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Ladies’ Room

2010 November 16
by Sarah Cook

I’ve finally found it. The one thing that will make an actual, concrete (and porcelain) difference to the lives of women everywhere – or at least everywhere with indoor plumbing. Women in many other countries have more pressing problems, but meanwhile in the First World there is pressure on our bladders.

Image: Sign for a ladies loo showing a stick figure woman waiting for a free loo, bent over in frustration

Toilet door sign captured in Glasgow by lastyearsgirl on Flickr

The queue for the ladies toilets has become an institutional joke. But it’s really not funny. At gigs, clubs, pubs and anywhere where you might prefer to enjoy yourself rather than stand in line there are never, ever enough toilets for women. So this means a lot of hanging around and generally wasted time; possibly even some pain and irritation if you are unfortunate enough to have one of the very common urinary infections that many women are prone to suffer from.

Is it discrimination, though? Well, yes.

Biology has made it difficult – though not impossible – for cisgender women to urinate standing up. But issues of modesty and tradition and all those things that make up society have created a situation where letting it flow without sitting down is generally regarded as more freakish than acceptable. So, here in the UK we need lavatories, which means cubicles, which means space. And that generally means that in most places, there are a lot less places-per-area-of-loos for women to relieve themselves than for men.

A good start on the road to urinary equality is a cunning little device rather like this which is going in my bag for my next camping trip, but I doubt I can use it as an access all areas pass for the queue-free mens’ toilets at my local. Because I still look like a woman, and this will cause arguments, no matter how much I brandish my Amazing Whizzing Contraption. There will be a row and when I’m out for a nice pint I do not want to get engaged in that kind of pissing contest. Or any other, come to think of it.

In my experience, if you have to keep the lavatory door shut by extending your left leg, it’s modern architecture.

Nancy Banks Smith

Toilets are more than just the butt (I’m sorry about the puns, I really can’t help it) of jokes. Thinking about it, I’m beginning to question why we have to be segregated from our fellow man – literally – at all? This division down binary gender lines for the bathroom has long perplexed me, and for those who are genderqueer or trans this division is a genuine and very personal problem. After all, I don’t need to select “gay” or “straight” before I pee, and we’re thankfully long past facilities segregated by skin colour; however, I do need to pick male or female – or rather, I need to pass the commonly accepted social signifiers for being recognisably one or the other.

Toilet sign with both male and female icons

From a toilet door in Thailand, source BBC

Many places do have shared facilities, and not just in other countries or those funky overpriced bars in trendy Hoxton. Little shops, small cafes, trains, most people’s houses, in fact, anywhere with room for only one toilet are able to shed the requirement for boy/girl signage and accept that deep down, under all our differences, we all need to go “pay a visit”. It might be the great equaliser we have been looking for, and it was under our noses all the time. Admittedly a little far down under our noses, but you get my point.

Some people might consider this as only a wee issue (there I go again), amongst many others far worthier of my attention. But it is one that causes me annoyance at least once a week. So, architects, when you are designing your next building, add more toilets. Please. And don’t bother about the signs. Just put a lock on the door and we’ll figure it out.

10 Responses leave one →
  1. November 16, 2010

    My nursing college has male and female segregated bathrooms on the 1st and 3rd floor and has only female toilets on the others, with a single disabled/non-segregated toilet on every floor. The bathrooms themselves are identicle, no urinals in sight, just cubicles, but because they have made them specificically single-sex I find myself having to go up or down stairs to go to the loo during lectures. The building was refurbished specifically for the purpose of being a nursing college recently, and there is no obvious reason that single-sex bathrooms were part of that design.

  2. Gabrielle permalink
    November 16, 2010

    “Biology has made it difficult – though not impossible – for women to urinate standing up.”

    Biology has made it difficult – though not impossible – for CIS-GENDERED women to urinate standing up.

    In reading the rest of your article I realise that you attempt to be inclusive of trans individuals needs, hence I thought I’d point out the assumption of cis by default which is a form of erasure. But a good article otherwise – supplying enough toilets for women who pee sitting down, either by biology or social convention, is an equality issue.

    • Miranda permalink*
      November 16, 2010

      Hi Gabrielle,

      As a quick edit I’ve now inserted “cisgender” into the line. Erasure is certainly not the intention in this piece, and I don’t think it alters the sense of Sarah’s point to add it in. I agree that “biology” is readable as “cis-as-default” so thank you for raising the point.

    • Sarah Cook permalink
      November 16, 2010

      Ah, (fashionably) late to my own party as ever…

      Hi Gabrielle,

      Thanks for the comment, and for highlighting the language use. As Miranda points out erasure was not intended, but I write – as we all do – from our own particular perspective on the world and mine doesn’t see cis or trans women as being substantively different in terms of taking toilet breaks – they have both chosen to live as women so all suffer equally from the torturous queues for the loos.

      More generally, I suppose I generally use the term “women” (rightly or wrongly) without the suffixes to mean “people who identify as women”.

      In this instance, I used the reference to biology in the sentence to infer “those who were born cis women and therefore need to pee sitting down”, which I had thought was sufficient, although in hindsight I guess I should have probably used “with cis female genitalia”.

      The bit that especially got me thinking was when I did the research for the article and realised that actually you don’t *need* to be sitting down, and that expectation is a cultural / social one and therefore falls more into the categories of “feminine” attributes than pre-requisites for functioning in a particularly shaped body.

      You’ve given me a lot of food for thought – so thank you. There’s obviously a conflation in my mind between female/woman, and I do use them interchangeably as being terms for sex and do not generally use either “cis” or “trans”, which makes me think that perhaps I need to work on this. Without citing it as any form of defence, this sort of language use is down to my own background and also an amount of artistic licence in how I use words when I’m writing, both for brevity and comedic effect – which I accept might not be entirely appropriate at all times, so I’ll need to put some more consideration into that.

      When I write, I enjoy using words that do have a number of meanings, especially in this arena. I think that the play of meaning and interpretation of words – how we come to use them in the way we do – is part of developing our understanding of our world view and also of making better, clearer dialogue within feminism (and within our lives). I think that the word “woman” for example comes with a whole barrel of issues that we could probably devote our lives to unpicking without even touching on cis/trans.

      Skipping to the end: I did use “women” in tandem with the reference to “biology” as a cipher for “cis women”. My bad.

  3. Markgraf permalink
    November 16, 2010

    Frankly, I am so desperate for a wholesale ungendering of the toilet system (“With urinals” and “without urinals” would be fine!) that I’m tempted to do it myself, overnight, with a Sharpie, some tape and a can-do mentality.

  4. Rosi01 permalink
    November 17, 2010

    Yes! I love your article. The thing that gets me the most though is the toilet signs. Apparently wearing a dress and having long hair = female. Confusing.

    Have a look at this blog post (if you haven’t already seen it that is):


    • Miranda permalink*
      November 17, 2010

      I think that blogpost is inspired and I was really fascinated when I first read it.

      The ones where the upended triangle is actually a woman instead of what I would expect were particularly interesting. And the hijab one, where the woman’s shape is sort of carved out of “negative space” where the male shape is in relief. So what defines the woman is her clothes.

  5. Custard permalink
    December 2, 2010

    Mixed gender toilets are the way forward for sure. I’ve used the kind where the cubicle areas are separate but everyone washes hands together, the kind with only cubicles but available for all to use, and one in Swansea where the cubicles face the sinks and the urinals are round the corner a bit.

    I’ve mostly seen truly mixed toilets in queer spaces, which makes it feel like segregation is partly enforced to prevent sexual naughtiness/unwanted molestation – a reason I’m sure was used to be used to keep women out of a lot of places at one time or another.

  6. Dragon permalink
    October 18, 2011

    Please, *do* put signs on your toilet doors!

    It might be obvious to everyone living in the dorm’s corridor that that unlabelled door with a big chunky looking lock on it (that is actually unlocked) – but that doesn’t help when you’ve just moved in or are visiting for a night.

    (And when you keep looking further afield for toilets, you manage to lock yourself out of the building whilst wearing only nightdress. But that’s a different story.)

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