A photograph of Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton in a women’s bathroom has been posted on social media recently. It got me thinking about Ladies toilets.
When I was about four my father took me to football matches. There were not many women at matches in the mid-60s, and therefore no one to take me to the Ladies toilets. He would take me to the Gents, checking the coast was clear and standing outside the stall. I learned then that there was something wrong about using the “other” toilet. This was reinforced at primary school where the boys dared the girls to enter the boys’ toilets, and just putting a foot inside the threshold led to shocked giggles. I went to an all-girls secondary school so didn’t encounter this segregation as a teenager, but did learn that the toilets were where you heard all the gossip, and where the “bad” girls discussed sex or smoked a crafty cigarette.
I discovered I had started my first period in a public toilet in an amusement park on the day Elvis Presley died. A kindly woman kitted me out with a huge pad fastened with safety pins, and thus began over forty years of changing and disposing of sanitary products in public toilets. The bins in each cubicle today are certainly an improvement on the incinerators with the name “bunnie” and a picture of a happy rabbit that used to grace the Ladies toilet in many Government buildings. I have washed the blood off the back of my skirt in a public toilet, and given a tampon to another woman caught without.
When I started visiting nightclubs ‘the Ladies’ became a place of gossip, heartbreak, friendship and preparation. There is some truth in the adage that women always go to the toilet in pairs. I remember plotting with a friend how I was going to make a man I fancied notice me as I sashayed across the dance floor. I redid my lipstick, fluffed up my hair and set out. He did notice me, but mainly because I had inadvertently tucked the back of my skirt in my knickers. In the early 80s the Ladies toilets in the Rum Runner nightclub in Birmingham had large mirrors and many young men would come in to fix their makeup and perfect their pouts. We would budge up to give them room, and discuss the best foundation and how to crimp your hair to look like Siouxsie Sioux. The sweet smell of hairspray hid the slightly less pleasant odours. Many nightclubs towards the end of the evening would have a group of young women holding back the hair of a friend as she vomited in the toilet bowl. Sometimes women would comfort a friend who had been dumped, or plan how to help their friend get away from a drunk and possibly violent boyfriend.
One of my early jobs was as a project officer on a building site. I was the only woman, and although I was fortunate enough not to suffer sexual harassment, it was a moment of calm to escape to the one small cabin with the skirted lady on the door, even though my silhouette with steel toe capped boots, thick trousers, hi-vis vest and hard hat bore no resemblance to this elegant creation. Later, as a Trade Union officer dealing with personal cases I was often alerted to women in distress by colleagues who had found them crying in toilets. If I was representing a woman at a disciplinary meeting we would often have a brief chat in the Ladies beforehand just to calm her nerves. Before a presentation or other important occasion I would practice my opening remarks in front of the mirror in the Ladies.
Once I became a mother, the toilets became an obstacle course as I worked out how to perch on the pedestal with a baby in a sling on my chest, or how to wedge a buggy in the cubicle door so a toddler can still see you. I have changed many a nappy on a toilet floor. I have expressed milk in a work toilet, but never breastfed in a toilet as on the one occasion I was asked to (when having afternoon tea in the lounge a posh London hotel) I refused. Actually posh hotels are particularly good when you need to use the loo. I learnt that if you walk confidently through the lobby no one will stop you, and the signs pointing to the “powder room” are usually prominent.
As a menopausal woman with hot flushes the toilets have become a place to cool off, to remove layers and to splash water around. I haven’t yet mastered the underarm air dryer as demonstrated by Madonna in “Desperately Seeking Susan” but it is only a matter of time.
As for trans women, although they do not have exactly the same experiences as natal women, they are in need of that refuge away from the macho world too and I am more than happy to welcome them in. I find it sad that some of the women who object to trans women using women’s toilets could be those same women who offered makeup tips to those Goths and New Romantic boys all those years ago.
In my mind a Ladies Toilet is inextricably linked to the experience of being a woman, offering privacy and a safe place away from the sometimes excessively masculine and potentially uncomfortable world outside.