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The messy political history of where we pee

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Until recently, few Americans probably thought of peeing as political.

But in the last few years, the issue of which bathrooms transgender people ought to use has become a big political question. The most contested law has been North Carolina’s requirement that people use restrooms in government-run buildings that align with the gender on their birth certificate. But many other cities and states are considering ordinances that would restrict or expand people’s bathroom choices.

To some, this might seem like an odd realm for political discussion. If you look at history, however, you soon see that decisions about public bathrooms – and in particular, the women’s bathroom — have always been linked with controversial ideas about gender, race and class.

Harvey Molotch, a professor of sociology and metropolitan studies at New York University, took me through the contentious history of women’s bathrooms in a recent conversation. Molotch was the co-editor of the 2010 book “Toilet: The Public Restroom and the Politics of Sharing,” an anthology of papers by sociologists, anthropologists, architects, historians and others about the unfamiliar and dramatic history of the public restroom.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

There’s a great quote in the introduction you wrote to your 2010 book, “Toilet.” You say, “Put bluntly, peeing is political.” What do you mean by that? The recent debate over transgender people using certain bathrooms has brought peeing into the political realm, but before that a lot of people might have thought of peeing as something that is not remotely connected with politics.  

It’s political because it engages other people in deciding who has a right to pee, under what conditions, and where. These are collective arrangements with collective decision making. And they’re contested, and there are big arguments about it. Should people be allowed to pee or poop in public or not? Should they be separated by social class, by race, by gender? These questions engage all the conventional divisions that come into play when we discuss rights and privileges. So both peeing and pooping are political, and a realm of intense dispute.

The debate over who gets to use public restrooms, and where and how, isn’t a recent invention – it must go back a long way. How far back can we trace this debate?

It must have begun with Adam and Eve – what’s going to happen after the apple is digested? [Laughs]. Then we do start seeing historic traces. We know that the Romans constructed very complex and elaborate bathing facilities, including what we would call bathrooms, and there were separate facilities for elites and slaves. And for elites, these were social places, quite elegant, and people shared them, in large numbers.

I’ve read that the Romans often used a toilet that was a kind of long bench, without divisions between people?

Yes. Even more radically, there are round rooms, or square rooms, or semi circles. It meant that people could be easily in contact with each other, talking and looking at each other while engaged in these acts.

Fast-forwarding, how do we get to the modern era? I assume that most people for a long time were living an agrarian lifestyle and would use outhouses, whereas the people in cities might just be going wherever?

More than outhouses, it was just the fields. And, by the way, that is still the way half the population of contemporary India defecates, in the open.

Where toilets really start entering into the political sphere is the industrial age, because this now concentrates large numbers of people in factories. Especially when women enter the factory labor force, there have to be set-asides for women. This is the Victorian era, and it is at a time when the fact that women engage in such actions is itself distasteful, and not readily acknowledged. But it has to be faced.

This was part of something else happening too, the sanitation movement. It’s close in history to the point where we discovered that human feces were carrying disease into water and wells. It’s the beginning of epidemiology and germ theory. And so you have this realization of how disease works, and a great celebration of sanitation.

So how did women’s restrooms get established across the United States – was it through workplaces being integrated?

State-by-state, laws were enacted requiring women be provided separate facilities. It’s a time when women are joining the labor force, and there aren’t facilities for women. In the U.S. Congress, congresswomen had to use the same toilets as the tourists. MIT faced a great problem when significant numbers of women became students and then faculty. Libraries were also presumed to be for men only — there were separate ladies’ reading rooms, and then restrooms had to be added to libraries.

So the hardware is always one step behind. When you have to make changes in the hardware, that’s very serious, because money has to be spent, and the space has to come from elsewhere. Toilets are only one part of the saga – the tensions run across the board as women gain entry to public spaces. One phrase that is used is “the urinary leash.” Before there were facilities for women, they couldn’t go out longer than they could stand to not pee.

This reminds me of a theory that is commonly discussed in sociology and gender studies, that women’s traditional place is in the home, while the public sphere is traditionally men’s space. Do you see the “urinary leash” as a concrete recognition of that?

Yes, it is a very concrete illustration of it. And it’s one of the reasons why I study this, and why it’s so interesting to me. There are these physical traces that tell you all about our ideas about gender, and about so much else.

One of the things I talk about a lot is the architecture of public restrooms. If you look at the American public restroom, you see something different than in other countries, where you may have unisex bathrooms. First of all, there is this gender separation, and the insistence among many people that there is a binary, that people come in only two flavors, male or female -- just like they used to come, when I was in school, in five different races. And that’s it, case closed.

Public restrooms are where the rubber of our social structure hits the road -- it just comes into view. It’s the specifics of it that are so interesting to me. In certain countries, people of low castes cannot use the same facilities as people of high castes. In Japan, baths are public, and they’re separated by men and women. But women workers are everywhere within the men’s baths -- they are considered an exception. As an American male, it was weird to me that in this hyper-gender-segregated space, women just come and go without concern. And in other parts of the world too, one sees that. In part, that’s probably because, as members of lower social class, they are excluded from the ordinary concerns about decency. Just like males and females in the United States can go to doctors of the opposite sex. So profession trumps gender segregation.

So gender segregation can be understood as men separated from women, but then the particularities come into play, and are very interesting.

The history of women’s bathrooms in the U.S. is also intimately tied with race. There were fierce fights over integrating black and white bathrooms, for example. And in the Jim Crow era, African American men and women often wouldn’t have separate restrooms. They would just have one unisex “colored” bathroom.

Right. When there was this belief that humans were made essentially different by virtue of their race, then in this most intimate of activities, they truly had to be separate. So you had separate bathrooms, separate swimming pools. The basketball court could integrate before the swimming pool could integrate, because when the pool integrated you had the perceived mixing of bodily fluids, and exposure.

That’s one of the features of all of this, that in public restrooms people are exposed, and they are made socially vulnerable in a way they are ordinarily not. Things like clothing, and our habits, mask our animalistic privacies, and the bathroom unmasks, or risks unmasking them. So the distinctions among human beings, and who has the right to see whom, come fiercely into play. And if you think that race is an essential difference, then you’re very concerned.

And it seems like a constant theme in the history of separating bathrooms by sex is the goal of protecting white women, that separate facilities are necessary to keep women from harm, right?

Yes, right, exactly. It’s an old chivalrous idea that’s brought into play. That’s also been an argument more recently for not having unisex facilities, that you need to have bathrooms assigned separately so women are safe. That’s always amusing, because hanging a sign on a door does not keep criminals away. And if you allow men in, you double the number of people, and we know from studies of crime that the best antidote to crime is people.

A lot of countries, for example in Europe, have unisex bathrooms, and I assume they don’t have large amounts of bathroom crime, right?

The only good country to study crime in is the United States, because we have so much of it. But even in the United States, we don’t have good data on crime in bathrooms, because the police keep records by street address.

But it’s done in movies, with “Psycho” being maybe the most famous example of bathroom crime. The movies dramatize this a lot. Otherwise, nobody goes to the bathroom in movies or television. They only go to get murdered [laughs].

It seems like restrooms are the last public space in America that are really segregated by sex. Do you expect that to last? Where do you think we’re headed as a society?

It is the most stubborn of the segregations, and I think there are a number of reasons for that. One is that it’s not hard-wired, it’s “hard-piped” in. We have separate restrooms as a physical setup, and to change it will be expensive, and we’ll have to decide to do that.

In addition, the decision to make those changes requires, as all public decisions require, conversation. And the toilet itself is a taboo object. When you go to buy a toilet, you don’t get a demonstration of how it works. There is no frank conversation about its efficiency. In the realm of taboo, things don’t change the way they do in other subject eras.

What is the legal framework in the U.S. today? Are businesses required to have separate bathrooms?

A lot of this is state by state, so it’s hard to generalize. Building and plumbing codes do specify how many urinals there must be per square foot of building, how many toilets, and the ratio of men’s to women’s rooms. There’s the potty parity movement, in which California is the leader, that requires women’s rooms to be larger than men’s rooms.

So it’s kind of local. For example, the law in some states is that anybody can use any facility. If you go in, you have a right to use it. Most people don’t know that. In Britain it used to be that pubs were open to anyone. In Paris, the cafes are open to anyone. In America, we’re down to Starbucks.

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