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Episode 5

Waiting for the ladies

Waiting for the ladies


Why are women’s toilet queues always longer than men’s? Caroline investigates the history of public conveniences, the impact they have on women’s participation in society and why councils and businesses seem unable to get it right

Caroline Criado Perez: I’m going to check online to see if they have opening hours written down, because it’s 10 o’clock and you would’ve thought ladies might be out by this point.

Caroline, narrating: I’m going to open this episode with a question. What links the playwright George Bernard Shaw and a public toilet in Camden? I’m standing outside London’s Camden Town Station with data journalist and fellow lavatory enthusiast, Patricia, trying to find out.

Caroline: It says Camden Town female public… Oh, hello. Is this going to open at some point?

Cleaner: Yes, it’s open.

Caroline: It’s open?

Cleaner: Yes. I just have to do a deep clean here.

Caroline: Oh, okay…

Caroline, narrating: We’ve come to check out the ladies’ toilets.

Caroline: We can’t have a quick just look around? We don’t need to use it. We just want to see inside.

Caroline, narrating: But, they’re locked.

Caroline: They’re down some quite precipitous steps, so not the most accessible, first of all in that they are locked. And second of all, in that there are some pretty steep steps down there. I think you’d struggle if you had a pram or a wheelchair or any kind of walking disability.

Caroline, narrating: The man who’s cleaning them tells us they should be open in a couple of hours.

Caroline: Did you know that these are the first women’s public toilets to be built? 

Cleaner: Are they?

Caroline: What do you think about that?

Cleaner: I don’t know.

Caroline: You don’t know. Fair enough.

Caroline, narrating: He’s not quite as enthusiastic as we are about this historic landmark in women’s toilet history.

Patricia Clark: Is that a gent’s over there?

Cleaner: Yes. It’s closed. Have to be refurbished.

Caroline: So is the gent’s closed. Right.

Caroline, narrating: We went away and returned to the toilets a few hours later in the hopes they would now be open to curious visitors.

Caroline: So wow. Okay.

Patricia: It smells quite fresh in here.

Caroline: It smells very clean. There is a wet floor. We have how many cubicles? 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 cubicles. There’s a tang of chemicals in the air. 

Caroline, narrating: In the 1890s, this toilet was the site of an important feminist battleground and George Bernard Shaw was an unlikely ally for a noble cause. He wanted to make sure that women had adequate toilet provision.

Caroline: Ready?

[Flushing sound]

Patricia: That’s a toilet. 

Caroline: That’s a toilet. Our Victorian foremothers would’ve been very happy to know that over a century on, and we are still able to go to the toilet as ladies in Camden so long as we don’t have any wheeled items with us.

Patricia: I also really like that the men currently don’t have a toilet.

Caroline: It does feel fitting, doesn’t it? Some kind of karmic justice.

Caroline, narrating: We’ll come back to George and his feminist struggle in a bit, but first I want to tell you about a toilet showdown that took place over a century after the toilets in Camden first appeared.

Samira Ahmed: What the hell’s going on? Because this is ridiculous. Women are queuing and we have enough of a queue anywhere and he said, “We told them that this would happen.”

Caroline, narrating: I’m Caroline Criado Perez and this is Visible Women, my weekly podcast from Tortoise investigating how we finally fix a world designed for men. This week I’m looking at toilets and why we just can’t seem to get enough of them. I’ll explain how a history of being squeamish about women doing normal human things like peeing, pooing, changing tampons and changing nappies is limiting our involvement in society, wasting our time, and putting us at a huge disadvantage.

[Phone notification sounds]

Caroline, narrating: Every week without fail, there’s one thing that I can expect to find in my Twitter mentions. Well, there’s a few things, but I’ll spare you the details. I’m talking about pictures of toilet queues. Across the country, even across the world, omen send me photos of themselves waiting to use the toilet. Recent queues I’ve been sent include Madrid and Palma Airports, Wembley Stadium, the British Museum, Victoria Train Station, and that’s only the ones I get on Twitter. People email them to me too. I wrote about the great gender toilet gap in my book, Invisible Women, and how the perennial cue for the ladies is a symptom of male biased design and not a result of our own ineptitude at peeing. And it makes sense that women still message me about it almost three years after the book was published. This may not be the most life-threatening injustice out there, but it’s definitely one of the most annoying. Queuing for the toilet is a near daily irritant around which many of us plan our outings. It’s also something that women are used to being mocked for. “What do you all do in there?” Men ask us incredulously as if we’re queuing for fun while they saunter in and out of their own pee palaces. So this week we’re reporting from the heart of the beast, the queue for the ladies. And I’m asking, how did we get here? And quite literally, where can we go?

Samira: It’s interesting when you’re genuinely shocked by something you don’t tweet about it expecting it to have a huge reaction. You just think, do other people know this? This is astounding. So it was in that sense of genuine surprise and dare I say it journalistic interest that I tweeted it.

Caroline, narrating: This is Samira Ahmed. She’s a friend of mine and she’s been a journalist and broadcaster at the BBC for decades. But she’s not here to talk about her distinguished career. She’s here to tell us about something that happened back in April 2017.

Samira: So it kind of is an overlap with my work. I love movies and I like seeing interesting things. And I went to see, ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, the Raoul Peck film at the Barbican where I am a member, so I get a discount when I book my tickets and I like the cinema. And I went and there was a really big queue for the ladies, like a really big queue, never normally like that and I noticed there were men in there, in the queue. And I thought, what’s going on?

Caroline, narrating: What was going on was that the Barbican Centre, a brutalist hub for arts and culture in Central London had converted their male and female toilets to gender neutral ones, except they hadn’t actually done anything to the toilets themselves to facilitate this transition.

Samira: The signs had been changed and it said ‘gender neutral with cubicles’ and the gents said ‘gender neutral with urinals.’ I did go into the gents and there were no sanitary towel bins in the gents cubicles, so they weren’t gender neutral. Now this was a few years ago, things may have changed since, but I think that’s quite revealing. Don’t you?

Caroline, narrating: There was no queue at all for the ‘gender neutral with urinals’ toilet, which didn’t surprise Samira. And not just because there’s a rumour that the Barbican urinals are kind of scary.

Samira: There’s a terror. Men have a terror of the urinals in the Barbican. Did you know this? Because they’re listed. They’re like a giant… well, they’re not like a giant trough. It’s like you’re peeing down to ground level. So there’s real fear about splash back. I mean, I didn’t know that men had their own anxieties about these urinals, so that’s why they don’t want to use their urinals either.

Caroline: Did you think about using the ‘gender neutral with urinals?’

Samira: No.

Caroline Criado: Why not?

Samira: Because I don’t really want to walk past men with their penises out. I mean so many of the girls I knew growing up, we all had to worry about flashers. Why would we… And also for their privacy. The men I’ve spoken to don’t particularly like the idea of women walking past when they’ve got their penises out.

Caroline, narrating: Samira couldn’t quite remember whether she managed to pee before the film started, but she did decide to write a tweet about it.

Samira: Caroline, you know me, if I notice something isn’t right, I don’t wait for other people to make a complaint about it. I just go and point this out and ask what the hell’s going on? It’s the journalist in me and the feminist in me. And I could tell people were confused, but I just thought, why are these men queuing up to use the ladies when there’s not a queue for the gents urinals? And I pointed out that this is not the United States, as in, trans women have always been able to use women’s loos in this country since legislation has become more modern, and that’s many years. So it wasn’t about that. It was about the fact that there were men queuing up for the ladies.

Caroline, narrating: Samira’s tweet went, in her own words, a bit viral, and it was picked up by the UK media. There was so much fuss that the Barbicans’ PR got in touch and invited Samira in for a meeting.

Samira: With the head of the Barbican Centre Nicholas Kenyon, with a PR woman. And then there was another man who was head of audiences. Anyway, it turned out at this meeting that this man, a cis white man had decided unilaterally that it’d be really good to make this change. And no one had asked for it. And I said, “Well, why haven’t you consulted anyone?” And I’m not joking, this white cis man said to me, “Because they would give the wrong answer.” Well I said, “Oh, why haven’t you consulted your membership? Because there’s lots of women who are members.” He said they would give the wrong answer. He used the word ‘wrong.’

Caroline, narrating: You can hear the frustration in Samira’s voice. And I could see it in her face as she spoke to me. I asked her why she felt so strongly about this issue.

Samira: You know, I’m not here to tell people exactly how they should use the toilet. I’m just expressing my concern about women’s important spaces that we fought for. Victorian women, one of the reasons used, I think, that they couldn’t go to work was, and it wasn’t safe to go out and participate in public life, was there were no facilities for them, and their strange bodies. I mean, Lord knows what Victorian men thought women’s bodies were like. And so having public toilets is a really important part of our emancipation. It’s not a joke. It’s something so fundamental to our freedoms, isn’t it, as women?

Caroline, narrating: Samira is right. Toilet talk isn’t glamorous. And you can imagine the jokes we’ve been making while developing this episode. But public loos are important. They’ve been a cornerstone of the feminist fight for centuries. And that’s because toilets tell us something important about women’s right to dignity and public life.

Barbara Penner: If you’re interested in looking at issues that are relevant to women and the built environment, there is nothing better than a public toilet.

Caroline, narrating: This is Professor Barbara Penner. She’s an architectural historian at UCL, and all-round toilet expert. She wrote a book called, quite simply, ‘Bathroom,’ which obviously is one of my favourite books. She’s also the person who told me about the connection between George Bernard Shaw and public toilets for women. It turns out that when he wasn’t busy writing Pygmalion, George was spending a fair amount of his time being quite vocal about ladies’ loos. This might have been because he wanted to irritate his conservative colleagues on the Parish council, but an ally is an ally and we take what we can get quite frankly. Barbara later tells me that public toilets didn’t really exist at all until the mid 19th century. Not so much of a problem if you’re a man who can go and hide in a discreet corner for a moment or two. But what did women do?

Barbara: If you were out and about you really didn’t have any options. Shaw, when he was describing the problem in the 1890s, talked very darkly about women having to make use of dank alleyways and try somehow to find some privacy and relieve themselves in the city streets. In this, of course, they would’ve been aided by the fact that they had long dresses, so their dresses provided some privacy and also all undergarments at the time were open at the crotch. So if you can imagine having to sort of pull down bloomers or fuss with buttons, it would’ve made it practically impossible to relieve yourself in public. But actually female clothing proved remarkably helpful in that way.

Caroline: In a way better than female clothing today. 

Caroline, narrating: There was even a Victorian version of a she-wee.

Barbara: Something called a bourdaloue. And this was more like a gravy boat, a sauce boat. This may be apocryphal, I suspect it is. But apparently in France there was a preacher, Père Bourdalou, Bourdaloue, who gave excessively long sermons. And his little bourdaloues were brought by women and hidden in their muffs and then taken out and used under their skirts so that they could continue to listen to the sermon.

Caroline, narrating: That all started to change in the Victorian era as relieving yourself on the street became less fashionable. So people started coming up with new and more discreet options. For men, that is.

Barbara: A very important date in terms of the provision of public conveniences was 1848. That was when a new Public Health Act was passed, and that act authorised local authorities to build public conveniences for the first time and use rate payers monies or taxes to do so. Most local authorities did not wish to do so, but those who did built male only facilities.

Caroline, narrating: But all this public talk of bodily functions got people really quite concerned about the threat to delicate lady morals.

Barbara: The rhetoric surrounding public toilets was always quite confused. On the one hand, they were these amenities, they were necessary to improve public health and hygiene and cleanliness. On the other, people like the Reverend and probably supported by local residents, and business owners were very suspicious of these spaces because they saw them as a threat to female morality and decency.

Caroline, narrating: The moral panic meant no public toilets. And no public toilets meant that if you were a woman who needed to pee while you were away from home before the 1890s, your choices were limited. If you were rich enough to own a carriage, and let’s bear in mind, very few people were, you might carry a chamber pot in it. But as for the rest of us, those dank alleyways might have started to look quite appealing. They didn’t appeal to everyone, however, and by the mid 1800s, various people and groups were campaigning for women’s right to public loos.

Barbara: The issue of public toilets for women had many prominent champions. Those included the Society of Arts, which first organised the Great Exhibition and insisted that public conveniences be included as part of the Great Exhibition, all the way through to The Ladies Sanitary Association, which began its campaign for public conveniences for women in the 1870s.

Caroline, narrating: The Ladies Sanitary Association was one of the leading Victorian campaign groups fighting for women’s toilet rights. It was, as one article from 1877 put it, made up of a few earnest women and had branches all over the country. Before these earnest women got going in earnest though, Britain had its first experiment with public toilets in 1851 at London’s Great Exhibition. Think of it as the first ever World Expo hosted in a specially constructed crystal palace in London. 6 million people attended, which at the time was about a third of the entire UK population.

Barbara: It was held in Hyde Park and it was meant to be the showcase of all the latest innovations in industrial technologies from around the world. The Society of Arts, which organised the exhibition, was very concerned that visitors to the exhibition, mainly foreign visitors, would find the absence of public conveniences troubling. They felt it would reflect badly on London and on Britain. And so they insisted on them being provided. They commissioned a very good sanitary engineer, George Jennings, to install three of these near the refreshment rooms. And the so-called waiting rooms were for men and for women.

Caroline, narrating: The world and all its wonders were on display; the world’s biggest diamond, a huge hydraulic press, a carved ivory throne, a stuffed elephant, a defensive umbrella – always handy – and even some folding pianos (bet they were still made for men’s hands though). Queen Victoria noted in her diary that the exhibition featured every conceivable invention. But I think we can all agree what the true stars of the show were. The toilets.

Barbara: Actually, they were very generous with the number that they provided for women.

Caroline, narrating: Before you get too excited though, Barbara tells me that there was a pretty important caveat.

Barbara: Men had urinals, which could be used for free, whereas all of the water closets, to use them, one had to pay a penny. And this is thought to be the origins of the phrase, to spend a penny. And this was, in a sense, I think unhelpful because a penny was quite a lot actually for a working class person to spend, it was quite an exorbitant fee. Women always had to pay it, so it was almost as if from the beginning there was this class bias to the provision of women’s public conveniences.

Caroline, narrating: Still, the Great Exhibition public toilets were deemed an enormous success.

Barbara: They were used over 800,000 times. They raised over £2000. And the Society of Arts made the point, to parliament no lessm that the success of the Great Exhibition toilets should be built upon because it so clearly demonstrated the need and desire for such facilities. And they made the point that they were especially appreciated by females who suffered more for want of them.

Caroline, narrating: It must have felt like the new age of the loo was upon us. But actually campaigners were struggling. Even after the Expo, no one wanted to commit to permanent public toilets for British women.

Barbara: Every time a new public convenience for women was proposed, it was met with strong resistance because it was felt to draw too much attention to the female body, bodily needs. And this led to all sorts of wild objections or descriptions of women’s public toilets as being abominations. Sometimes they were even equated to brothels because in using them, women became public women, displaying their bodies – using Victorian logic here – but in much the same way that prostitutes were public women. So it’s a fascinating set of discussions and when you are trying to unpick what’s really going on, you just realise, you cannot separate the public toilet from Victorian discourses about decency, morality, hygiene, civility, sexuality, all of those things.

Caroline, narrating: Four decades after the exhibition, the Ladies’ Sanitary Association – and George Bernard Shaw of course – were still protesting for women’s toilet rights in Camden. It took a very long time, but eventually the inconvenient facts got in the way of morality. And, reluctantly, some councils started to provide women with the loos that they needed.

Barbara: We start to see more women’s public toilets in the streets of London in the 1890s. Again, they were built quite grudgingly and never in great numbers. It’s not entirely clear what shifts, but I think just after three decades of inaction, it became indefensible to do nothing.

Caroline, narrating: Here’s an obvious statement; we’ve come a long way since the Victorian era, but maybe not that far. Since at least 1848, the Public Health Act has allowed local councils to build public toilets. The trouble is, not many of them took the government up on this great opportunity. And unlike other types of infrastructure, there has never been a legal requirement in the UK for local councils to provide public toilets. But there is one thing that councils have been required to do. Here come the standards:

[Standards Klaxon]

Caroline, narrating: Did you think we’d forgotten about our lovely standards jingle? The standard that covers public toilets built in Britain is called BS 6465. And it’s part one of this standard that seems to have been causing all the issues because this is the section that deals with how many facilities we need to give women versus men. And until 2006, the standards gave men more facilities, when you added urinals and toilets together. You can fit far more urinals into a square footage than you can cubicles. So you ended up in a situation where men had more places to relieve themselves than women, even if the floor space allocated to each room was the same. But for toilets built after 2006, the standards finally called for equality between the sexes, at least when it comes to toilets. So now it’s all sorted, right? Well, not exactly. For a start, this standard doesn’t apply to old buildings, i.e. most of the buildings in the UK. But more importantly, equal provision isn’t what it sounds like.

Lezlie Lowe: Because it takes women longer to empty their bladders. Women have to go into stalls, lock the door. The locks are so problematic, they don’t always work, then women have to remove clothing in ways that men do not. So we do know it takes women longer. We know that women take on average 90 seconds to use the toilet versus 60 for men.

Caroline, narrating: This is Lezlie Lowe.

Lezlie: I’m an author and freelance journalist and I have an abiding interest in public toilet provision.

Caroline, narrating: She even wrote a book about it called No Place to Go, How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs. So Lezlie has spent a lot of time thinking about toilets and not just when she’s in the queue for the ladies. She tells me that it’s not just about women taking longer.

Lezlie: Menstruation is one reason, but also women are more likely to be caregivers for people who require assistance in a toilet.

Caroline, narrating: Then there’s anyone who’s pregnant, that makes you need to pee more frequently. Women are also eight times more likely than men to suffer from urinary tract infections, which anyone who’s had the pleasure could tell you leaves you more or less chained to the toilet. So it’s clear that we’re not talking about equal demand here. And all of this together, the dated standards, the periods, the layers of clothing, and just the simple fact that there are more people using the women’s toilet is why we have the dreaded, and near universal queue for the ladies. 

Caroline: What’s your feeling about toilet queues? How do you feel about them?

Lezlie: How do you think I feel about them? I feel very angry about them.

Caroline, narrating: A woman after my own heart. But I wanted to know what got Lezlie exercised about toilets in the first place.

Lezlie: I really, really took up the toilet torch when I had children because I was struck with this realisation that I couldn’t use my city the way I had used my city before I had kids. And I lived in the downtown core of Halifax, Nova Scotia where I live. And I realised I couldn’t travel as far away from home as I used to because I had somebody with me who at any moment could look at me and say, “I need to pee.” And I would have to find a toilet. And anybody listening who has kids knows it is, it’s kind of a zero to 60 moment where you need to find a toilet as soon as possible.

Caroline, narrating: Lezlie’s original toilet nemesis was in a public park in Canada and rather like the lady’s toilets in Camden, it was down a flight of steps.

Lezlie: So I couldn’t get my stroller down. I would have to leave my stroller at the top of the stairs because I had a big double stroller and it was just nasty. It was not a nice place and it wasn’t maintained frequently. And then I would usually find that it was locked when I needed it. So there was no consistency and that really caused me to have to change the way I approached bathrooms.

Caroline, narrating: This inadequate and mercurial bathroom did have one thing going for it though. And that was simply that it existed.

Lezlie: So in Canada, we don’t have a history or a culture of a lot of on street public bathroom access. What we have mostly is publicly available toilets. So that would be the toilets that we all use that are in cafes and restaurants, and then to a certain extent, libraries and recreation centres and other public buildings.

Caroline, narrating: The trouble with this setup is that it restricts accessibility. Not everyone can afford to spend a penny every time they need to go, whether that’s by paying to use train station loos or buying a drink in a cafe just to access the toilet.

Lezlie: There’s just a whole bunch of controls that can be put in place on those bathrooms. And I don’t begrudge the business owners that control, but I do begrudge the fact that cities should be providing for people so that business owners do not have to step up and provide that.

Caroline, narrating: And cities should be providing them.

Lezlie: Oh my gosh, toilets are so crucial to the city. I think if we, each of us who are urban dwellers, if we take just a moment, we can think about all the important things that are required for safe and comfortable use of a city. So sidewalks, bike paths, stop signs for vehicles, crosswalks, benches, trash cans, any kind of street sign. All of those things we could, just with a moment’s thought, name those things and understand that those are essential, right? They’re not merely nice to haves, they are an essential part of the city, but we don’t include toilets in that basket of goods that we need to use our city.

Caroline, narrating: This attitude is reflected in the fact that there is no legal requirement for UK councils to provide public toilets. And it means that when we’re trying to cut costs, public toilets are an easy mark, especially when you consider that toilets aren’t exactly cheap. You need water, you need sewage, they require cleaning and maintenance. Nearly a hundred British loos were shut down every year between 2015 and 2021 according to a freedom of information request published in the Guardian. That’s a 19% reduction in public toilet access. And if anything, demand went up during COVID lockdowns when people could only spend time outdoors. But Lezlie doesn’t really buy the argument that toilets are too expensive.

Lezlie: We need to think about whether we are welcoming everybody into our cities or not. We talk so, so much about walkability and livability and ageing in place and all of these things that we want our city to be. But all of those things 100% require public bathrooms.

Caroline, narrating: And there is evidence that we do accept this biological reality, at least when it comes to men, as evidenced by the free urinals we see popping up in most major cities. Meanwhile, these same cities make like the Victorians and charge for the use of cubicles – where cubicles exist at all, that is.

Lezlie: Kind of baked into this idea is the notion that men cannot help themselves, but also that women somehow do not need toilets as frequently or as urgently as men, which is absolutely absurd.

Caroline, narrating: And when women do need to go urgently and end up peeing in the streets, well just like in the Victorian era, they’re seen as improper. In 2017, there was an outcry after a woman in Amsterdam was fined for public urination. At the time, the city had just three public women’s toilets, while men in the Dutch capital could access 35 urinals, that’s nearly 12 times the provision for women. So one night when she wasn’t near any of them, this woman discreetly peed in an alleyway. The incident cost her 90 euros. Lezlie says that what we need are some standards.

[Standards klaxon]

Caroline, narrating: Canada has introduced what are called potty parity regulations into some of its building codes. Where these codes apply, women can expect to be given two to three times the provision of men. But Lezlie says that the impact has been limited because the rules only apply to new builds or buildings undergoing extensive renovations. I wonder what Lezlie would do if she was suddenly put in charge of global public toilet provision.

Lezlie: I can’t believe I’m not in charge. If I were in charge, I would think about toilets not as a binary. I would think about toilets as male, female and all gender, or if not given that option simply all gender. Though it is very important that many women have spaces that are segregated for them alone. I think that’s really important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is, some women are not permitted by their religions to share intimate space with men. So that would be excluding a whole other group of women. So I would think of toilets as three separate spaces.

Caroline, narrating: I was nodding along with Lezlie until…

Lezlie: I would take on and embrace that notion of the variability of access. So, you know, if you have, for example, you’re at a football match and 90% of the people watching are men, then you may want to tweak the provision so that men have more access.

Caroline: I agree with almost everything you said just then, apart from the bit about when it’s a male dominated venue, giving men more provision. Because I think it’s very funny when they have to stand in a queue for a toilet and I don’t see why you would take away whatever joy I have at my disposal in my life.

Caroline, narrating: Putting aside our differences when it comes to watching men suffer, Lezlie makes a good point about standards and we know I love a standard. After our conversation, I was left wondering what it would take to bring Canada’s three to one toilet provision to the UK. So I asked my fellow toilet enthusiast Patricia to get on the case.

Patricia: It turns out it is incredibly complicated, but I had a really helpful conversation with Raymond Martin, who’s the director of the British Toilet Association. Basically the first thing he said was, “The first thing you have to understand is that there is no legislation whatsoever in this country, nor has there ever been on public toilets.” And he said that with a lot of passion.

Caroline: Raymond’s cross about that.

Patricia: Yeah, he is.

Caroline: You go Raymond, we’re cross too.

Patricia: So his whole thing is that yes, there are standards. Basically he sort of seemed to imply that the standards don’t really mean anything. So in the current standard there is one to one provision. So 50, 50 men and women. He was like, “Look, the whole industry is in agreement that it should be one third men, two thirds women. That’s how it should be because we can fit more urinals into the men’s,” and all of the arguments that no doubt we will lay out in this podcast and you laid out in your book. So he gave me that whole speech, but he said currently it’s 50, 50.

Caroline: We still have that. That’s crazy.

Patricia: And he said, what was interesting as well is that, so the standards basically are for planning applications. And so he said the planners and the people who designed these toilets, they’re mostly men. Which, not a shock, but he said, “So most people will take the guidance that’s there and they won’t really think about trying to improve on it.”

Caroline: And of course the problem really is, well, the problem is partly that the standard is useless in that it doesn’t give women the provision that they need. But also that as he says, the 1875 act gave councils the ability to build public toilets should they choose to, but they’ve never been told that they have to. 

Caroline, narrating: I got this wrong by the way. It was actually the 1848 Public Health Act. 

Caroline: And so it doesn’t really matter what the standard is if there aren’t any toilets in the first place.

Patricia: Yep. And I mean, we had a really long conversation actually, and there’s no minister for sanitation in this country, there are in other European countries. There’s no reason for the government to really look into this. And he said that, “Look, I agree with you.” He really gave me the argument for why women should have more provision than men. But he was like, “To be honest, because of austerity, ever since 2011, we’ve had no funding. And so all I want is there to just be toilets. Full stop.” I also wanted to read you the very impassioned speech that Raymond gave me in the middle of our conversation because I think, I don’t know, I felt quite emotional afterwards.

Caroline, narrating: Patricia isn’t joking about Raymond being passionate. He called his work a pleasure and a calling. I think he’s my new favourite person.

Patricia: So he said, “Look, Patricia, nobody wants to be the Minister of Poo, even though toilets are really important.” He said, “For a long time, Patricia…”

Raymond Martin: They’ve always fallen under the waste management departments, but toilets aren’t about waste management. They’re about health and wellbeing. They’re about public dignity, public decency. They’re about social inclusion, about building communities and then bringing people back and bringing shops about local economy. And they’re about equality. They’re about people with disabilities being able to get out and about, be able to use the toilet. So if they’re away from their homes type of stuff. Toilets are so vitally important and that’s what we’ve been trying to get over to the government.

Caroline: Oh, Raymond.

Patricia: Isn’t that lovely?

Caroline: Well, hopefully someone in the government will listen to this podcast and that impassioned speech. 

Caroline, narrating: While we’re waiting for some adequate standards or even better, some national legislation, Samira has some advice for our toilet overlords; talk to women.

Samira: It annoys me that people make decisions without consulting us. But I don’t have an axe to grind. I just am concerned that men make decisions about our spaces without asking us. You’ve got nothing to lose by asking people what they want and need. And especially older people, I feel older women are often treated as a joke. And people do have issues where they need the toilet more often and it’s not fair on them. And there are cultural issues too for women who feel that they don’t want to be in a shared space with, they might be adjusting their head scarf or whatever, and men are in there. I don’t understand why that hasn’t been taken into account when if you’re about being inclusive, it means being inclusive of people’s personal beliefs.

Caroline, narrating: She also says this whole experience has made her appreciate women’s toilets much more.

Samira: What’s interesting is, of course, it’s made me cherish the female space. They are such an important space and I love the fact that you can go into the ladies at a nightclub and have a laugh with total strangers and do your hair and help each other out. And I think if people prefer gender neutral cubicles, fine, we can offer them as well. But I love the idea of some of these spaces that are sort of public spaces, but they’re also private spaces. Why can’t we celebrate that too? I really love that.

Caroline, narrating: Before we go, remember when Barbara mentioned the Ladies’ Sanitary Association, those earnest Victorian women fighting for women’s toilet rights?

Barbara: The Lady’s Sanitary Association took up the cause in the 1870s and they really stuck with it. Although by the 1880s, they admitted to feeling great frustration because they weren’t really getting anywhere.

Caroline: I know how they feel.

Barbara: Yes, but they endured. And by the 1890s, public toilets for women did start to get built in London in part due to their efforts.

Caroline, narrating: While we were researching this episode, we came across a pretty amazing link between us and my favourite earnest ladies. Barbara and I are standing outside the podcast studio to look at the Tortoise office from the street, because it turns out that 150 years ago, this was the location of the Ladies’ Sanitary Association HQ.

Barbara: I think for me, this is really ground zero of where campaigning for women’s toilets took off.

Caroline: I mean, obviously it’s been demolished, and it’s a newer building now. This doesn’t look like a building from the 1870s. I mean, have you seen any pictures of what it used to look like?

Barbara: I haven’t. But I think from my understanding, there were a lot of very progressive organisations that were housed here that looked at issues of concern for women and for me, of course, the late…

Caroline: So, this was a hotbed of radical feminist…?

Caroline, narrating: Call it a coincidence. But there was something quite touching and perhaps a bit uncanny about finding out that we were literally standing in the footsteps of these women. 

Caroline: A man just walked past and was just like, “What on earth are you talking about? Women talking about their toilets.” But this is what we’ve been doing for 150 years and we’re still doing it. 

Caroline, narrating: I’m disappointed that we’re still having to continue the work that the Ladies’ Sanitary Association began 150 years ago. I just hope it doesn’t take another 150 years to fix.

Barbara: Where’s the blue plaque? I feel there should be a blue plaque here.

Caroline: Isn’t there one? There should be. 

Caroline, narrating:Thanks for listening to this episode of Visible Women from Tortoise. This episode was written and produced by me, Caroline Criado Perez, alongside Hannah Varrall and Patricia Clarke. The executive producer is Basia Cummings. It features original music by Tom Kinsella and Sound Design from Sam at String Cast Media.