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Is there a bathroom in the house?

By Jocelynne Scutt - posted Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Urgent necessity caused 'chaos' in Lower Regent Street, central London, when - on Friday 30 March - a bus drove the wrong way down that one-way thoroughfare. Upon sighting the Number 23 double-decker bus moving into oncoming traffic, jamming the road inexorably, police were 'forced to set up a roadblock'. Though Sergeant Izzy Harrison said she 'had not seen anything like it in her 25-year career' and the driver was warned by police, no arrest ensued. As Harrison explained: 'When we stopped [the bus] the driver jumped off and said "sorry, I needed the loo".'

So, when nature calls, what is a woman to do?

In India and China, women have taken the 'occupy' movement in new directions, entering conveniences labeled 'Gentlemen' or 'Men Only' without regard to the niceties of obeying the signs. On 8 March in India, women made this a special International Women's Day celebration. Some twenty women 'intruded' into the Manas Chowk men's toilet, ensuring that for a time, at least, women would not have to jump from foot to foot in a state of agitation designed to prevent 'accidents' whilst waiting. They carried slogans vigorously publicising bladder injustice.


Evidencing town planner and architects' lack of consideration for physiology, physique – or plain and simple sex/gender construction, the problem lies with space. Whether it be lavatories, loos, toilets, bathrooms, washrooms, 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 is the lack of queues outside washrooms allocated to men. At the opera, the cinema, pop concerts, Olympic events; at the showground, art galleries, the beach; at railway stations and 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 – there are two few loos for women. Everywhere, and in every country, the problem is identical: too few conveniences bearing the universal sign of stick-figure wearing a skirt. Too few loos labeled 'ladies' or, more bluntly, 'women', to readily accommodate those needing them.

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, whether for men in cubicles or at 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. On one occasion, women proved the point in a sit-in at Parliament House (now 'old' Parliament House). Several women 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 have 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.

Despite all this, 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 too; 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' – women, 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 that saw men's facilities erected throughout London, both underground and overground. Yet to speak of such a thing 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's needs.


When in the last half of the 19th century he campaigned expressly for 'loos for women', George Bernard Shaw discovered that 'decency' was offended. His call for women's rights to be recognised in the building of equal numbers of public lavatories met with little acclaim in 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.

Still, 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. Nonetheless, such a constriction on access has not been isolated to these industries. '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 the court-cleaners. When, in the following decade, Glenda Jackson visited Australia after having been elected to the United Kingdom 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.

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About the Author

Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister and Human Rights Lawyer in Mellbourne and Sydney. Her web site is here. She is also chair of Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom and Dignity.

She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.

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