The last few years (OK, decades and really centuries, maybe even millenia) have been challenging ones for women fighting for equal rights. Gail Gauthier at Original Content speculated with a friend that "feminism has gone down the toilet" in recent years. In the Western world, we've been called Nazis, elitists, racists, intellectuals, classists, man-haters, lesbians, witches, and all sorts of other names. (All are true at times except the first slur, which infuriates me to no end.) But a post written by Zachary Mason, a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, which struck me as earnest if not naive, got me thinking about the importance of toilets to women, and what bathroom facilities mean in strict gendered societies.
As Mason noted, in Mali "the onset of a girl’s first period often means the end of her academic career... A toilet changes that whole equation." Many people have written about how lack of access to rags and other supplies prevents menstruating girls in developing countries from attending schools. Some, like Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, who edited a book about first period stories, raised money to help build latrines and provide water to enable girls to attend school. But in places like the United States, we don't think about how toilets are a feminist issue for millions of women in the world - we are lucky enough that we don't have too.
Nope, when we think about bathrooms and feminism in the US, we get hysterical. In the United States, the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have barred discrimination based on sex, failed to garner enough state ratification to add it to the Constitution. As blacksheepone at Whenceforth Progress writes:
Remember the Equal Rights Amendment? Remember how Phyllis Schlafly and company were all aflutter about the dangers of coed restrooms in public places?... Schlafly (and her fellow woman-hating conservatives including Ronald Reagan, the President in 1982 when supporters succumbed to the anti-amendment pressures) successfully ended pursuit of the Equal Rights Amendment by scaring people into fearing co-ed bathrooms.
Blacksheepone goes on to explain how this scare tactic is currently being used to rile people up against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). it seems that nothing horrifies Americans more than the idea that you might have to do a number #2 behind closed doors next to someone of another gender.
In fact, the issue is so thorny that there is an entire book about bathroom politics. Mandy Van Deven at The WIP interviewed editors Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner about their book, Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender, which is totally fascinating. I know you will be shocked - shocked! - to discover that only in Victorian times did people get their knickers in a bunch when it came to the idea of women using public toilet facilities. (Seriously, the Victorians pretty much ruined everything in life with their gender purity obsessions.)
Given the complicated underlying issues of bathroom usage, I actually am OK with feminism going down the toilet. We need to - bathrooms are a feminist issue.
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