Women finally have a seat in the House of Representatives. Four seats, in fact. And two sinks.
Last week, as debt-ceiling talks were building to a fever pitch, Room H211 in the U.S. Capitol quietly opened its door to the 76 female members of the House, giving them their own restroom near the Speaker’s Lobby. Women in the Senate have had their own restroom off the Senate floor since 1993.
If the restroom’s opening was subdued, some of the reaction wasn’t.
A pleased Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) invited a reporter inside “to peek, not pee.”
Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.) was moved to tweet to her 2,692 followers, “Love the new Ladies room off the floor of the House. Three cheers to @SpeakerBoehner.”
(Another of her tweets that same day was “#GOP ‘cut, cap and balance’ is irresponsible plan 2 end #Medicare & protect oil companies & millionaires,” so the bipartisan glow didn’t last for long.)
Edwards, who represents Maryland’s 4th Congressional District, which includes large portions of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, wasn’t alone in taking to the ether with her enthusiasm. Two days later, Del. Donna M. Christensen (D-Virgin Islands) tweeted, “The first woman came to Congress in 1917. We are finally getting a ladies rest room near the floor of the House.”
That’s the kind of comfort male members of the House have long enjoyed. Female members, however, had to trek out of chambers and buck the tourists in Statuary Hall to get to what is now called the Lindy Claiborne Boggs Congressional Reading Room for relief.
Room H211 is located in a bustling mahogany-trimmed hallway adjacent to the elegant, Victorian-embellished Speaker’s Lobby on the Democratic side of the chamber. The entry has the dignified exterior of other Capitol offices: mahogany double doors and door casing, a small brass plaque overhead showing the room number and, stenciled in gold paint on a wooden door plaque, “Members Only.” The door, guarded by a Capitol police officer, swishes open, offering a glimpse of the anteroom, a louvered mahogany door between it and the main bathroom.
If it looks like an office, of course, it’s because it was one. Until House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) ordered plumbing installed on this side of the building, H211 was the House parliamentarian’s office. The parliamentarian was moved into the former speaker’s ceremonial office, and the speaker nudged the Appropriations Committee out of its historic digs and moved his ceremonial office there.
One Democratic Hill staffer grumbled that the issue of the long-standing need for a nearby ladies’ room was looked at in 2007, but “with the nature of a historic building and adding plumbing, it was just too expensive.” Not that the women don’t deserve it, the staffer hastily added.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) pulled together a committee to advise the Architect of the Capitol on what the women of the House needed in a restroom. In addition to the obvious, one issue was a baby-changing table. “We thought, with a group of younger women entering Congress, there might be a need someday,” she said.
Inside, the space still looks and feels somewhat like a historic office in the Capitol. “I was very impressed by the way [the workmen] were able to preserve the tiles on the floor,” Capito said. Colorful clay tiles with rich geometric and baroque patterns, from the 1850s Minton workshop in England, are found throughout the mid-19th-century additions to the Capitol, although some of them are reproductions manufactured in the mid-1980s.
The room also has its original chandelier and fireplace. Heavy mahogany doors and dividers mark the toilet stalls.
Edwards said she likes that the room has “lots of light and a nice big mirror.” And there’s an alcove under one of the windows that would be nice for a seat, she said.
But are the fixtures super-modern, with motion sensors and such? The congresswoman looked confused for a second, then said with a laugh, “you flush, just the way you do at home.”
But the big question remains: Does the women’s restroom have an attendant the way the men’s room does? The answer, from Capito: Not in this one; the women’s attendant is in the Reading Room bathroom — “and does a wonderful job of keeping us on schedule, telling us when votes are coming up.”
But maybe that’s not the big question. And maybe the question of comfort has been answered. Said Edwards, “Before this was here, I would have had to sit [in the chamber] between votes. I didn’t have the five minutes to get [to the Reading Room] and then the five minutes to get back. I would have missed a vote.”
It has taken the restroom less than two weeks to enter into congressional culture. As one staffer said, “They now call this [area] the ‘Speaker’s Lobby, women’s bathroom side.’ ”