Long Lines at Women's Toilets? It's the Law Designers of a new arena in St. Louis thought they were doing a good thing by putting more toilets in the women's restrooms. But as architecture professor Kathryn Anthony explains, their modest effort is only one small step in a direction that will require broad legislation.

Long Lines at Women's Toilets? It's the Law

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/90365900/90365853" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The city of St. Louis and its baseball team, the Cardinals, nearly stepped in it last year when they built their new baseball facility with fewer women's facilities, that is, ladies rooms, than men's rooms. This was a violation of the state's so-called "potty parity" law. It's when the planners of the new Chaifetz Arena at St. Louis University installed 120 toilets for women, as compared to 103 toilets and urinals for men, they thought that were doing a good thing.

Turns out this may also be in violation of Missouri's potty parity law. Technically speaking, the law says an equal number of porcelain fixtures, not more for the women, even if you know nature dictates that equal isn't always equal when it comes to bathroom waiting times. The situation in St. Louis isn't yet resolved, but it did get us thinking about the broader picture.

What is this potty parity making access to restrooms equal for men and women? What are the theories underlining it? So luckily, on the line in a rare treat, we have the foremost authorities in this area, Kathryn Anthony. She's a professor of architecture at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and she's on the board of the directors, sorry, the Board of Directors of the American Restroom Association. She also wrote a book called "Designing for Diversity." Hello, Kathryn.

Dr. KATHRYN ANTHONY (Design Chair, Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Board of Directors, American Restroom Association): Good morning.

PESCA: Good morning. Right off, it seems like what's at issue in St. Louis is the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. When these laws were written from what you know about then, were they designed just to achieve mathematical parity? Or were they designed to actually help these waiting times at the ladies room?

Dr. ANTHONY: Well, it's a good question, and I'm delighted to be speaking about the subject because it's near and dear to my heart, and it's near and dear to the hearts and bladders of women and children around the world.



Dr. ANTHONY: And I will tell you that I think what the issue is in St. Louis is that the laws there call for equal numbers of fixtures for men's and women's rooms. However, since that law was passed, other states and municipalities have passed laws calling for more fixtures for women then for men and that's what we really need.

And "potty parity" really means that men and women have equal speed of access to public restrooms when the facility is used to its maximum, and it would often be at a sports arena. It doesn't mean necessarily equal square footage or equal number of toilets for men and women. It means that there's more fixtures needed for women then for men.

PESCA: It seems to make sense that the best way to figure out what the right number is, is to time how long everyone takes and then make it so that an average man's wait is the same as an average woman's wait at the restroom.

Dr. ANTHONY: Very logical. Very logical.

PESCA: Unfortunately, here's where logic hits the real world.

Dr. ANTHONY: That's right. Not always done, and in fact, there have been studies done that show physiologically, women do take longer than men to use the restroom, and it's not putting on their makeup and doing things in front of the mirror.

MARTIN: Although sometimes it is. Sometimes it is.

Dr. ANTHONY: Sometimes, but usually it's the physiology that takes longer, and what I would say is until men have menstrual periods, until men get pregnant, or until men breastfeed babies, we'll always have a need for potty parity, and it's always going to take women longer than men.

PESCA: I would imagine that if I were writing a law it would be hard to say, oh, we'll just time it so it works out. It would just be easier to come up with a number. So did the experts - is there some sort of magic number or magic ratio out there that comes close to the effect which is equal speed?

Dr. ANTHONY: Well, there are building codes that dictate this, and they vary depending on the locale and on the type of building and on the occupancy level. And there are laws that apply to these, but they vary by location and some call for one-to-one, which - like the Missouri law does that you just mentioned, but other places call for different ratios, sometimes two to one, three to one, or even four to one, women's fixtures to men's.

PESCA: And sometimes they go overboard, right? Like in Chicago's new Soldier Field, the men were waiting longer than the women and that just could not stand.

Dr. ANTHONY: They couldn't stand it...

PESCA: Well, they could stand, which is one reason why the wait is less, but - yes.

Dr. ANTHONY: But they complained about it when they did.

PESCA: Got it.

Dr. ANTHONY: And we've seen that happen in a number of places when the potty parity laws have been passed and when buildings have been renovated with the new codes in place. When there have been waits for men, on occasion, we've seen some unpleasant behavior resulting. We've seen some men cutting in line, some men trying to enter in the exit, on the verge of fighting, and sometimes trying to even undo the new potty parity laws almost before the ink had dried.

PESCA: I will just say that no matter what happens, men will never pass toilet paper under the stall. That will never happen in the history of restrooms.

Dr. ANTHONY: Not after last year.

PESCA: Oh, yeah. Tap, tap. I have a question about free-market economics. My friend who is an acolyte of Milton Friedman will say, hey, shouldn't the free market just take care of this? Shouldn't the people who build stadiums or entertainment venues know that you have to address your customer's needs, and if they're not doing it then the customers won't come? How come it has to be written into law in your experience?

Dr. ANTHONY: It definitely has to be written into law because the customers and consumers' best interests are not always taken into account when designing and managing facilities like these. It's a public-health issue and a public-safety issue and an issue of the welfare of the citizens. And so it's not taken for granted that these considerations will always be taken into account.

And I think, in a way, it's somewhat similar to the laws that we are seeing now around the country for smoke-free environment. A little bit analogous to that, but we need to think about the public welfare, and that there are, in fact, medical consequences, health consequences, for people who are forced to wait in long lines for restrooms, and they're not good ones. For women who have to wait in long lines, particularly if they're pregnant, they can have all sorts of problems. Urinary tract infections and other kinds of medical complications can result.

PESCA: Now, I've read some of your writing on this issue, and one thing you wrote is that restrooms historically have been settings for privileging one group and discriminating against another. Now, I've been to a lot of men's rooms and they're rarely a privilege, but do you think that the paucity of women's rooms is a conscious effort to inconvenience women?

Dr. ANTHONY: I don't say it's conscious at all. I think it's just something that we've historically inherited here in the United States, and we're certainly not the only country where this is the case. I think that public restrooms have historically discriminated not just by gender, but also by class and race and physical ability, and it's part of a broader issue.

And we've seen in the U.S. that the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act provided equal access to public restrooms for African-Americans and for persons with physical disabilities, but we have no such federal legislation providing equal access to public restrooms for women.

PESCA: It seems like that's one of those things where everyone would make a joke about it, and yet probably 51 percent of the population would really want that legislation.

Dr. ANTHONY: You're right. You're right. And I will say that if our three presidential candidates started advocating for federal potty-parity laws and revised building codes to improve America's public restrooms for women, men and children, I think they could earn lots of votes.

PESCA: But then it just - it does open one up to ridicule, and that must be something that you butt up against often.

Dr. ANTHONY: I do. I do. People laugh the subject off and they think it's funny, and it is, up to a point...

PESCA: Up to a point where you're jumping from leg to leg just hoping to go.

Dr. ANTHONY: That's right. That's right. But it's an issue that affects all of us, and it's an issue that we can all relate to. So as an act of admission, yes, people always laugh when they find out that this is an issue that I've been writing about, no question. But it's a serious one, because it has health impacts, mental-health impacts, as well as psychological impacts, and discomfort goes beyond laughing. It's not a laughing matter for - there's a lot of people with medical problems, too, I think it's worth mentioning. Many people have invisible disabilities.

For instance, they may have intermittent or chronic medical conditions that require excessive restroom use. They may have an overactive bladder, urinary tract infections, chronic digestive illnesses such as irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, Diverticulitis disease, Crohn's disease. And for people who have these illnesses, which you certainly can't tell looking at them, they're invisible. The availability of public restrooms, or the lack thereof, severely hampers their daily activities, causing many to just stay home.

PESCA: Then there's one last quick question. I know that you go and are instrumental in something called the World Toilet Forum, and it deals with a lot of serious issues, but what's the wait at that forum? What's the wait in line for a bathroom?

Dr. ANTHONY: Oh. OK. I would say, for people to find out more, one of the best sources for information and for advocating about these issues is the American Restroom Association. If you go www.americanrestroom.org...

PESCA: All right.

Dr. ANTHONY: It's America's advocate for the availability of clean, safe and well-designed public restrooms.

PESCA: Thank you. Kathryn Anthony, professor of architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, and a board member of the American Restroom Association.

Dr. ANTHONY: Thank you.

MARTIN: I bet the wait is short there, yeah. Hey, stay with us. Next on the show, sports on the show with the honorable Bill Wolff. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.