New York Corrects Restroom Disparity

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg signs the Women's Restroom Equity Act. It aims to bring potty parity to city bars, sports arenas, movie theaters and similar venues by mandating that they maintain two women's bathroom stalls for every one allotted to men.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Women now have another reason to love New York. This week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed the Women's Restroom Equity Act, or, as he noted...

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (Republican, New York): This is what they call the potty parity bill.

BLOCK: The bill is designed to cut down those long lines in front of women's rest rooms at theaters and sports arenas. It amends the building code in the city so that all new construction will require two women's bathroom stalls for every one for men. NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER reporting:

Before Mayor Bloomberg signed the bill, in his own dry way he said men like him would benefit just as much as women.

Mayor BLOOMBERG: This bill brings parity to rest rooms across the city which will speed women through bathrooms and reduce waiting-around time for their male companions. That's where I come in. I am typically one of those. So I am certainly in favor of this.

ADLER: At a matinee intermission in front of "The Producers," the Broadway show, people are standing outside the theater. On the same block, you can see Jackie Mason's one-man show, "Phantom of the Opera," and "Spamalot." Carol Friend, Jennifer Freeman, and Rosalyn Beekman(ph) are theatergoers who have stood on line outside women's bathrooms all too often. Carol Friend says on this day, the lines were just too long.

Ms. CAROL FRIEND (Theatergoer): Actually, I tried the men's, only there was someone in there. So, I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

ADLER: So you have commandeered...

Ms. FRIEND: Yes.

ADLER: ...men's bathrooms in your life?

Ms. FRIEND: Yes. Yes, I have. Yes, I have.

Ms. JENNIFER FREEMAN (Theatergoer): You know, I've considered it.

ADLER: But you haven't done it?

Ms. FREEMAN: I haven't done it yet.

Ms. ROSALYN BEEKMAN (Theatergoer): I have done that. Certainly, when, you know, there's no option and I've just had to do it. And women tend to--when they have to go, they have to go, I think. So...

ADLER: You think they can't hold it in as long?

Ms. BEEKMAN: I think so. So I think it's a very good idea. When I saw it on television, I thought, `He's got a point.'

ADLER: At the bill signing, Bloomberg told this same story from a man's point of view to members of the City Council and the Women's City Club.

Mayor BLOOMBERG: I will say my experience has been this a number of times. I've been in a restaurant waiting for a small men's room to open up, and a woman comes out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mayor BLOOMBERG: This, hopefully, will solve that problem and give men back their rights as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mayor BLOOMBERG: Seriously, it's easy to smile about, but this is a problem.

ADLER: Now here's a 20-second history of New York City's public bathrooms, according to Vicki Rovere, author of "Where to Go: A Guide to Manhattan's Toilets." There were lots of them in the 1940s and '50s, but in the 1980s, when mental health patients were released from hospitals with few support services, many became homeless. And besides living on the streets and in subway stations, they took over public bathrooms. Rest rooms in libraries and train stations closed down. Today, superstores and chain stores like Barnes & Noble, McDonald's and Starbucks are making bathrooms available. Vicki Rovere said she just had to write a book. She was actually inspired by the author of "The Good Loo Guide to London."

Ms. VICKI ROVERE (Author, "Where to Go: A Guide To Manhattan's Toilets"): That guy also did one for Paris, the "Guide Porcelaine." And then I discovered after I had done my book, that he did one for New York, too, in '66.

ADLER: Rovere's book is actually the fourth bathroom guide for New York City. The current edition has more than 800 listings.

There are clearly many explanations for why women need more bathrooms than men, from anatomy to men's use of urinals. But Rovere had an unusual explanation for why architects in old New York may have created fewer women's rooms than men's rooms.

Ms. ROVERE: In the late 19th century, women were dressed up like pieces of furniture. With all their undergarments and corsets and truss work and long gowns, they couldn't get in and out of the clothes by themselves. So women were trained from an early age that it was improper to use a public facility.

ADLER: Although women's dress is certainly skimpier today, there are many women who will forgo that cup of coffee or glass of water before the performance in hopes that they will make it all the way through the show. Perhaps this legislation will make that problem a thing of the past. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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