Today on Scribd, read a free essay from the book Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing, edited by Harvey Molotch and Laura Noren. A brief excerpt of the essay is below. Remember, most new NYU Press titles can be purchased on Scribd as electronic editions.
The Restroom Revolution: Unisex Toilets and Campus Politics
by Olga Gershenson
The history of the modern restroom has been a history of successive social groups proposing a right to access and a mode of toilet configuration fitting to their needs and desires. First were the women: we owe the term potty politics to the Ladies’ Sanitary Association and similar women’s organizations that put up a fight for the room of their own. Establishing the first women’s lavatory in Victorian London took the persistence of the lone female member of the government and the advocacy of a famous vestryman, George Bernard Shaw, to overcome the resistance of the residents and the vestry. It was not until 1905, after five years of stalling, that the decision to build a women’s bathroom
was finally made.
In the U.S. case, racial minorities were next in line to take up the challenge. In the era of racial segregation in the United States, blacks and whites couldn’t drink from the same fountain, let alone urinate into the same bowl, certainly across the South but to a degree in other parts of the country as well. Up until the 1950s and even the 1960s, locker rooms and bathrooms were still not integrated. For instance,
when the Western Electric Company in Baltimore adopted a policy against segregation of public facilities, the union, consisting of white members, went on strike.2 This was during World War II, and the strike had military consequences, leading the War Department to briefly take over the plant. Rather than continue the arrangement,after three months and further negotiation, resegregation was imposed. As late as the 1970s, court battles over segregation of public facilities continued (e.g., James v. Stockham, 1977).
In line behind women and blacks were people with disabilities, who waged their own fight for full public participation via architectural
modification of bathrooms, entryways, and more. Their movement resulted in legislation that changed building codes and made the provision of an inclusive toilet a legal requirement.
Transgender and other gender-variant people have now joined the civil rights toilet queue, straining—with a mix of fear and indignation (and conciliation)—for admission to the public bathroom. Traditional sex-segregated public restrooms bring them routine risk of being insulted, mocked, attacked, and even arrested. As interim remedy, they hunt for bathrooms in which they feel stigma free and physically safe, timing their visits to avoid potentially conflict-ridden overlap with other users. The possible policy solutions to their problem vary from unisex or single-stall bathrooms to education campaigns that might, for example, cause others to be more open to the gender-nonconforming people in their midst. Whatever the best ultimate remedy, the demand for transgender toilet provision stirs public controversy, even among those sympathetic to the campaigns for civil rights of those who have come before.