By Joe Davidson
Thursday, May 13, 2010; B03
Vivian Y. Bright likes to watch her congressman at work, but she was glad when Rep. Edolphus Towns finally gaveled to a close a hearing on sexual disparity in federal restrooms -- because she had to find one.
"Just now, we experienced it," she said. "We went to the ladies room. There's a line."
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which Towns (D-N.Y.) chairs, heard testimony Wednesday on legislation to develop a more equitable sexual balance in the number of toilets in federal buildings.
Nicknamed the Potty Parity Act, the Towns bill would require the number of toilets available for women to equal or exceed the number of toilets and urinals in men's restrooms. The requirement would apply to future federal building construction and to properties undergoing major renovations.
"I am certain that every woman in this room has frequently experienced the inconvenience, as well as the discomfort, caused by an insufficient number of women's restroom facilities," Towns said to a hearing room nearly filled with his supporters, mostly women, from his Brooklyn district. Bright is president of Towns's Women's Caucus, which had about 90 members at the hearing.
Although potty parity can easily turn into sophomoric humor, it's really a serious matter.
Clothing styles, biology and the need to use stalls are all reasons women need more time, said Rep. Stephen Cohen (D-Tenn.). Waiting too long, he added, can lead to abdominal pain, cystitis and urinary-tract infections.
Kathryn H. Anthony, an architecture professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said being forced to wait in line for restrooms is a form of gender bias. Having too few female facilities reflects male dominance. The buildings were designed and built by men apparently indifferent to the additional needs of women, she said.
"Until recently, most architects, contractors, engineers, building-code officials and clients were not concerned about this issue," Anthony said. "They rarely contacted women about their restroom needs; women were rarely employed in these male-dominated professions, nor were they in a position to effect change."
Being an academic, Anthony came prepared with much information about restroom visits: six to eight times a day, up to 2,920 times a year for the average person. "By age 80," she noted, we will have "spent two years of our life in restrooms."
Yet it's also true that there doesn't seem to be an undersupply of water closets for females during the average day in a federal office building. "It's not an issue under our normal work hours," Janet Kopenhaver, the Washington representative of Federally Employed Women, said during a telephone interview.
The General Services Administration generally does not get complaints about the lack of facilities for women in office buildings, according to Robert A. Peck, GSA's public buildings commissioner. Restroom usage spreads out over the course of the day, he said.
The GSA provides space for about 1 million federal employees and contractors. Since the 1980s, GSA standards have said the number of toilets in women's restrooms should equal the number of toilets and urinals in men's rooms. In assembly areas, such as training and conference facilities, GSA requires three women's toilets for every two available to men. Many federal buildings, however, were built before the 1980s. But even women in older buildings have not reported restroom access problems, Peck said.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is a co-sponsor of the bill but suggested that it may need amending to account for workplaces that are overwhelmingly populated by one sex or the other, such as all-male prisons. In some facilities, he said, an even ratio "may not always make sense in terms of fairness, efficiency and cost."
Although Issa presumably doesn't make a practice of watching johns, he added that he had "never seen a line for men or women" in the Rayburn House Office Building, where the hearing was held. He apparently didn't see the line Bright did.
At surge times, when many people need to use restrooms at once, the lines snaking out of the lavatories for women present what Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) called "pretty outrageous anecdotal evidence" that starkly demonstrates the problem. Having seen such a situation at the Kennedy Center during intermission, Issa said, that "clearly is a disaster."
Not missing an opportunity for a pun, Anthony agreed: "All too often, we watch our male counterparts zip in and out of the restroom in a flash, while at the ladies' room, we are stuck waiting in long lines."
More information about the legislation is available here: http://oversight.house.gov/