The natural separation of men and women in these spaces arose less than 200 years ago, as part of a pervasive ideology of separation and dominance
For years, transgender rights activists have argued for their right to use the public restroom that aligns with their gender identity. In recent weeks, this campaign has come to a head.
In March, North Carolina enacted a law requiring that people be allowed to use only the public restroom that corresponds to the sexuality on their birth certificates. Meanwhile, the White House has taken an opposing posture, directing that trans students be allowed to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. In response, on May 25, 11 nations sued the Obama administration to block the federal government from enforcing the directive.
Some argue that one solution is to convert all public restrooms to unisex utilize, thereby eliminating the need to even consider a patrons sex. This might strike some as bizarre or drastic. Many is believed that separating restrooms based on a persons biological sex is the natural way to determine who should and should not be permitted to use these public spaces.
In fact, statutes in the US did not even address the issue of separating public restrooms by sexuality until the end of the 19 th century, when Massachusetts became the first country to legislate such a statute. By 1920, more than 40 states had adopted similar legislation requiring that public restrooms be separated by sex.
So why did states in the US begin passing such laws? Were legislators simply distinguishing natural anatomical differences between men and women?
Ive studied the history of the legal and cultural norms that require the separation of public bathrooms by sex, and its clear that there was nothing so benign about the enactment of these laws. Rather, these laws were rooted in the so-called separate spheres ideology of the early 19 th century the idea that, in order to protect the virtue of women, they needed to stay in the home to take care of the children and household chores.
In modern times, such a view of womens proper place would be readily dismissed as sexist. By highlighting the sexist origin of laws mandating sex-separation of public restrooms, I hope to provide grounds for at least reconsidering their continued existence.
The rise of a new American ideology
During Americas early history, private households was the center of economic production, the place where goods were made and sold. That role of the home in the American economy changed at the end of the 18 th century during the industrial revolution. As manufacturing became centralized in factories, men left for these new workplaces while women remained in the home.
Soon, an ideological divide between public and private space arose. The workplace and the public realm came to be considered the proper domain of men; the private realm of the home belonged to women. This divide lies at the heart of the separate spheres ideology.
The sentimental vision of the virtuous woman remaining in her homestead was a culture myth that little resemblance to the evolving realities of the 19 th century. From its outset, the century witnessed the emergence of women from the privacy rights of the home into the workplace and American civic life. For example, as early as 1822 when textile mills were founded in Lowell, Massachusetts, young women began flocking to mill towns. Soon, single women constituted the overwhelming majority of the textile workforce. Women would also become involved in social reform and suffrage movements that required them to work outside the home.
Nonetheless, American culture didnt abandon the separate realms ideology, and most moves by girls outside the domestic realms were viewed with suspicion and concern. By the middle of the century, scientists set their sights on reaffirming the ideology by undertaking research to prove that the female body was inherently weaker than the male body.
Armed with such scientific facts( now understood as merely bolstering political views against the emergent womens rights motion ), legislators and other policymakers began legislating laws aimed at protecting weaker women in the workplace. Instances included laws that limited women work hours, statutes that required a rest period for women during the work day or seats at their work stations, and laws that proscribed girls from taking certain jobs and assignments considered dangerous.
Midcentury regulators also adopted architectural solutions to protect women who ventured outside the home.
Architects and other planners began to cordon off various public spaces for the exclusive rights of women. For instance, a separate dames reading room with furnishings that resembled those of a private home became an accepted part of American public library design. And in the 1840 s, American railroads began designating a ladies auto for the exclusive rights of women and their male escorts. By the end of the 19 th century, women-only parlor spaces had been created in other establishments, including photography studios, hotels, banks and department stores.
Putting women in their place?
It was in this spirit that legislators legislated the first statutes requiring that factory restrooms be separated by sex.
Well into the 1870 s, lavatory facilities in factories and other workplaces were overwhelmingly designed for one occupant, and were often situated outside of buildings. These emptied into unsanitary cesspools and outhouse vaults generally situated beneath or adjacent to the factory. The prospect of indoor, multi-occupant restrooms didnt even arise until sanitation technology had developed to a stage where waste could be flushed into public sewer systems.
But by the late 19 th century, the factory water closet as restrooms were then called became a flashpoint for a range of culture anxieties.
First, deadly cholera outbreaks in all regions of the century had heightened concerns over public health. Soon, reformers known as sanitarians focused their attention on replacing the haphazard and unsanitary plumbing arrangements in homes and workplaces with technologically advanced public sewer systems.
Second, the rapid development of increasingly dangerous machinery in factories was viewed as a special menace to weaker female workers.
Finally, Victorian values that stressed the importance of privacy and modesty shall be submitted to special challenge in factories, where women worked side by side with men, often sharing the same single-user restrooms.
It was the confluence of these anxieties that resulted legislators in Massachusetts and other states to legislate the first laws requiring that factory restrooms be sex-separated. Despite the ubiquitous presence of women in the public realm, the spirit of the early-century separate spheres ideology was clearly reflected in this legislation.
Understanding that inherently weaker girls could not be forced back into the home, legislators opted instead to create a protective, home-like haven in the workplace for women by involving separate restrooms, together with separate dressing rooms and resting rooms.
Thus the historical justifications for the first statutes in the US requiring that public restrooms be sex-separated were not based on some notion that mens and womens restrooms were separate but equal a gender-neutral policy that simply reflected anatomical differences.
Rather, these statutes were adopted as a style to farther early-1 9th century moral ideology that dictated the appropriate role and place for women in society.
It is therefore surprising that this now discredited notion has been resurrected in the current debate over who can use which public restrooms.
Opponents of trans rights have employed the slogan No Men in Womens Bathrooms, which elicits visions of weak women being subject to attack by men if trans girls are allowed to invade the public bathroom.
In fact, the only solid evidence of any such assaults in public restrooms are those directed at trans someones, a significant percentage of whom report verbal and physical assault in such spaces.
In the midst of the present maelstrom over public restrooms, it is important to keep in mind that our current laws mandating that public restrooms be separated by sexuality evolved from the now discredited separate spheres ideology.
Whether or not multi-occupancy, unisex restrooms are the best solution, our lawmakers and the public need to begin foreseeing new configurations of public restroom spaces, ones far more friendly to all people who move through public spaces.
This article was originally published on The Conversation
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