Flushing Women’s Toilets down the Pan – a Backwards Step

women's toilets

100 years ago, a lack of public women’s toilets kept them confined to the home. Unisex facilities and self ID risk once again pushing women out.

Access to public toilets is something that able-bodied people in most western countries take for granted. For those with disabilities or those who live in some less economically developed countries, there is no such guarantee of dignity, privacy or safety. The rape and murder of two sisters in India as they relieved themselves in an open field shows us how important the provision of toilet facilities is to women’s safety.

For women in Western countries, however, there is a new threat to privacy, dignity and safety. In an attempt to appear inclusive, women’s toilets are being opened up to anyone who self-identifies as a woman. Quite apart from the fact that you really cannot identify out of or into a biological reality, as self-identification necessarily rests on how a person decides they ‘feel’ there is no objective way to ensure that a male-bodied person does in fact ‘feel like’ a woman.

Women’s toilets are a prime example of something fought for by women, in the face of opposition from men, which men are now appropriating for themselves and in the process forcing some women away from the public sphere. Some toilet-providers are attempting to navigate the brave new world of ‘gender identity’ by introducing ‘gender neutral’ toilets. These unisex facilities also save space and money, but at the cost of women’s privacy, dignity and safety. Even fully enclosed spaces that are open to both sexes are being abused.

The history of women’s public toilets is the history of women’s fight to be allowed to access public spaces traditionally reserved for men.  In the UK, the Great Exhibition of 1851 set of a craze for public toilets. George Jennings, a plumber from Brighton, showcased the first public flushing toilet. By 1852 ‘Public Waiting Rooms’ were appearing, but the assumption was that women would not compromise their dignity to be seen entering a public toilet, so the vast majority of these toilets were for men.

Women had always struggled to relieve themselves outside of the home. Men could, if necessary, simply urinate in a quiet street or alleyway. Even without imposed ideas about women’s dignity, clothing and biology made it extremely difficult for women to enjoy a similar measure of freedom. This was perfectly acceptable to most Victorian men. Women were, after all, the ‘Angel in the House.’ The public sphere was the male sphere, so preventing women from accessing public toilets was a way of ensuring that the ‘urinary leash’ remained short. Women could only stray as far from home as their bladders would allow. Longer journeys had to be planned around visits to friends and family where they would be able to relieve themselves.

How did women respond to this? They organised themselves. The Ladies Sanitary Association was formed in the 1850s and campaigned for public toilets for women. They lectured and distributed pamphlets and made limited progress in securing some of the first facilities for women. The Union of Women’s Liberal and Radical Associations also campaigned for public facilities, particularly for working women. They agitated to have women’s facilities included in existing male toilets, but angry men protested as they did not want women’s facilities to be next to theirs. Some men took matters further, deliberately destroying models of women’s toilets to demonstrate how inconvenient they would be if built.

It was the twentieth century before the need for women’s toilets really began to be accepted. The advent of the department store, and thus shopping becoming more of a leisure activity, meant that it made economic sense for these stores, such as Selfridges, to provide toilets for women. Women could shop, take a reviving cup of tea in the café, and empty their bladders. The longer women were able to stay in the shop, the more money they were likely to spend. The increase in the female workforce, necessitated by the First World War, also led to the provision of women’s toilets in some workplaces and campaigns by women workers for more and better facilities. This was resisted in some cases, as the increase in the female workforce was intended to be a temporary measure to ease the problems caused by male conscription into the armed forces.

In the twenty-first century, the fight for women’s toilets has not been won. UNESCO recognises the provision of single-sex toilets as being vital to overcome the barriers preventing girls from accessing education. In UK and North American schools, however, single-sex provision is being eroded in favour of ‘gender-neutral’ – actually unisex – facilities. This has led to protests, but most schools who have introduced these toilets are refusing to reconsider their decisions. Both sexes are showing discomfort at having to share facilities, but for girls there is the added complication of learning to deal with menstruation in a unisex environment. We already know that girls miss school during their period, so to add the presence of boys in the toilets to these existing problems seems just a further way to compromise girls’ education.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the push for unisex toilets is how women who feel uncomfortable with their spaces being given over to men (and it is almost always the women’s facilities that become unisex, not the men’s) are treated. Accusations of transphobia are thrown around like confetti and women are told that they need to be educated out of their boundaries. Girls who feel uncomfortable with biological males in their spaces are the ones who need to be removed, not the male.

Women with concerns about the presence of men who self-identify as women in their spaces are continually reminded that men who want to attack women will not be stopped by a prohibition on them using female spaces. The idea that women, who have to live with the constant knowledge of their vulnerability to male violence, do not understand this is simply astounding. Of course women know that the provision of single-sex facilities does not rule out assault. However, what it does is provide women with the power to police their spaces, to call out any men present and to expect authorities to act when men violate the rules. The astonishing number of men who argued that it was perfectly acceptable for a man to film himself masturbating in a toilet cubicle whilst at work is yet another reason why women need to be able to rely on single-sex spaces.

Women are also often told that abuse of self-identification does not and will not happen.  Women with concerns are not claiming that all transwomen are sexual predators. They are concerned that some transwomen may be offenders, such as in this disturbing case in Scotland, or that men will take advantage of the inability of anyone to challenge their self-identification in order to gain access to women’s spaces. Men have joined the priesthood or become teachers in order to abuse, is it so difficult to imagine them uttering the words ‘I feel like a woman’ in order to insinuate themselves into women’s spaces?

Women’s public toilets are not just political in the twenty-first century. They have always been political. The failure to provide facilities in the Victorian period was partly a deliberate ploy to keep women out of public life. Similarly, in the present day, the thrust to remove women’s rights to single-sex spaces is in part a misogynistic pushback of women’s rights. Preventing women from challenging this assault on their rights with accusations of transphobia and threats of violence is bound to lead to some women, often already marginalised, feeling that they have no choice but to stop using public facilities such as toilets and changing rooms. This will again have the effect of confining women to the private sphere and keeping the public sphere for men and those men who identify as women. That this is considered acceptable collateral damage in the push for self-identification should be a wake-up call.  Women’s rights and spaces were hard won by women, and they should not be sacrificed for men, no matter how they claim to feel.