Potty Politics: Why women are pissed off about restrooms

By Sarah Karon
A version of this article was originally published in the fall 2010 issue of Curb magazine.

On a recent Saturday morning at Barriques, a popular coffee shop in downtown Madison, a line snaked around the counter.

But customers weren’t queuing for muffins or macchiatos. Four women stood waiting for the bathroom, arms crossed, shopping bags at their feet.

The adjoining bathroom, marked “men,” sat empty.

You might not know it if you've ever waited in line for a women's bathroom, but Wisconsin, it turns out, is a leader in “potty parity,” a term familiar to architects and lawmakers and all but unknown to the lay, lavatory-using public.

Definitions vary, but potty parity essentially ensures women and men have equal access to restrooms and wait equal lengths of time. Wisconsin modified its Commercial Building Code in 1994, mandating more toilet facilities for women than for men in certain types of buildings, such as theaters and stadiums.

But lines still form outside women’s restrooms. And some people are, well, pissed.

“It’s tangible evidence of gender discrimination,” says Kathryn Anthony, a self-described “potty parity crusader” and architecture professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “But people often dismiss the issue. They say we’re just powdering our noses.”

She has a long list of reasons why women often find lines at the loo: Women have more clothing to remove. They use bathrooms for other activities, such as breast-feeding and feminine hygiene needs. They often accompany young children to the bathroom.

And, Anthony says, many buildings simply don’t have enough fixtures for women. In some cases, old plumbing codes are to blame. Buildings constructed decades ago weren’t required to have an equal number of women’s and men’s bathrooms because women weren’t in public as much as men.

Modern buildings with bathrooms of equal size don’t guarantee equal access, either. Toilet stalls require more space than urinals, so even relatively large women’s restrooms often have fewer fixtures than men’s rooms.

The problem with waiting, Anthony argues, isn’t just inconvenience. Waiting to use the bathroom can cause serious health problems, like cystitis and urinary tract infections, particularly for pregnant women, who need to visit the bathroom more often than men.

There’s also a psychological component. “We shouldn’t have to feel like second-class citizens,” Anthony says. “Potty parity means equal speed of access. It should take a woman just as long as it takes a man to find an available toilet stall.”

To create parity, Anthony and others argue, women need more toilets. That’s where building codes come into play. Wisconsin follows the International Building Code and the state’s Commercial Building Code, which require approximately double the number of toilet fixtures for women as for men in large spaces of assembly: places like theaters, museums, libraries, stadiums and amusement parks.

So why are Wisconsin women still waiting in line?

One reason is that new building codes don’t apply to old structures. Buildings constructed in Wisconsin before March 1, 1994, don’t need to meet the restroom parity requirements mandated by the state’s Commercial Building Code.

And even in newer Wisconsin buildings, particularly bars and restaurants, often women still wait for the loo. Bars and nightclubs are only required to have one men’s and one women’s toilet per 80 people; for restaurants, the number is two gender-specific bathrooms per 150 people.

Barriques is a good example. The café has a capacity of 120, so it meets the two-bathroom requirement. But since its bathrooms are gender-specific — one is designated male, one female, even though they are identical locking stalls — lines form at busy intervals. And, because women take longer, they’re the ones who wait.

“I always feel a little silly staring at an open, empty restroom, thinking, ‘Oh, no, I can’t go in there because there’s a sign that says ‘men’ on the door,’” says Ari Eisenberg, a history doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, about the Barriques bathroom.

“I’ll say to the woman ahead of me, ‘The men’s bathroom is open, do you want to use it?’ And if she says no, it’s always a little baffling to me. Ultimately, they’re just individual rooms with toilets in them, which you can lock.”

The American Restroom Association might have the answer.

Robert Brubaker, a program manager with the group, has lobbied the International Code Council, which oversees the International Building Code, to increase the number of restrooms required in bars and restaurants, and ensure these establishments have the necessary toilet fixtures for both women and men.

Most of Brubaker’s proposals have “stalled” in public hearings — “the restaurant industry comes in and says adding more bathrooms will cause all sorts of businesses to fail,” he says gloomily — but he was buoyed by a small but significant victory last spring. Future versions of the International Plumbing Code, he says, will allow buildings with one women’s bathroom and one men’s bathroom — including places like Barriques — to covert both into “family restrooms.”

“It’s just a matter of changing the sign on the door,” Brubaker says. “It creates inherent parity because the next available toilet becomes available to the next person in line.”

Single stall unisex toilets also make things easier for families. A father traveling with his young daughter, for example, needn’t decide between sending her into the women’s bathroom alone or taking her into the men’s room. Family toilets are also useful for people with disabilities, who may need help from opposite-sex partners.

Unisex bathrooms have won fans among gay, lesbian and transgender communities, too.

“It’s really an issue of comfort and safety,” says Gabe Peeples, a coordinator at the LGBT Campus Center at UW-Madison. “Say someone looks masculine but identifies as feminine. People can feel threatened if someone who looks like a man enters a women’s restroom.”

Currently there are 19 gender-neutral bathrooms in campus buildings at UW-Madison, according to a list Peeples maintains for the LGBT Campus Center’s website.

“It’s not nearly enough,” he says. “I think every building on campus should have at least one. Some professors and students spend all day in one building."

New campus buildings typically include unisex toilets. But the university usually does not retrofit older buildings with unisex bathrooms, says Gary Brown, the university’s director of campus planning and landscape architecture.

One reason is cost. Julie Grove, an architect and project manager at UW, points out that simply adding a new sink to an older bathroom can significantly affect the entire project’s budget, because the plumbing renovation requires that the bathroom meet new building codes.

And some architects argue that unisex toilets, while convenient, are inefficient compared to multi-person facilities.

Grace La, a Milwaukee architect, has worked on several projects involving unisex restrooms, including the Hillel Center at the UW-Milwaukee. La says unisex restrooms make sense in certain spaces, especially if they maximize efficiency and help “provide greater sensitivity to transgendered individuals.”

But, she argues, because creating single, unisex restrooms means fewer shared spaces, “you could argue that [unisex toilets] represent a kind of excess,” she says.

Excess or no, advocates like Kathryn Anthony will continue to push for more bathrooms. In May she testified at a Congressional hearing for the Restroom Gender Parity in Federal Buildings Act, popularly known as the Potty Parity bill. If passed, the bipartisan legislation will require the number of women’s toilets in renovated and newly built federal buildings to equal or exceed the number of men’s facilities.

The bill is still in committee and no vote has been scheduled.

“There are a lot of other important issues in Congress, obviously,” Anthony concedes. “But it would be the first time we would have any federal legislation on this issue. A bathroom upgrade … should be considered part of our nation’s infrastructure improvement.”

She adds: “Potty parity is an issue that’s near and dear to the hearts and bladders of people all over the world.”


Return to Writing