Women’s rights and the “loo leash”: the fight for public toilets in the UK

This blog is by Grace Phiri a PhD Researcher at the University of Leeds.

Introduction

Until the 1820s all over Europe urination and defaecation often took place in public places such as fields, gardens, and also in the streets. During the mid-19th century (1830-1860), Victorian social reformers championing debates on public health and the promotion of  modern sewage systems brought urination and defaecation to a private room inside the house away from the public eye (Law et al., 1999). The growth of public toilets in urban spaces from the 1850s was closely linked to rapid urbanisation and the development of modern sewage systems in the British Empire. London was at the centre of this development influencing the development of model cities based on British style sewage, plumbing and water closets in Europe and  the colonies (Greed, C., 2007).  With the expansion of water closets came a cultural shift where bodily functions moved from the Victorian era of carrying out basic acts such as relieving one-self in public to private domains in the house and in public toilets.

The ideology regarding the separation of sexes in public toilet provision started in the Victorian era as manifested in the provision of urinals and public toilets for men and not for women (Ramster et al., 2018). The lack of potty parity signified male dominance in public spaces which remained unchallenged for a long time. Municipal public toilets for women were scarce in British urban spaces during the nineteenth century (Greed, C., 2007). Women in the middle and upper social classes had access to public facilities in restaurants and departmental stores when out and about. In Central London, some private companies and women’s associations offered some privately-run public toilets covering a range of needs including a private room for socialising for a fee (Penner, 2001; Cooper et al., 2000). Unfortunately, these facilities where not available to all women due to social class exclusion, location, and affordability.

The absence of public toilets for women in the cities and workplaces limited women’s access to public spaces. The control of women by not providing public toilets was referred as the “loo leash”, meaning women were tied to the home or to places where they had access to the toilet if needed (Greed, 2019).Women’s subordination has historically been socialised with the relegation of women to domestic roles in the private sphere of the home excluding them from public spaces (Jeffreys, 2014). This meant that women were disadvantaged in their ability to find work, go shopping or use public social spaces. During her reign Queen Victoria (1837-1901) is rumoured to have supported the idea that women need to go when they felt the urge; “ one should always avail oneself of the opportunity if it presents itself” (Penner, 2001). The “loo leash” affected poor lower class women more than the middle and upper class as the latter could afford to pay in private public toilets and shop in departmental shops with toilets. Partly public toilets were provided to maintain social harmony and to improve the lives of the less fortunate lower class. However, class distinction was still maintained by the differences in quality and charges of public toilets (Crook, 2006). The provision of public toilets did not erase the society’s views that women using the public toilets were viewed as none other than prostitutes and therefore the provision of public toilets was seen as a threat to the decency of women at a time when unaccompanied women in the streets of London were scorned. It seems in the Victorian era a woman’s morality was much more important than their physical needs.

Table 1   shows the number of public toilets around London in 1895, only one of them serviced women and it was only open for five hours on weekdays and four hours on a Sunday.

Table of public toilets

Table 1 Underground Public toilets in the city of London showing opening times in 1895(McCabe, 2012)

In Victorian times a woman’s role was associated with domestic life of tending the family and caring for the home. The few women who left the home to feminine jobs such as teaching, dressmaking or looking after the middle and upper class households were not allowed to participate in public spaces and they had to be accompanied by a male to avoid being labelled a prostitute(Penner, 2001). These working women were not allowed to visit pubs or coffee houses. Public spaces  and workplaces remained very much male dominated booming with male oriented institutions such as politics, banking and male culture entertainment (Penner, 2001).  Changes emerged in the 19th century with the growth of cities and the movement of middle-upper classes into the suburbs demanding more participation of women in work places and public spaces.

Cutting  the “loo leash

The 1850s saw the emergence of women rights groups (Law et al., 1999; Greed, C.H., 1996) fighting for sanitation and the provision of public toilets for women as minimum conditions for women to participate a full social life without being subjected to the “loo leash”. The campaign was difficult facing opposition from men who felt threatened by the inclusion of women in public spaces or “their spaces”.

In the UK the increase in public toilets was associated with the success of the flush toilet and the Great London Exhibition of 1851 (Jaglarz, 2014). Originally the Great London Exhibition only provided public toilets for men, women’s toilets were added later. Throughout the 19th century potty parity imbalances continued, a good example is the 1900 Leicester square public toilets which were built with 40 cubicles/urinals for men and only 10 for women (Loobery, 2009).

In the nineteenth century shops started to develop the commercial understanding that women would spend more money shopping in city spaces if they could spend more time from home but there was no space for respectable women to sit away from the proximity of men and alcohol (Montgomery, 1997). Women shoppers had a physical and social challenge presented with several hours of shopping, walking considerable distances and no places to sit down and rest as it was of course unacceptable to enter most restaurants or bars as they served alcohol, and the coffee houses mainly catered for working men and usually located away from the shopping areas. Realising the power of wealthy women shoppers by the 1890s, respectable fashionable cafés and tea rooms emerged within shopping spaces in city centres and in department stores themselves serving non- alcoholic drinks segregated from the main restaurants serving men alcohol and tobacco (Rains, 2022). These cafés and tea rooms provide the first private spaces in which women could respectably sit freely in public enhancing their shopping experiences, they also provided the important public toilets and powder rooms specifically for women. Departmental stores used bargain basements which catered  for poor working class customers to separate the socioeconomic classes and the use of the public toilets protecting their middle and upper-class clientele (Banks, 2019). These public toilets were also not available to all women as these privately owned businesses were only catering for their middle- and upper-class patrons

After the commissioning of the first flashing public toilet in 1851 during the GREAT LONDON EXHIBITION the Ladies Sanitary Association (LSA) was formed to spearhead the campaign for women’s rights to sanitation  among other things, it was strongly backed by Dr Stevenson (male) who was the medical officer  for Paddington, he declared that women had the same  “physical necessities” as men and therefore female public toilets were a necessity rather than luxury (Foard, 1902). He pointed out that the lack of public toilets was not only affecting women’s health but also their enjoyment of public spaces detailing the extent to which the call of nature cannot be controlled by all humans let alone women. The LSA used pamphlets, lectures and public talks as mediums for their campaign. They succeeded in having a few women’s public toilets opened around the UK but progress was slow (Hepplewhite, 1996). A second group called the Union of Women’s Liberal and Radical Associations (UWLRA) emerged around the late 1890s. It campaigned for working class women to have public toilets, in Camden in 1898 the members wrote to The Vestry in Camden for a women’s toilets next to the existing men’s toilet (Ramster et al., 2018). Men opposed the women’s toilets being situated next to the men, and when a model toilet for women was built on Camden High street cab drivers deliberately ran into it to prove that its location was not suitable (Jeffreys, 2014), it took several years before a women’s toilets was allowed which was a victory for the women of Camden who could now access the high street at leisure.

The public Health Act (London) 1891 delegated local authorities the duty to provide and maintain public toilets, however, the first public toilet for women appeared in 1893 opposite the Royal Court of Justice in the Strand (London) (Menzies, 1928; Cavanagh and Ware, 1990). The majority of public toilet in London most of them underground were built  between 1894-1925 however, it was reported that women were reluctant to use the facilities due the stigma and modesty among women (Cavanagh and Ware, 1990).

The countrywide campaigns for the provision of women’s toilets paid off and the provision of women’s public toilets started being taken seriously, with public toilets for women opening even outside London (see figure 2).

Bankhill Toilets

Figure 2 The Bankhill Ladies Public Convenience in Berwick-upon-Tweed opened in March 1899 (Menuge and Dewar, 2015)

The Bankhill ladies public toilet was used 62 times on its opening day in 1899 (Hepplewhite, 1996) showing that women needed public toilets to  move freely away from home.

Improved public toilet facilities for women was slow with women’s facilities appearing in theatres, shops and railway stations throughout the country. Hull city council posted a notice on Monday 15 March 1926 to build new public toilets servicing both men and women replacing the male only facilities near the Victoria Pier in Nelson Street (Spending a Penny: an Exploration of England’s Public Toilets, 2022).

During the First World War nearly a million women worked in munition factories to support the war effort. As women entered previously male-dominated professions and began to participate in city life, they began to campaign for the provision of facilities such as changing rooms and toilets specifically for women in public spaces. The London based departmental store Selfridges provided its first female toilet in 1909 when the shop opened allowing members of the Suffragette movement to use them while campaigning.  While the First World War marked an increase in the number of public toilets for women other forms of exclusion such as race, disabilities and economic class began to appear and these would take other campaigns to highlight. Some employers were reluctant to install women’s toilets after the war as they believed that women were taking men’s employment(Wright, 2010). It took until 1992 for the Workplace Regulation 1992 to become effective making it a legal requirement for employers to provide separate facilities for men and women (Kainer, 2009; Wright, 2010).

In a report presented  by the Medical Officer of Health to the London County Council in 1928 the inadequate provision of public toilets for women was highlighted (Menzies, 1928).  They presented that London had 233 public toilets for men compared to 184 for women and further calculated the usable facilities as 1,260 cubicles plus 2,610 urinal stalls for men, compared to only 876 cubicles for women. They also pointed out that men had extra urinals provided by public houses (Cavanagh and Ware, 1990). The report highlighted the changes in women’s lifestyles such as more women going to work, increased shopping facilitated by improved rail and road transport systems, and the increased amount of entertainment such as the cinema, theatre and open air bands. Women were generally spending more time away from home increasing the demand for public toilets. The loss of the LSA around the early 1900s meant that women did not have a voice advocating for them. Section 87 of the Public Health Act 1936 stated that local authorities may provide public toilets proper and convenient locations (Cavanagh and Ware, 1990).  By using the word ‘may’ in the Act the importance of the obligation was diminished and therefore some authorities provided good facilities while others provided poor facilities.

Conclusion

The importance of accessible  public toilets in public spaces is often down played, in the UK there is no current law fact there is currently no law which legally obligates local authorities to provide public toilets(Greed, C., 2007). Public  toilet availability in convenient spaces has implications for public health, economic development, social mobility,  public transport systems and city sustainability. For the government to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 with promotion of people using public transport, cycling and walking, the existence of adequate public toilets for everyone are essential to support these systems

The relationship between women’s human rights  and public toilet provision has been examined in recent studies, Greed, C.H. (1996) arguing from a planning point of view states that women’s public toilets are essential infrastructure and therefore should be in place to allow women free accessibility into cities and urban spaces. From a feminist legal point of view it is  argued that lack of public toilets for women reinforces the idea that women are alien, unwelcome and unconsidered in cities and urban spaces, and they were being treated as unequal citizens (Daley, 2000). The challenges for women equality remain, mostly talked about with little change, women earn less, are more likely to be burdened by domestic chores, have greater responsibility in physical childcare and are more likely to use public transport or walk (Beebeejaun, 2017). The right to everyday life built up from these ordinary practices and life experiences compounded by the existing inadequate public toilets in urban spaces still pose challenges to women navigating public spaces today.

Public toilets provide a private space where women have the freedom to think, to cry, to fix their makeup, to gossip with a friend or strangers or just a space to escape the busy streets as well as the most obvious needs. Public toilets are important for women as they generally urinate more regularly, they menstruate, they are less likely to urinate out in the open, they may be pregnant and they are more likely to care for children or the elderly while in public. Studies have concluded that women require more time on the toilet than averaging 90 seconds for women to 60 seconds for men (Ramster et al., 2018), not forgetting women clothing are a complex issue on their own. Time consuming factors relating to women such as menstruation, anatomical differences and complex clothing lead to long queues in women’s public toilets compared to men’s. The UK is yet to respond despite recommendations from the British Toilet Association that there should be as many female toilets as there are toilet cubicles and urinals for men (Ramster et al., 2018).

Despite the additional needs public toilet provision in the UK still favours men. A research by Ghent University determined that using the same amount floor plan men get 20-30% more by using a combination of urinals and cubicles compared to cubicles only for women (Greed, C., 2007). This means that the ratio of toilet provision is 2:1 in favour of men with women’s cubicles not big enough to accommodate women with children or assisting other adults with toileting needs (Ramster et al., 2018; Greed, C., 2007). Most public toilets do not meet women’s needs who are faced with social dilemmas of how best they can modify their behaviours to successfully navigate public spaces. Women’s fight for public toilets has close associations to women’s fight for equality, while the provision has improved potty parity is far from being achieved. The improved provision of public toilets for women has increased the participation of women in public places although this is under threat from the current decline of public toilet. The toilet that women fought for so long have fallen into disuse, some have been sold off and converted into cafes, bars, hair saloon or other uses. Once again the increased risk of people staying at home due to inadequate public toilets facilities, the “loo leash” rearing its ugly head again this time not only on women but across the population. The most affected by this reduction in public toilets being the homeless, outdoor workers, disabled people and those with illnesses that require frequent public toilet use.

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