshevik Revolution in October), and women were granted the right to vote. Events in Russia encouraged the celebration of IWD in other parts of Europe in the following year and in 1922, Clara Zetkin persuaded Lenin to establish it as a Communist holiday, leading to IWD being celebrated in China and later in other communist and socialist countries across the world. In many countries, it became a national holiday.
The relationships between socialism and communism and IWD meant that its celebration relied on mass socialist movement to promote it as a national celebration. This does not appear to have happened in Britain in the years before World War One, but during the war ‘Women’s Day’, celebrated in late February, was used to promote patriotism and raise morale among the population. The campaign was ran by the Young Women’s Christian Association, who used a Blue Triangle as their symbol, and spent the day raising money for the ‘Women Wartime Workers’ Fund’. Women – usually munitions workers – dressed in khaki would sell souvenirs (blue sateen pansies, enamel brooches, pin cushions) in railway stations and on streets. The money raised went to paying for ‘huts, hostels, canteens and rest areas’ in munitions factories and for the Women’s Auxiliary Army on the front line. The day was also meant to thank the women workers for their part in the war effort, so in 1917, the Lord Mayor of London held a luncheon for many of them, while factories were visited by the local (often female) nobility or politicians, like the Prime Minister Asquith.
After the War and events in 1917, IWD became closely associated with communism. Celebrations of IWD appear to have been avoided by the mainstream organisation in Britain due to this affiliation, but British communist and socialist organisations began to honour it, beginning around 1926. In 1927, the Communist Party used the day to campaign against British imperialism around the world; in 1928, they held a women’s conference attended by 152 delegates and a procession to campaign for equal pay. IWD continued to be celebrated this way- by socialist and communist organisations, often at a local level- through the 1930s and 40s. In 1946, IWD celebrations made the news when Lady Jowitt – a member of the communist party – spoke at a meeting held in the Palace Theatre. She argued that it ‘would be women’s fault if they were ever again regarded as mere machines to bear children and cook the dinner. The solidarity of women would achieve great things.’ (The Times, 11 March 1946).
The increasing intolerance of communism in the immediate post-war period was to have its toll on the celebration of IWD. The Labour Party – attempting to distance itself from the Communist Party with whom it previously had close ties – ceased its endorsement of IWD. In 1952, they ‘proscribed’, that is refused to endorse or recognise, the activities of the National Committee for the Celebration of International Women’s Day, arguing it was too closely tied to other ‘proscribed’ organisations (ie the Communist Party). Similarly, the IWD organisers found it difficult to bring in international speakers to talk at their events. In 1955, the Home Office refused admission to the women the Committee had invited, arguing that the Home Secretary was ‘not prepared to allow foreigners to come here to carry on the campaign [Soviet-inspired campaign against NATO] under the tolerable pretext of concern for the interests of women.’ (The Times, 5 March 1955).
This was the way things were to continue through the 1950s and 60s, with IWD becoming increasingly marginalised as the Communist Party was sidelined. At the same time, IWD was beginning to gain, once more, a greater international following. Second-wave feminists in the US and elsewhere began to reclaim the day to campaign for women’s rights and it was no longer so closely associated with its socialist past. Having said this, feminist campaigns were often joined with socialist priorities. On IWD 1976, Italian feminists dressed as witches and marched against male tyranny, but they also used it as an opportunity to campaign against the Trade Union leadership, particularly over redundancy priorities. In 1985, during the miner’s strike, British women used IWD to campaign on behalf of the miners and to try to force the trade unions to give greater formal recognition to women. Other groups used the day to highlight other political concerns: in 1979, women from the Northern Ireland Women’s Movement joined with Women Against Imperialism outside Armagh gaol to picket against the poor treatment of political prisoners. In 1975, the United Nations gave official sanction to IWD and now sponsors it every year on the 8th March. Many countries continue to celebrate it as a national holiday with women being given small presents and cards by their family and friends. Across the world, whether officially recognised or not, women’s organisations use this day to highlight ongoing social injustices and inequalities, and to celebrate the part that women have played in the making of our history.
Temma Kaplan, On the Socialist Origins of International Women’s Day, Feminist Studies, 11, 1985, 163-171.
Katie Barclay is a historian of women at Queen’s University, Belfast. She wishes everyone a Happy International Women’s Day!
International Women’s Day celebrates the achievements of women-past, present and future. It was first celebrated in 1911 and the day has often been commemorated for the last century by feminists on the streets, fighting for their social, economic and political rights. In the 21st Century, feminism and the need to celebrate women’s achievements is often seen as a bit anachronistic- terms like ‘post-feminist’ are bandied about and women who push for their rights are often seen as demanding unnecessary change. As a result, I thought it might be a good day to reflect on where we are in terms of gender equality in Britain (Ok, many of my figures will be for Scotland, but we’re not that different from the rest of the UK- honest!). On International Women’s Day in 1911, women campaigned for the right to vote and hold public office, the rights to work and fair pay, and the right to an education. What have we achieved since then?
Women are in paid employment outside of the home in large numbers. In fact, in Scotland 50% of the workforce is now female. Yet, women with children (especially young children) continue to be under-represented in the workplace, perhaps highlighting the lack of cheap childcare facilities available to parents- and the disproportionate burden this places on mothers who continue to be the main caregiver in most families. Possibly for similar reasons, women work part-time in large numbers, with 41% of women working part-time compared to 10% of men in Scotland (40% and 11% in the UK). Women also continued to be grouped in low-paid work. In the UK, 16.1% of men are low-paid, compared to 29% of women. Furthermore, in Scotland, full-time female workers are still earning 88% of the wage of a full-time male worker. In 2005, women working full-time in professional jobs earned only 86% of their male-equivalents; process, plant and machine operatives earned only 70%, and those in manufacturing earned only 68% of their male counterparts. Even in female dominated industries, such as education, full-time female workers earned only 91% of the male wage. Most worryingly, the fulltime gender pay-gap increased in 2008 to 17.1%, while that for part-time workers increased to 36.6%. Overall, women’s average income from all sources (including stocks and other assets) was only 60% of men’s in 2005.
On the other hand, women are less likely to be registered as ‘unemployed’. In 2005, women had an unemployment rate of only 5% in Scotland, compared to 6% for men. These figures have increased with the recession, where women appear to be affected similarly to men, but how this will impact differentially by gender is still unclear. Women also contribute significantly to household incomes. Recent studies show that in the UK, 67% of couple household income is provided by men, while 32% comes from women. However for 21% of couples, women’s income makes up over 50% of the household income. Furthermore, lone parents, of which 90% are women, head 25% of families, so women’s earnings support large numbers of families.
A more positive picture is found in education. Girls are outperforming boys at school for the first time. Over 50% of people attending university are now women and women are found as students in larger numbers than men in further education. In 2007, 56% of university students were female, and 49% of young women are now attending university compared to 38% of young men. Women now outnumber men in ‘prestige’ subjects such as law and medicine, and in 2009, they outperformed men in almost every measure of academic achievement. They took more places at the prestigious Russell Group Universities, with the exception of Cambridge and Oxford where they are now in equal numbers to men. Women also got more ‘good’ degrees than men overall, although more first class degrees were given to men.
Less positively, the response to this in the press has not been to celebrate the dramatic advances women have made, but to worry about why men aren’t on top. In particular, the numbers of women in medicine has led to a large outcry and a demand that their places should be restricted. The fact that until recently places for women in medicine were restricted to a 30% quota (with no outcry in the press at all about the effect on gender equality) or that they were completely excluded from medicine until the nineteenth-century- so no gender parity at all- goes remarkably unmentioned. It seems gender parity only matters when men get the short-end of the stick.
In politics, women still only make up 19% of MPs in the UK parliament, although they make up 39% of MSPs (Scottish Parliament) and in 2003, women made up 50% of the Welsh Assembly. Women only make up 16.7% of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Women from ethnic minority backgrounds are an even worse position, with only 2 black female MPs in the UK parliament (and none in Scotland or Wales). There has only been three black women ever elected and no Asian women has yet been elected to the UK parliament- despite ethnic minority women making up 5.2% of the UK population. Northern Ireland has one ethnic minority female member, Anna Lo, who was born in Hong Kong. Women are also under-represented in the civil-service and more worryingly in 2008, it was reported that the numbers of women being promoted to senior posts has declined from 32% in 2005 to 24% in 2008.
Overall then women have a lot to celebrate, but at the same time have a lot to achieve- we should not be complacent. This is especially the case where it seems that gender equality is declining, rather than increasing. The idea that full equality is coming, we just need time, is belied by these decreases. Furthermore, the gender equality of the past is often used as an excuse to be unfair in the present. When they appointed the new Supreme Court of the UK in 2009, they only appointed one female judge. As judges are older members of the profession, defenders of this decision argued that it reflected the gender inequalities of the past. Yet, this argument belied the fact that in the 1980s, between 13-16% of solicitors were women; by the 90s it was a third. 1 woman out of 12 judges is only 8%, and even 2 women in 12 would have only brought us parity with the number of women solicitors in the 1980s- let alone in later decades. Gender inequality continues to persist and replicate itself. The time for ‘post-feminism’ has not yet arrived.
Dr Katie Barclay finds it depressing that in her chosen field the gender pay-gap has increased year after year, despite growing numbers of women in the profession. She celebrates, however, that she works as a historian amongst many other successful, fascinating women whose achievements are built on the work of generations of women and men fighting for gender equality.