“The Ladies Room.” A commonly heard phrase these days. “Where is the ladies room?” is a question any given server or bartender likely hears on average 10 times a night. The availability of public restrooms for the exclusive use of women is such an accepted standard that we rarely even give thought to the matter.
But the concept of sex-segregated toilets is relatively recent. In Roman times, public restrooms were large communal affairs that were believed to be used by men and women alike. The multi-seated open rooms afforded no privacy whatsoever, and were considered social places, where people chatted, played games, and generally caught up on the latest gossip. In Victorian England, conversely, public restrooms were private affair afforded mostly to gentlemen alone – women were expected to have planned ahead. One contemporary put it bluntly: “Either ladies didn’t go out or ladies didn’t ‘go’” (as quoted in Ladies and Gents). If a sudden need arose and they were of a certain class, coaches generally could be utilized as a makeshift portable toilet; but for the vast majority of women, the fear of needing to go probably kept them from often venturing into the public sphere. The shame of conceding one urinated as a female was relentless: the first attempts to build a women’s public toilet in London was openly called an abomination and the chagrin of women forced to urinate in the streets was caricatured as the very face of indecency.
But the increasing awareness about sanitation, as well as increased mobility of women, eventually fostered the acceptance of public toilets for women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century — followed shortly thereafter by their regulation. In South Carolina, three state laws were passed in the early 20th century that required women be provided with a separate space to relieve themselves. In 1904, the state legislature passed a law requiring that first-class coaches on trains have separate toilet compartments labelled “women” and “men” (second-class travelers had to make do with a single unisex compartment, presumably). A version of this bill was introduced as early as 1891, but did not pass for another 15 years. Notably, the wording changed several times – originally the compartments were to be labelled “For Ladies” and “For Gentlemen,” then “Exclusively For Females” and “Exclusively for Males,” and finally settling on the more generic Women/Men. The same piece of legislation also mandated separate coaches for white and colored passengers.
Two years later, in 1906, the legislature also required that separate facilities be provided for ladies at railroad stations. It is noteworthy that the earliest legislation providing for public ladies rooms were in the sphere of travel, and that was a benefit reserved for the privileged.
It is also notable that the early legislation was not proscriptive – the requirement was merely that ladies rooms be provided, and the bill that eventually passed specifically avoided language that charged who could use the rooms.
This was not the case three years later, when legislature passed its third and final law on ladies rooms. In 1909, SC passed a comprehensive Factory Inspection Act (an early version of OSHA) which was meant to protect women and children from the harsh realities of factory work at the time. This was the first legislation in the state to outlaw child labor for certain dangerous occupations. But the initial dilemma the bill sought to redress was workplace facilities. The first charge for the newly enlarged Agricultural Commissioner was to ensure that factories provided separate toilets for women in the workplace: “Every factory, mercantile or other establishment” employing more than two people, “shall be provided with a sufficient number of separate water closets, earth closets or privies, for the use of each sex, and plainly so designated: and no person shall be allowed to use a closet or privy which is provided for persons of other sex.” The bill went on to charge that the bathrooms also be “kept clean and free from disagreeable odors.” Violators could be fined up to $30. The outlawing of child labor followed these provisions later in the same bill.
The first two of these early laws on ladies rooms, those that provided for them in railroads and railway stations, are still on the books today (SC Code 58-17-3100 and 58-15-720). The third law, regarding factories and other places of employment, was repealed in 1981. Although our legislators thereafter became silent on the subject, state agencies such as DHEC continued to proliferate regulations concerning ladies rooms throughout the twentieth century. Today, there are regulations in place that specify toilets for women be available at marinas, camps, schools, public swimming pools, and, oddly enough, crab meat processing plants.
[Want more? This is part of a larger article that will be published in the Auntie Bellum later this year.]