During the 1950s, some faculty members at Harvard Law School were said to have opposed admitting women because they had inadequate female restroom facilities.
Where are we going? To the negative externalities created by unequal restroom access.
Some Restroom History
Although women had been in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1917, it took 94 years for them to get their first restroom near the House floor. Until then Congresswomen were exceeding recess time and missing votes because the dash to the bathroom included a five minute run in each direction. Meanwhile, equipped with amenities that included an attendant, a fireplace and televised floor proceedings, the restroom for the men was next to the House floor.
More evidence of bathroom inequity is apparent at entertainment and sports venues. With women lined up at restrooms but not the men, women are again experiencing more time and inconvenience when they and the children who accompany them use a public restroom.
Restrooms and Power
Scholars have pointed out that public restroom access and power are connected. For female blue collar workers, unequal access to restroom facilities has been cited as a form of discrimination. In a white collar business and political world, the absence of women’s restrooms reinforces female exclusion and male domination. But perhaps most importantly, when restroom facilities are lacking for any group, it is an architectural reflection of the imbalance of power.
The first state to recognize the problem legislatively was California. In a 1989 “restroom equity act,” California mandated a certain number of toilets per women at all new and remodeled public and private sports facilities.
Our Bottom Line: Negative Externalities
Seemingly insignificant, equal restroom access has concrete and abstract externalities. The practical part involves time and all that individuals sacrifice at work and during leisure when a restroom is not a speedy experience. Then more broadly, thinking about power, I wonder whether restroom inequity is the source and the reinforcement of a message.