Guest speaker speaks to the historic and present inequality of public washrooms
On March 8, author Lezlie Lowe gave a presentation on her book No Place To Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs. Lowe, a journalism professor at King’s College in Halifax, was the guest speaker at Mt. A’s annual international women’s day event. She studied public bathrooms for 15 years for the book’s thesis.
Lowe’s book revolves around often-invisible bathroom privileges. “Public toilets are something we all use, and we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them or really seeing them for what they are,” she said. “Public toilets are really this window into who matters in society and who doesn’t.” Lowe explained her own bathroom privileges: she is cisgender, white, healthy, able-bodied, housed, middle class, looks middle class and is not a caregiver. As an example of her bathroom privilege in regards to health, Lowe explained that she does not have Crohn’s disease or colitis and can get by without access to a public bathroom for an extended period of time. She then said, “There is one place where I lack bathroom privilege and it is because I am a woman.”
Lowe told the story of a public washroom in Camden, London, at the turn of the 19th century to illustrate the ways that women have historically been denied access to public washrooms. In that area, there were two public washrooms for men and none for women. “Women have always had a duty to modesty, and when a woman goes into a public washroom, it is a private space and it is also a public space, and this means in part revealing your body. It was unseemly that a woman would go into this space and reveal her body,” she explained. “Women who used public washrooms were ‘public women,’ which was really code for ‘sex worker.’ ”
Lowe then spoke about how “potty parity” is also absent in today’s architecture. Lowe talked about lines at women’s washrooms, saying that they are caused by women having extra clothing to remove, urinating more frequently, menstruating, and more frequently being caregivers. “All of that tells us that women need about two to three times the provision of men in order to attain equality. However, when we see side-by-side gendered bathrooms, they frequently have been built with equal floor space, and in that equal floor space, we make the three stalls in women’s and two stalls and four urinals in the men’s,” said Lowe.
“I really appreciated how Lezlie Lowe made really good connections between all different sorts of needs that people have,” said Leslie Kern, the head of the women’s and gender studies department. “Opening up that conversation and erasing some of the stigma around talking about bathroom needs and issues would go a long way, particularly for vulnerable members of the community. People experiencing homelessness, people with disabilities, and trans and non-binary people. There is still so much work that we need to do but it’s heartening to hear about the possibilities that are out there.”