During the past several months, Houston’s voters and the North Carolina legislature have limited ladies restroom access for transgender people.
While proponents of the new laws cited safety as a rationale, the history of equal restroom access reveals that we are really talking about economics and power.
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 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 for women at all new and remodeled public and private sports facilities.
Amazon employees have complained to the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries for the lack of restroom facilities.
But it was the men!
Responding to complaints, Amazon proved that it was well within the law. In 2013, their Varzea building had 17 toilets and 16 urinals, a total that far exceeded the state’s 24 fixture minimum. The problem was how the facilities were dispersed. On the floors where the men outnumbered the women–60 to 2 on the 9th floor; 100 to 13 on the 10; 77 to 9 for the 11th, the number of male facilities was vastly deficient while some women had the equivalent of one restroom per person.
Commenting on restroom inadequacies, the men have said they wasted huge time roaming from floor to floor in search of an empty toilet.
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 can be the source and the reinforcement of a message about economic power.