Young Feminist: Why Bathrooms Are a Women’s Health Issue

Taken from the November/December 2016 issue of The Women's Health Activist Newsletter.

Public bathrooms are legally segregated. Sorted by gender, one facility is only for women while the other is for men. More importantly, bathrooms are designed for cisgender men and cisgender women. As a result, people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth constantly face exclusion and violence for using the bathroom. These acts of discrimination are additionally enforced by law. Legislation such as North Carolina’s House Bill 2 (HB2) is a prime example.

Passed earlier this year, HB2 concerns multiple-occupancy bathrooms and changing facilities (such as locker rooms and shower rooms) in schools and public agencies. Since these facilities are segregated, HB2 requires people to use the facility that matches with the gender on their birth certificate.1 Therefore, people who identify as transgender, intersex, or non-binary (just to name a few) face a dilemma. As this issue made national headlines throughout the year, I wondered why these spaces were segregated in the first place. The answers led me to discover why bathrooms are a women’s health issue.

The Industrial Revolution led not only to the economic restructure of American society, but also to a social restructure.2 Women began to work and socialize in the public sphere, city-planners decided to create gender-segregated spaces within it.3 These spaces included the ladies’ car on railroads, ladies’ reading rooms in public libraries, and ladies’ parlors in other establishments. The configuration of certain spaces, such as the ladies’ car on railroads, was intentionally placed at the end of the train in order to reflect men’s concerns for women’s physical safety.4

Toilet legislation also intended to protect women, as sanitary concerns supposedly pose a threat to our health. These policies methodically positioned women as inferior. Women’s bodies were viewed as sensitive, feeble, and pure, demanding additional protection from unsanitary public conditions. In 1903, a study conducted by the Department of Labor examining the effects of unsanitary conditions in factories stated: “Women suffer even more than men from the stress of such circumstances, and more readily degenerate. A woman’s body is unable to withstand strains, fatigues, and privations as well as a man’s.”5

Additionally, desegregated bathrooms were viewed as immodest. Victorian ideals dominated U.S. society in the 19th century. As a result, using the toilet was known as a very private act, involving “private parts” and “unfeminine” bodily functions. Toilet legislation in Connecticut emphasized the importance of privacy, requiring that “when any such [toilet] accommodations intended for use by any female adjoin such accommodations intended for use by any male, the partition constructed between such accommodations shall be solidly constructed from the floor to the ceiling.”6 This obsession with a wall separating the two facilities was to ensure that a male worker couldn’t violate a woman’s virtue by peeping as she uses the bathroom. Recommendations for segregated toilets arose, which led to legislation for segregated toilets that carried into the present-day.

Contemporary politics supporting segregated bathrooms mimic this reasoning. Voicing his support for HB2, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) stated that allowing trans people to use any bathroom “opens the door for predators.” Cruz insinuates that, if we allow a transwoman to use the woman’s bathroom, a man could easily access the woman’s bathroom, too. Based on Cruz’s logic, all men are predators and in order to keep women safe we need to protect them by sticking a label of a stick figure wearing a dress onto a door for only cisgender women to use. Yep, that’ll keep the predators away.

Obviously, Cruz’s argument, although popular, has several faults. First, it’s transphobic. Transwomen are women and therefore should be able to use the women’s bathroom. Transmen are men and should be able to use the men’s bathroom. Cruz’s statement additionally follows the logic that women need to be protected, and that segregated toilet legislation ensures our safety. That’s just not true. Gender-based crimes happen everywhere. While disproportionate violence against women is a reality, desegregated bathrooms are not the problem; people assaulting one another are the problem. Personally, I do not appreciate laws that assume my vulnerability. People who commit gender-based crimes are the issue and we need to refocus the lens accordingly.

Bathrooms aren’t the only spaces segregated to protect women. Cruz’s argument extends to other gender-segregated spaces as well. While there used to be ladies-only railroad cars in the U.S., many countries around the world continue to use this strategy. From Iran and Egypt to Japan and India, gender-segregated cars have been established to prevent men from sexually assaulting women.7What I don’t understand is how this confronts the actual issue. How is this any different from bathroom politics in the U.S.?

I understand that this is an uncomfortable topic. Bathrooms are a weirdly intimate space, and people of all genders using the same facility is new territory for us, right? It’s not like I’ve shared a bathroom with a man before…except for thousands of times in my own home.

Sarah Eldiasty is a senior at Hunter College obtaining a Women and Gender Studies degree and a Human Rights Certificate. She was a NWHN intern in Summer 2016.

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2. Molotch, Harvey Luskin, and Laura Norén. Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing. New York: New York U, 2010, p. 146.

3. Molotch, p. 150.

4. Molotch, p. 152.

5. Molotch, p. 157.

6. Molotch, p. 159.