In Hidden Figures, the excellent film about African-American women mathematicicans working at NASA in the early years of the space program, the main character, Katherine, spends an inordinate amount of time rushing across the Langley campus in her heels to the Colored Women’s restroom. In fact, the sequences get a bit tiresome–until you realize that of course that’s the point: If watching it is tiresome, imagine having to make that trip, half a mile each way, whenever you need to relieve yourself. Meanwhile, Katherine’s
boss gets annoyed that she’s absent so much, until the day she finally explains. Then he takes a sledgehammer to the sign and integrates NASA’s bathrooms.
Women scientists have had bathroom trouble before. I describe one instance in my book Magnificent Minds. When nuclear physicist Lise Meitner began working with chemist Otto Hahn in Berlin in 1907, the boss, famous organic chemist Emil Fischer, restricted her to the basement. Fischer’s excuse? Meitner’s long hair might catch fire in the Bunsen burners upstairs. (Fischer’s bushy beard apparently presented no such danger.) Besides being confined to the woodshop, Meitner had to walk down the street to a nearby hotel to use the restroom.
How silly, but how oppressive. Nothing says, “Your kind isn’t wanted here” like failing to provide restrooms. I can’t help but think of these examples as I read about the controversy over which bathrooms transgendered students may use in schools. I’m not convinced by statements that restricting bathroom use is “to protect our daughters.” What is the fear? That a person who considers herself female is going to display male genitalia to frighten other girls in the bathroom? Why would she? Or is the fear that males will pretend to be transgender to get into girls’ bathrooms and spy on them? But then why don’t they do that now? Right now, a man could slip on a dress and a wig and go through the wrong door. This doesn’t seem to happen. What changes if we welcome those who consider themselves female into the bathroom of their choice?
No, I think on the whole the real issue is something else. A woman from Omaha explained it on NPR this morning. She works in a school, she says, and they have transgender students, and even though she doesn’t “approve of their choice,” the school treats them all with love. But allowing them to use the bathroom that makes them comfortable “would only encourage it.” The idea seems to be that allowing a young person to use their chosen bathroom would overcome all their other hesitations and lure them into becoming transgender, a choice they would otherwise rationally reject.
I don’t think this makes sense.
I understand that the mere idea of transgender people can make us uncomfortable. From early childhood, a person’s gender is one of the very first things we perceive about them. To think that this designation is fluid or uncertain can be profoundly disorienting. What does it mean about us? Do we really have to think about this? But truly, people who question or seek to change their gender are not impinging on our freedom or physical security.
And for all you men out there, I’ll tell you a secret. Women’s restrooms have stalls. Women use the toilet in privacy.
Forty years ago, when I attended Harvard, the houses in the Radcliffe Yard were co-educational. Males and females lived on the same floors. But because the dorms had been built when Radcliffe housed only women, there was only one large shared bathroom on each long hallway. The dorm held an annual bathroom vote to determine whether the bathrooms should also be co-ed, or whether half the population should have to travel to another hallway or another floor. Over and over, the co-ed bathrooms prevailed. People used the toilet stalls. They closed the shower doors. They didn’t intimidate or harass one another. In fact, it worked pretty much the way it does when you’re at home. Everyone was welcome to use the bathroom. It wasn’t a big deal.
So maybe it’s time to do what Kevin Costner did in Hidden Figures. Knock down the signs. A restroom is a restroom. A person who needs it should be allowed to use it, and we can all be just a little courteous and discreet.