Battle of the bog: Those who fought for access to the bathroom

Yesterday was World Toilet Day, a battleground for everyone from the Suffragettes to the freedom riders, who have fought for access to the bathroom for people of all persuasions, races and genders. Caomhan Keane reports.

When it comes to mapping the continued inequality and social paranoias of society, the jacks is a battleground that is every bit as historically rich as the Somme.

While defecating and urinating is a basic human need, it’s treated by many as a weapon of class destruction, a fantastical threat to privilege, unleashing racist and homophobic arguments to demonise those already on society’s ropes.

The bog has been at the centre of civil rights battles since the first modern public lavatory opened in Victorian London.

Prior to this, most people used outhouses when nature came a-calling, which had no need to be gendered due to their capacity to seat just one occupant at a time.

Public lavatories were provided more regularly from 1840 onwards by local councils as growing knowledge of diseases such as typhoid, cholera and dysentery saw a need to stop the public committing “public nuisances” on the street or in waterways.

These “public conveniences” were provided for men only and that arguments unleashed by ratepayers would become the original version of a well-covered song favoured by those opposed to social progress.

“The arguments sound very familiar,” says Barbara Penner, professor of architectural humanities at UCL and author of Bathroom, published by Reaktion in 2014.

“They worried that public conveniences would attract the wrong sort of person and drive business away and lower property values.”

Public health reform quickly became tied up with moral nimbyism and, thus, the commode became the precursor to Freddie Kreuger’s nightmare realm where innocents were interfered with by imaginary constructs who embodied social paranoia’s about the working class.

“Public conveniences violated prevailing ideas of women,” says Penner, “as it reminded everybody that women had bodies and needed to pee and poo and do all sorts of other ‘unfeminine’ things.”

It was a class-based argument, as it was implicit that these facilities would serve working class women.

“Good middle-class women would stay at home, or pay to use facilities in restaurants and tea shops and so on.”

While the campaign for improved access to public toilets would begin in earnest in the 1860s, championed primarily by The Ladies Sanitary Association, it wasn’t until some prominent men took up the baton that what little headway was made, occurred.

Irish author George Bernard Shaw wrote his famed essay “The Unmentionable Case for Women’s Suffrage”, while many prominent medical case officers would detail the sufferings endured by women.

“These doctors were concerned with the effects of women not going to the bathroom, holding it in all day, which resulted in infections,” says Penner.

“But they were really just alerting men to the realities of female physiology.

That there were certain times of the months that women were in special need of the toilet, ever so delicately bringing the subject of menstruation up.

They also needed to remind men of the demands on women’s bodies when they were pregnant. All this was discussed in roundabout ways.”

The lav was never far from public consciousness. It went centre stage again after the Second World War, when men returning from the front were horrified to find that women had taken up the jobs that they had left behind and making workplaces fit for women became a very big issue.

“A lot of these men felt female workers couldn’t possibly work alongside them, as it was felt that women needed a higher standard of privacy. Women bathrooms in the workplace needed to be of a higher standard, with stalls and doors and locks. I’m not sure who they were protecting women from.”

Worse, for racists, was to come when the Supreme Court struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, and the myth of the black man as sexual predator began spreading in earnest.

“When orders came through to desegregate workplaces, white workers would often resist, attributing their fear of contagion to the sexual disease for their refusal to share a toilet seat,” says Penner.

Of course, there was no evidence to support such assumptions, much like there was none in the 1980s to suggest that Aids could be caught off a toilet seat, nor in the present day has there been one incident reported of a predator frocking up and invading women’s spaces under the guise of being trans.

In fact, the opposite is nearly always the case. In 1966, Samuel Younge Jr, a black student, was shot in the back of the head for trying to use a whites-only bathroom.

Throughout the ’80s public toilets were closed because people were concerned that they house antisocial behaviour — usually a euphemism for gay sex, highlighting the anxiety we still have over queer practices.

Meanwhile UCLA’s Williams Institute states that 9% of transgender people report being sexually assaulted in a bathroom in the US.

“This tug of war over a public space is a way of talking about incredibly complex social issues, that touch on their deepest fears and anxieties,” concludes Penner.

“When the oppressed try to claim some space in the world for themselves, they are knocked back, angrily and decisively.

When you look at the language used when discussing North Carolina’s Bathroom Bill last year you see that discourse has shifted very little since the 19th century.”



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