Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Toilet Debate - a historical deconstruction

It is funny how the issue of toilets rears its ugly head from time to time, especially when cisgender males are concerned, and especially with reference to transgender women using the ladies. This seems to be something which worries them overwhelmingly, yet it appears to be much less of an issue for cisgender women. Speculating as to the reason for this one could potentially think of;

  • envy, these guys would like to get into the ladies themselves.
  • Carrie Paechter's concept of the masculine gender being policed more strictly (both going in and going out) than the feminine one.
  • The old-fashioned sexist idea that these guys have to be protective of "their" women against people they perceive as men.
However I believe the reason is much more simple than that and is related to power. If you take a walk through St Ann's Square in Manchester there is an interesting historical relic which gives us a clue. A very old, early Victorian, public toilet. It is now disused and they have put an electric substation down there or something like that. But notice how I said 'toilet' in the singular. There was only one of them. For men. You can see this repeated if you go into some very old pubs like The Ship in Wardour Street London; there was originally only space for one toilet and they have had to make space for two giving the back of the pub a rather cramped feel.

During much of the Victorian period public toilets existed only for men and there was a reason for this; to control women. Public toilets allow people to stay out, away from their home, for long periods. This meant that men were able to travel, to work, to do business, to engage in political and civil activity in ways which women were not. Women were effectively only able to do the shopping and go home again, they could not spend long periods away from the home. Indeed not having women's public conveniences became so 'normal' that women attending Ladies Day at Royal Ascot would not wear any underwear because they would need to 'go' in a corner of a field behind a hedge.

This represents the situation today for transgender people; not being able to use a public toilet represents a restriction on one's civil liberties. The fact that men are the ones most concerned about this issue strongly suggests that it is a power issue rather than an issue of public safety for women; men, most of whom are termed 'gender defenders' by Kate Bornstein, would like to see transgender people's restrictions on taking part in civil and public life restricted by subtle means since they cannot argue for restrictions on transgender people's civil rights in other ways.

Toilets may seem a relatively trivial issue, but it is an important issue of civil liberty and human rights; the right to take part in civil and economic life depends on being able to spend long periods of time away from home during the day which in turn depends on easy access to public conveniences in the same way that cisgender people have.

Despite transgender people's run-ins with some feminists in the past, I believe trans people have a lot to learn from feminism, in particular that pretty much anything gendered has a power element to it as well and that male hegemony wants to force its way into the most unlikely places, including, in this case, the ladies.


8 comments:

  1. During much of the Victorian period public toilets existed only for men and there was a reason for this; to control women. Public toilets allow people to stay out, away from their home, for long periods. This meant that men were able to travel, to work, to do business, to engage in political and civil activity in ways which women were not.

    I think you've got this entirely back to front. It was because women did not stay out of doors for long periods, and were largely restricted to the private sphere, that no-one thought it necessary to install public facilities for them. The notion that public toilets were men-only as a conscious mechanism for controlling women is, I must say, utterly ludicrous. When society changed and women did start to go out into the business world, ladies' loos soon followed.

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  2. "men, most of whom are termed 'gender defenders' by Kate Bornstein, would like to see transgender people's restrictions on taking part in civil and public life restricted"

    I think you mean to specify *cis* men, as "transgender people" includes trans men, who obviously would like to take part in civil and public life unrestricted!

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  3. Interesting point as to existance of toilets in the past. But may I ask, do you have any citable sources for this?

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  4. The Hereseiach, Darkwaterfairy

    The reason that women didn't go out for long periods was because they lived in a society in which they were forced to spend most of their time at home, as such the lack of toilets was a natural extension of this. I don't think I stated that it was a conscious decision, the oppression of women was so ingrained in the culture of the day that conscious decisions were not necessary. However decisions not to build them would have been affected by the preceived need to ensure that women "didn't get above their station" and "knew their place".

    Have a look at Penner (2001) A world of unmentionable suffering: Women’s public conveniences in Victorian London, Journal of Design 14(2): 35-51

    Halfpingjack;

    My apologies, I of course m,eant cismen

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  5. @The Heresiarch

    I see this argument as 'chicken and egg' as to which element of the world of prejudice and limitation come first and predominate, but notably the first women to break out of this, the bravest and potentially highest achieving of their generation, would have been dissuaded for some time by the gross impracticality, and only when numbers (and their husbands) were clamouring for facilities would they start to be provided. Thus the status quo lasted much longer before women found a full place in the world.

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  6. Interesting article, especially as now using the toilet has become an issue in one of my work locations.

    @Marthatgo - I wonder, for those brave early pioneers getting out a farther distance, if this restriction build women's social networks. A women might not venture a day's trip to London without relatives or friends in London who would have private facilities.

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  7. I suspect here a crucial issue is being overlooked in this. That of class. It is all very well bashing xy-males who are content with their masculinity for all the ills in the world, you do that if you want to but many women worked in victorian times many women were out the house for long periods. This is a very narrow view. One of the reasons for female fashions, long nails restrictive dress etc was to adverstise social status, to indicate you did not break you nails in manual labour.

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  8. without going back so far in the Victorian age... in Italy such kind of "single-sex" facilities were in use up to the 80s;
    the first double-sex toilets were seen as something "funny", if not "dangerous" for the health of women (and of course for the unconscious (?) feeling of superiority of men.
    Now, here the idea of reverting to no-sex toilets (in public or private places) is something that scares mostly men, exactly as they are scared by women using male-toilets when "the queue in the ladies' is too long"...

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