The Politics of Public Restrooms

There’s something deeply political about public restrooms.

First, as the name implies, these spaces are public. Private, perhaps, once inside, the public restroom is inherently part of the public sphere.

Truly, they are shared spaces.

At some point I will post a treatise praising co-created wall art in public restrooms – commonly referred to as graffiti – but today I’d actually like to take the conversation in a different direction.

As my mother recently informed me, the first public women’s restroom in Britain were opened in 1909 as part of the revolutionary Selfridges department store in London.

To get a sense of that in time, let’s back up to get a broader history of public restrooms in Western culture.

As it turns out, the bodily functions which inspire restrooms have been an element of human nature for quite some time. The Romans, who pioneered architectural innovations such as aqueducts and roads, are often credited with the public restroom as well – a feature that could be found in many Roman baths.

But the modern public toilet revolution really began in the early 19th century. Paris had public restrooms as early as 1820. London installed it’s first flushing public toilet in 1852.

That’s right – London had public toilets by 1852, but the first restroom allowing women wasn’t opened until 1909.

As my mother put it, “Before that, if a woman had to use the restroom – she would just go home.”

I’m not sure that’s entirely accurately – that is, I’m not sure how much women were wandering around town before then. Also, in 1852 I imagine it would be challenging for a woman to go to the bathroom by themselves – due to the layers and complexity of a Victorian woman’s clothing.

By 1909 women’s fashion was changing, public attitudes towards women were changing, and a young entrepreneur named Harry Gordon Selfridge introduced a new department store concept. One that included “entertainment, restaurants and services. Customers were invited to spend the day inside at their leisure and buy at their pleasure.”

And those shopping women clearly needed somewhere to pee.

Fast forward another 100 years and we finally have gender parity in restroom availability.

But not really.

We have men’s rooms and we have women’s rooms.

And anyone who doesn’t identify with one of those categories – or who identifies with a category other than what strangers judge them to be – has a serious problem.

For example, a proposed bill in Florida would prevent transgender Floridians from using the restroom of their choice.

And the brilliant hashtag #IJustNeedToPee details the struggles people in the trans community face every day as they are shunned from public restrooms.

Like the women of 1850, if the need to use the restroom – they just have to go home, I suppose.

So public restrooms say a lot about us as a culture – how we define gender, how we expect identified genders to act. Not to mention how we feel about race and cross-cultural interaction.

It seems like such a small thing, so simple, so innocuous – but nothing says you’re not welcome to stay like the lack of a restroom you are welcomed to use.

So lets make public restrooms truly accessible to all members of the public – of all genders, gender identities, and physical abilities.

Let’s have the public in public restroom truly mean its for everyone – not just some segment of the population deemed worthy for such a throne.

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One thought on “The Politics of Public Restrooms

  1. Pat

    An interesting history lesson! When I was working on “potty parity” an intern found that even in the Old Testament there were certain places assigned right outside the wall, maybe only for men. I wonder if Olde England was like India today. Wherever you go, men are peeing on walls. But it was very difficult to find a ladies room; even at Mukund’s office, I had to walk about a block to another building… Yet there were women who worked there. The part about the problems trans people face is also interesting; making us think about when women had nowhere to go can help.

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