Set in a Bathroom: “Purity,’’ Race, Gender, and Sexual Prejudice in Bathrooms from 1887 to Today

By Emilyn Kowaleski

Emilyn is a second year graduate student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College.

The distressed eyes of a young white woman pierce through the camera lens and into the hearts of thousands of North Carolinians. “It’s about privacy. It’s about safety,” she assures them. It is 2016. They are watching an advertisement generated by The Institute of Faith and Family in support of Governor Pat Cory’s Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act commonly known as HB2. The bill proposed that people be legally required to use the restroom that corresponds to their sex assigned at birth, rather than being allowed to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity. What the young actress may not know, though the sponsors are likely all too aware, is that the ladies’ bathroom is a space that was engineered for her privacy and her safety alone. It has served her and subjugated her simultaneously. For, wafting from inside the stalls, there lies a strange, sexist history of how and why they first slapped signs on bathroom doors reading “Ladies” and “Gents.” From that odorous origin story, there follows an even messier one. One in which these sex-segregated bathrooms have become battlegrounds through which the “purity” of cis-white women’s bodies are “protected.” All the while justifying and perpetuating fears of Black, gay, trans and non-binary people through the rhetoric of contamination and threats of sexual danger. This is a very abridged history of that bullshit.

In 1870, plumbing evolved enough for the idea of multi-stall indoor restrooms to become a reality. Bathroom segregation in the United States started soon after. In 1887, Massachusetts passed the first law titled Massachusetts Act 668 requiring factories to provide separate restrooms for women, leading the charge for forty other states to follow suit by 1920. (1) Two major shifts were underway. First, young, single, working-class women were beginning to flock to textile mills to enter the workforce. Second, middle- and upper-class women were beginning to organize for their rights. Both these entries into public space were a disruption to separate spheres ideology. Separate spheres ideology heralded the idea that a white woman’s natural purity and virtue was upheld and protected in the home, while a man’s masculinity was to be found in the workplace. (2) While stringent notions of gender roles were once loose philosophy, they became “scientific fact” once women began claiming a place in the workforce, on the podium, and at the polls. Darwin and other scientists began “proving” that gender differences were based in biology, and that women were “naturally” weaker. (3) The Massachusetts bathroom law was part of a larger set of labor laws meant to protect women’s “fragile” bodies through shorter work days, mandated rest periods, and laws that prohibited women from taking certain jobs that were deemed as dangerous. (4) Nancy Cott explains in her article, “Passionlessness, An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology,” that in addition to being viewed as ‘fragile,’ women were also seen as “passionless” and “morally superior” to men. This idea satisfied both men and women because it afforded women a place in the workforce while allowing men to maintain their dominance. Men viewed women’s purity as something to be protected. (5) 

It was this ideology that ushered the concept of “the ladies room” into public space. The bathroom was only one of many lady specific spaces that emerged in the middle to late 19th century that re-inscribed differences in gender. These spaces were largely middle-class inventions that helped women ensure their protection and respectability as they ventured into metropolises. (6) They included ladies reading rooms, photography studios, hotel parlors, and railroad cars. (7) 

 Not all women, however, were considered “ladies” or welcome in these spaces. In 1884, famed journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells was kicked off a ladies’ railroad car because being Black disqualified her from the definition of “lady.” (8) As historian Eileen Borris argues, historically, definitions of “womanhood” and “manhood” have not been race neutral. Mythological stereotypes have pointed to Black women’s innate impurity and immorality such as the “uncleanly” or “lascivious” Black woman. (9) The myth of the “Black male rapist” is a particularly violent construction that was used to justify the widespread lynching of Black men during reconstruction. (10) While white women used the idea that they were “pure” to claim access to the workplace and public space, they wielded these racialized, gendered stereotypes to position Black people as a threat to their bodily virtue.  

Fast forward half a century to when the job market was racially integrating during World War II. White women used sharing toilets with Black women to attempt to keep them out of the workforce. In 1943, Atlanta segregationists tried to prevent the opening of regional offices for the Fair Employment Practices Committee by refusing office space to the bi-racial staff members who would be using the building bathrooms that were shared with other federal agencies. Later that year, two hundred workers participated in a strike at the Baltimore Electrical Plant over toilet integration, citing that sharing toilets with Black women would make them vulnerable to venereal diseases, which they claimed Black women were more likely to carry. In 1944, Chevrolet Motors hired four Black women. Six white women protested using the same script. 

These gendered, racialized stereotypes seep again from the septic tanks during Jim Crow segregation in the late 1950s and 1960s. Parents used similar arguments to resist the integration of Central High School, stirring fears about the intimate proximity of children’s black and white bodies. In the 1970s, in what was known as “the Potty Parable” arguments against the Equal Rights Amendment were formed from fears that it would allow Black men access to women’s bathrooms. But anti-ERA advocates did not just rest on their resistance to the bill on racist rhetoric. They upheld notions of sexual difference and separate spheres ideology citing the dirt and defilement women would be vulnerable to if forced to share bathrooms with men.  Integration of the sexes, integration of the races, and threats of homosexuality all got spun up into the tornado of immorality they claimed would inevitably destroy the American family. (11)

Sheila Cavanagh argues in Queering Restrooms that “gender impurity” is the discord between gender identity and how the body is interpreted that is policed as profane in order to keep a conception of “gender purity” intact. Bodies that don’t fit our conception of what a “pure” gendered-body looks like – Black bodies, queer bodies, non-binary bodies, trans bodies – have been positioned as threats. Today, anti-trans rhetoric spouts that if people are allowed to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender, or if we do away with gender-segregated bathrooms that enforce a binary, women will be more vulnerable to sexual assault. These are statistically unsupported claims. Instead, trans and non-binary people, especially those of color, are at much greater risk of violence and harassment in bathrooms. (12) But people continue to place stock in the idea that cis-white women are at risk because it supports a narrative that has existed in various permutations for a long time. It is a narrative that has been architected into the bathroom. Dismantling that architecture means breaking down this narrative tile by tile and examining how these claims to protection form the grout which upholds structural dominance and continues to justify discrimination. 


  1. Terry S. Kogan, “How did public bathrooms get to be separated by gender in the First Place?” The Conversation, March 21, 2016.
  2. Ibid. 
  3. Jerry Bergman, “Darwin’s Teaching of Inferiority” Institute for Creation Research, March 1, 1994.
  4. Terry Kogan, “Sex Separation in Public Restrooms: Law, Architecture and Gender” Michigan Journal of Gender and Law. 14, no. 1 (2007). 
  5. Nancy Cott, “Passionlessness: An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology, 1790-1850” Signs 4, no. 2 (Winter, 1978): 232, 
  6. Lynne Walker, Vistas of Pleasure: Women consumers of urban space in the West End of London 1850-1900, in WOMEN IN THE VICTORIAN ART WORLD 79 (Clarissa Campbell Orr, ed. 1995) , 86 as cited by Kogan, Sex Separation, 29.
  7. Kogan, Sex Separation, 28.
  8. James West Davidson, They Say: Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race. (Oxford: Oxford University Press,  2007), 67. 
  9. Eileen Boris, “You Wouldn’t Want one of ‘Em Dancing with Your Wife: Racialized Bodies on the Job in World War II” American Quarterly, Vol.50, No.1 (March,1998), 81 
  10. Angela Y. Davis “Rape, Racism and the Myth of the Black Male Rapist.” in Women Race & Class (New York: First Vintage Books, 1983), 185. 
  11. Donald Matthews and Jane Sharon DeHart, Sex, Gender, and the Politics of the ERA:A State and the Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 166. 
  12. Toilet Training: law and order (in the bathroom) directed by Tara Matai (Sylva Rivera Law Project, 2003). 

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