STOCKBRIDGE >> Hillary Clinton's now famous bathroom break during the most recent Democratic debate took longer than she, or anyone else, expected. Why? It was reportedly because of the line outside the women's room at the University of Nevada, where the debate took place. Any woman who has ever visited an airport, art museum, concert hall or lecture hall knows all about long lines outside women's rest rooms. Every one of us has questioned the scarcity of stalls and muttered to herself, "Who the heck designed this?"

Soraya Chemaly, a media critic and activist whose work focuses on the role of gender in politics, religion and popular culture, sums it up succinctly: "Long lines for women's restrooms are the result of a history that favors men's bodies."

Chemaly gave an overview of the women's room line problem in an op-ed piece in Time magazine last year. She wrote, "If you're a woman, chances are you've spent time fidgeting in a long line waiting to use a public toilet, delayed a bodily function because you don't want to or haven't the time to waste standing in line to use a public toilet, considered sneaking into a men's room — illegal in some places, or cursed loudly because of all of the above."

Why do we put up with this? This isn't a minor pet peeve, but a serious question. Despite years of "potty parity" laws, women are still forced to stand in lines at malls, schools, stadiums, concerts, fairgrounds, theme parks, and other crowded public spaces. This is frustrating, uncomfortable, and in some circumstances, humiliating. It's also a form of discrimination, as it disproportionately affects women.


According to Chamaly, "Women need to use bathrooms more often and for longer periods of time because: we sit to urinate (urinals effectively double the space in men's rooms), we menstruate, we are responsible for reproducing the species (which makes us pee more), we continue to have greater responsibility for children (who have to use bathrooms with us), and we breastfeed. Additionally, women tend to wear more layered and cumbersome clothes, whereas men's clothing provides significantly speedier access. But in a classic example of the difference between surface 'equality' and genuine equity, many public restrooms continue to be facilities that are equal in physical space, while favoring men's bodies, experiences, and needs." Sometimes you just need a little extra time.

Larger context

It was not until 1971 that women were admitted to the National Press Club; before that date, women were relegated to standing on rolled up carpets in the balcony so they could see the proceedings below, while the men downstairs dined with, and were allowed to question, distinguished guests. And it was not until 2011 that women in the US House of Representatives got a bathroom near the speaker's lobby.

Before that date, the women's bathroom was so far away from the lobby that the time it took women to get there exceeded session break times. The nearby men's room however, had a fireplace, a shoeshine stand and televised floor proceedings.

Hillary Clinton might not need her own throne, but she does deserve time to debate and express her opinions without being delayed in a ladies' room line. We can express our admiration for Clinton who did not, as far as we know, use her clout to jump the line, but we can still express our outrage that she was put in that position.

But what is to be done? New buildings can be, and most often are, designed with extra toilet spaces for women. The problem is with older buildings, where retrofitting is a much bigger problem: to make extra spaces for women, something else might have to be given up. That cute little closet where deals are made; the cloakroom where bribes have always been taken — they might have to shrink so women's rooms can grow.

It is a sad irony that the halls of power, that is, just about every building in Washington where the people's business is conducted, are the ones that most resist the accommodation of women's bodies and their functions.

One thing that can be done is direct action, which sometimes brings about results. The famous civil rights activist Flo Kennedy organized a demonstration at Harvard in 1973 (that's over four decades ago, but who's counting?) demanding women's bathrooms in Harvard buildings that, until that time, only accommodated men. And in China in 2012, women held a demonstration in a public restroom demanding "2:1," that is, two toilets for women for every one for men. Although the women were detained by police, their protest successfully captured the attention of the nation.

Maybe the best direct action we can all take, without fear of arrest, is to vote for a woman to be the president of the United States. That action can be taken in another 11 months; until then, ladies, we might just have to hold it.

Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.