Are Urinals in Women's Rooms a Sign of Progress?

by Alice Silverberg

The first time I saw a urinal I walked out and checked the sign on the door to make sure it really was a women's room. It turns out that urinals are surprisingly common in women's rooms at American universities.

Are urinals in women's rooms a good sign or a bad one?

When I was an undergraduate, the wall of the women's shower room in Harvard's Indoor Athletic Building was lined with about a dozen urinals. I had to pass the row of urinals to go from the locker room to the pool, and I always felt as if there were some ritual I should perform. Throw in a penny and make a wish? I never figured it out, but I felt sure that my Exeter and Andover classmates had been properly trained in the correct etiquette and knew what to do.

Do urinals in women's rooms signify that the university is hedging its bets in case it decides to turn back the clock? When I was a grad student at Princeton in the 1980s, I was told that if women complained about lack of equality, Princeton would go back to being all-male. A few years later, the Princeton Alumni Weekly published a letter claiming that the experiment in coeducation had clearly failed, and suggesting we return to the good old days of an all-male college.

Do the people who run these universities know how urinals in the women's rooms make women feel? Whenever I get the opportunity, I naively ask the powers-that-be why there are urinals in the women's rooms, and why they haven't been removed. They're there because they used to be men's rooms. Removing urinals is very expensive, and we don't have that kind of money.

Harvard doesn't have that kind of money.

Princeton doesn't have that kind of money.

Stanford doesn't have that kind of money.

Isn't it really a question of priorities?

A professor at the University of Notre Dame told me that the college couldn't accept women and men in equal numbers, about 20 years after nominally going coed, because there weren't enough women's dormitories. I naively asked why they couldn't build more. Notre Dame doesn't have that kind of money. Isn't it just a question of priorities, I asked. Why can't some men's dormitories be converted to women's dormitories? The alumni would stop donating to the college, if their sons couldn't live in the same dorms they lived in. Surely if gender equity were a high enough priority, the university administrators would find a way; one just has to be creative. Coed dorms? His reaction told me that if I were Catholic, he would have nominated me for excommunication.

When a group of us walked into the Ohio State University Faculty Club during my job interview in 1984, in the middle of a mathematical conversation I was told to go to a different room to hang up my coat. The need to guard against cooties must have been a high priority of one of the building's designers, since there were separate women's and men's cloakrooms. By the time I rejoined my colleagues, the mathematical conversation had progressed, and I was at a disadvantage.

I arrived at Ohio State as a new assistant professor, fresh out of grad school. When I checked out the athletics building, I came across a door that read "Faculty Locker Room". Delighted with the realization that I was no longer an inconsequential grad student and could now enjoy faculty perks, I put my hand on the knob. Then I heard voices from within. Male voices. I suspected I wasn't welcome in the Faculty Locker Room, and I walked away disappointed. A colleague later confirmed my suspicions, and laughed at the thought that I would enter the Faculty Locker Room. It's a men's room, of course, and women aren't allowed. Over the next 20 years, that colleague was promoted from faculty member to associate dean, to dean, to retirement, while the Faculty Locker Room remained all-male.

Women faculty did have the right to pay extra to use a corner of the women students' locker room, but we didn't get a room of our own. And the women all had to walk down a long hallway, down the cold stairs, and down another long hallway to get to the main pool, while there were men's locker rooms on every floor, including one right across from the pool. But at least things have improved since I was at a math camp there in the 1970s, when allowing the men to swim naked was a higher priority than allowing the women to swim.

I'm told that Canadian and Australian universities trail the U.S. in gender equity by 5 or 10 years. I was about to give a seminar talk in Canada, and I ran all over the building looking for a women's room. I must have passed four men's rooms. I finally found what I was looking for. It said "Staff Only", and it was locked. It was meant for the secretaries, and they have keys. I've since been told that "staff" includes faculty, in British English. So as visiting faculty I had the right to use the restroom (if I could pick the lock). But the female students didn't. The men's rooms weren't "Staff Only", and the male students used them.

There's a myth that we've made steady progress since our cavemen days, getting smarter and better, and moving towards equality for women rather than away from it. But recent stories lead me to think that gender equality is now better in Canada and Australia than it is in the U.S. If they're still trailing the U.S. by 5 or 10 years, that would mean that the U.S. has been getting worse, not better.

Though Europe has mixed success with gender issues, it seems to be on the cutting edge with unisex restrooms. It's just a room with a toilet (and if you're very lucky, a sink). Locking the door gives complete privacy, unlike our half or three-quarter stalls.

The U.S. hasn't gotten the hang of unisex. I was stumped by the urinal in the unisex restroom on the sixth floor of the University of Arizona's math building. The sign outside had men and women icons. Inside were a sink and urinal side-by-side, and tucked in a corner was a stall containing a toilet. As I went into the stall and locked it, I pondered: What am I supposed to do if someone comes in and uses the urinal? Should I warn him that I'm there? Or keep quiet and wait for him to leave? Or was Arizona so liberated that I was expected to come out, say hello, and wash my hands while he did his business?

The prettiest urinals I ever saw were in the Stanford math department. Each was filled with a beautiful philodendron, spilling over the edge, lovingly cared-for by the elderly German staff member who serves as department den mother. I don't know much about plants, but I recognized the heart-shaped leaves from my tenth grade science fair project on transpirational pull in philodendra. According to my report[1] (at last, a chance to reference it!), they thrive in water. A Monet poster was mounted tactfully on the wall next to the philodendra-filled urinals. The room had a wonderfully gemütlich feel to it.

Inspired by those urinals, I decided to publish a book of photos of urinals in university women's rooms, and to use the Stanford urinals as the cover photo. But before I got around to taking a picture, the philodendra were gone. It turns out that if you don't flush a urinal every so often, toxic fumes build up in the pipes. So out went the philodendra, and in went blue chemicals, flushed once a week so that no one would die from urinal fumes. It would have been an ironic way to go.

The Monet poster disappeared too, and was replaced by a tampon dispenser. The urinals looked odd next to the tampon dispenser, and the room became sterile rather than homey. European Impressionism gave way to early twenty-first century post-modernism, but the one constant through time was the three urinals. To give Stanford credit, when the math department recently remodeled they did remove the urinals. I wonder if we'll soon see headlines about Stanford's bankruptcy. That must have broken the bank.

I don't recall seeing any urinals in Princeton when I was a grad student. But then, they didn't have many women's rooms. When the math department's visiting committee asked grad students for feedback, I did a survey of the restrooms in Fine Hall, and calculated a three-and-a-half to one ratio of men's room's to women's rooms. The women's rooms were all strategically located --- one on the floor where the math department secretaries worked (there were two men's rooms on that floor), one on the floor where the statistics department secretaries worked (ditto for the two men's rooms), one on the library level, and one on the twelfth floor. That's the floor just below the penthouse, where the university held singles parties.

I read the visiting committee my lists of ways that women were not treated fairly at Princeton. I had a list of serious issues that directly affected our ability to do mathematics. They ignored those. I had a separate joke list, with things like unequal access to toilets, that I threw in just to lighten things up. The two women on the committee pounced on the joke list; these were the issues that were important to them. One explained that she had arrived late at the meeting because she had run up and down the stairs searching for a bathroom she was allowed to use. Apparently, such things get more important as you age.

I returned to Princeton a few years ago, and was pleased to find that one of the two men's rooms on the floor with the math department offices had been converted to a women's room. A women's room full of urinals, with bright blue water in each one. Those urinals were the first sign I saw that Princeton is moving towards equality for women. Urinals as a sign of progress? I'll take what I can get.

[1] How is the transport of water in the Philodendron cordatum affected by its leaves?, Alice Silverberg, science project, Martin Van Buren High School, Queens, New York, January 3, 1973.