Washroom Politics: It’s not what I thought.


I haven’t blogged here for awhile as I’ve been populating the MacRae Centre website and blogging over there. But this one got me today, and I had to say something out loud as I think it through…

One thing about current gender debates and discussions that has not vexed me is the matter of gender-neutral washrooms. We don’t have gender specific washrooms at home. Before the modern period we didn’t have gender-specific washrooms at all. Though I’d not be keen to use a public convenience in the 17th century, the reality is that perhaps we have passed through a period of requiring men to pee in one place and women in another. So long as they remember to put the seat up and down.

I’m so clever, I thought, that we should just make all washrooms wherever possible, for single, universal use. That is, one washroom, one person. No problem.

I’m so naive.

Turns out that building codes require gender distinction, as well as a certain number of ‘fixtures’ in buildings of a certain size.  A fixture includes a toilet or a urinal. So already, male fixtures are 2 to 1 in buildings with an equal number of male-female washrooms (or 3-1 if there are two urinals in each). If your building was built in an era when women were most often found at home, then the number of male washrooms and fixtures is often double or triple the amount for females. If you want to swap a washroom over and make it female, or barrier-free, you can’t do it without losing a ‘fixture’ and the code will require you to place a ‘fixture’ somewhere else. (Apparently trees don’t count.)

For the first time I am realizing that toilets are political and not for the reasons I thought. The code is working against social realities, especially the ability to make our buildings more inclusive on many fronts, perhaps especially for women.

In some places, out of a recognition that women need bigger washrooms and use them for a longer time, codes are requiring new buildings to include a ratio of female to male washrooms of 2-1.

But if you occupy an older building and have any desire to balance out the number of male-female washrooms; make them barrier-free; or convert them to universal use…good luck. You will need to find new space, new plumbing and a new budget that most public organizations can ill afford.

Sexism lingers in the infrastructure.

One article I came across in Time magazine observed the frustrating lag in the ability of institutions like schools and government complexes to reflect current realities. In these places where ‘gendered legacies dominate,’ facilities that are even of equal space favour ‘men’s bodies, experiences, and needs.’ For example, men do not sit to urinate, they do not menstruate, and they generally wear simpler clothing.

The American author of the article points out that women in the House of Representatives did not have a washroom in the Speakers Lobby until 2011: ‘Prior to that, the nearest women’s room was so far away that the time it took women to get to the bathroom and back exceeded session break times. The nearby men’s room, meanwhile, had a fireplace, a shoeshine stand, and televised floor proceedings.’

In my own Canadian workplace, women were not on faculty, and few women  attended seminary when the building was constructed. We are planning building work, and an attempt to equalize bathroom distribution for a time when women are far more in evidence as faculty, staff and students, yields only a conflict with the code. A code that evidently belongs to another era.

I’m screaming inside my head. The code is satisfied by urinals, even when it works against inclusivity. I’m learning something new every day.




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