The Line to the Women’s Room – From Then To Now

Throughout modern history women who ventured out into public
have run the risk of having to hold it in, either because there
were no facilities or not enough facilities for women,
creating endless lines.


Some years ago at my company’s annual employee bash, I was waiting with my colleagues and other guests in a very, very long line to the women’s room at an upscale midtown Manhattan hotel, following lunch and before heading to the theatre. Not only were some women physically uncomfortable but curtain time was drawing near. We glumly watched the smooth and efficient egress at the men’s room, which had no line. Suddenly one woman had had enough and led a surge to the men’s room, which appeared to have been vacant for several minutes. The invasion created quite a commotion and was a heady feeling, especially as it was accompanied by thunderous applause from the women standing in the line that was a block long. Even a number of the men were laughing. But why should women be driven to such desperation?

Another time while actually at the theatre with my elderly mother we headed for the restroom at the intermission only to be confronted with the usual endless line of women and young girls. It was one thing to miss the curtain for the second act but my mom really couldn’t wait so long to use the facilities. I felt her distress and my panic rising and took her to the front of the line and asked politely if my mother could jump the queue. Fortunately, no one minded in the least. Again, the men’s room had no line.

The First Ladies Rooms

Prior to the 18th century, there were few if any public toilets in Europe or the U.S. But that changed with the Industrial Revolution (c. 1760-1840) and the rise of cities. At first only public urinals for men were available in some places. Ladies, however, who were already confined in tight organ-crunching corsets, were expected to comport themselves with restraint and decency and hold it in when they ventured out, spending only enough time away from home in public to make necessary purchases. As well, women during the Regency, Victorian and Edwardian eras were far too modest to take care of such bodily functions away from the privacy of their homes, or occasionally in the private homes they visited.

However, economic considerations prompted the introduction of ladies’ “retiring rooms” in the department stores that were cropping up in order to encourage upper class women to browse, shop and visit with each other in their stores for hours. It wouldn’t have been polite to suggest that women might have to do anything in such rooms other than rest from shopping, thus to this day a room with one or more public toilets is still referred to as a “rest room” or “restroom.” Of course, privileged ladies of that era also had the “luxury” of specially designed portable chamber pots in their carriages when traveling, but they obviously couldn’t and wouldn’t have hauled these around with them while shopping.

The first designed restrooms for both women and men were on display at London’s Great Exhibition in 1851. But establishing public lavatories for women was challenging because first they had to overcome social pressures and discrimination that demanded that women’s bodies and their needs must not be mentioned — or even hinted at — in public, because that was indecent. So despite the excitement over these new rooms they were slow to catch on. The issue was escalated as a result of the Ladies Sanitary Association stepping beyond its issuing pamphlets on cleanliness and launching a serious campaign geared toward women’s health, which included providing public women’s rooms.

Ladies Rooms in the Workplace

During the 19th century when women began leaving their homes, farms and rural America and heading for workplaces in the emerging cities, separate lavatories for women were installed to protect their privacy and virtue. Such structures were not as luxurious as the department store restrooms; after all, working women in factories, mills and even offices were not usually part of the upper class, nor were they spending money. Thus, employers provided the minimum required, if that.

As the decades, eras and centuries wore on, women’s rooms became more commonplace. However, as men still overpopulated most workplaces, accommodations for women remained inadequate in some quarters, especially for women in the non-privileged classes. As the 20th century progressed women experienced what seemed to be equality as more workplaces provided a ladies’ room for every men’s room. But the fact was women needed more restrooms than men did because they used them more. Wherever women are they usually have more things to deal with when they visit the loo; I don’t have to list them all, you know what they are. And if a woman is pregnant or an IBD, well forget about it. Some workplaces where there are more women than men still have a ratio of one to one for each gender. These situations caused long lines to the ladies’ rooms to be the rule rather than the exception.

Even the United States Congress and the Supreme Court were caught off guard without enough women’s rooms to accommodate newly elected female officials and appointed justices. (Well, who knew?)

Of course, in the world of men and women working together, there is sometimes another phenomenon, such as the one Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg describes in her book, Lean In: Women, Work And The Will To Lead, upon meeting with partners of a private equity firm: “Being the sole woman has resulted in some awkward yet revealing situations…I turned to the senior partner and asked where the women’s restroom was. He stared blankly. My question had completely stumped him. I asked, ‘How long have you been in this office?’ And he said, ‘One year.’ ‘Am I the only woman to have pitched a deal here in an entire year?’ ‘I think so,’ he said, adding, ‘or maybe you’re the only one who had to use the bathroom.'”

And who was not moved by the scenes in the biopic of Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book, Hidden Figures, of actress Taraji P. Henson, portraying mathematical genius Katherine Johnson, running a half-mile across the NASA campus from her workroom to use the only “colored” bathroom? That apparently is a fictionalized version of what really happened; Ms. Johnson reportedly decided to take a chance and use the “white” bathroom — illegally.

The Rise of the Family Restroom

Away from the workplace, in addition to having tended to their own needs women often have had babies and children to care for as well. Even when both parents have been out with the kids, it generally has been assumed that mom would be in charge of changing diapers and taking the tots to the women’s room with her. The installation of baby changing tables in women’s rooms but not men’s rooms reinforced that assumption and added to those long lines.

But steps have been taken in recent years to alleviate the lines. Around the turn of this century the “family restroom” began cropping up in airports and malls. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, the family restroom falls under the code for unisex bathrooms, but generally most offer additional amenities such as a changing table, dressing area and extra toilets and sinks to accommodate children.

And while over the past decade or so baby changing tables began appearing in some men’s rooms, there still is an overall dearth of them. So last October President Obama signed into law the bipartisan BABIES Act, which mandates that all public buildings must install changing tables in men’s rooms if there are changing tables in corresponding women’s rooms. I believe this has resulted from an understanding and acknowledgement of women’s needs and their growing demands for equity in child rearing, but also from the philosophy that a number of Gen X and Y men have that they should be taking on more responsibility for their children. Add to that the growing number of families headed by same sex parents and single dads and it’s just plain common sense that men have accommodations to change diapers and take care of tots while out and about.

More Women’s Rooms on the Way?

As someone who has been through Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan hundreds of times I was extremely pleased when in 2008 the men’s room and women’s room in the Station Master’s Office were converted into one restroom — for women! That was an unexpected treat — and relief — for the many women who have year in and year out stood in the long snaking line, especially during rush hours while, as usual, men walked in and out without having to wait in line for one New York minute. If there ever was a line to that men’s room it was such a rare occurrence that one was tempted to mark it with a plate mounted on the wall that said, “This will commemorate the line to the men’s room that formed on March 10, 1994.”

And just a few years earlier New York City’s mayor and City Council made a giant leap for womankind and passed legislation requiring new arenas, theaters and nightclubs that fall under the law to have a female-to-male restroom facilities ratio of two to one! Truly, I never thought I’d see that! Such decisions give us hope that more companies and organizations will get with the program and provide a two-to-one ratio restroom plan — either with new construction or conversions of existing restrooms. We need to reduce or eliminate those unacceptable women’s room lines before we get any deeper into this century.

Until next time,









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