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 firstname.lastname@example.org