Gender Equality in the Shadow of 1960s Civil Rights

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The outside temperature reached 103° F one recent July afternoon in south Georgia. I once experienced even hotter temperatures in Spain a decade ago, but the gulf humidity here is a beast of a different kind. I bounced to a thrift store in search of extensively used (i.e. breathable) medical scrubs. Little did I know that this simple mission would ignite a profound inquiry into gender equality.

I did not find scrubs suited to my quest, but hanging right beside the roundabout was a plain, charred olive A-line miniskirt. It struck me as an even better heat-buster and the skirt looked so sensible and professional as to remind me of my days in the corporate offices of a large regional bank. Gender equality afforded women the option to wear pants many decades ago so what was stopping me from enjoying the comfort of a skirt? As progressive as that bank was in its employee policies, I think management would have fairly and intellectually considered the prospect. Unfortunately, I suspect my subsequent world of public academia is not as capable of cerebral contemplation on issues of gender normativity.

Even though universities have long been incubators of organic social reform, academia is prone to miss the mark with purposeful policy. By way of example, many public universities have relabeled their single-occupancy toilets as “all-gender” which they portray as an accommodation to the transgender (and genderqueer) public. However, these universities fail to realize that “all-gender” designations merely amplify an exclusionary message. In other words, the remaining toilets might as well read “men only” and “women only” and I am left wondering how this is different from “whites only” signage of the old south. This is particularly true when universities create digital apps or maps to locate all-gender toilets. While such initiatives are presented as evidence of progressiveness and inclusion, it could just as easily be compared to sending Rosa Parks a discrete text message to sit elsewhere in order to avoid a public confrontation.

This uncomfortable similarity between gender and racial segregation leads me to wonder if gender-specific toilet signage is actually an institution of segregation or merely a reflection of social practice. In a paper published in the Michigan Journal of Gender & Law, Terry Kogan suggests that gender segregation of public toilets evolved not as a “benign recognition of natural anatomical differences between men and women,” but rather as a sociopolitical byproduct of the American industrial revolution. Professor Kogan notes that gender-segregated toilets are “rooted in the separate spheres ideology of the early [nineteenth] century, an ideology that considered a woman’s proper place to be in the home, tending the hearth fire, and rearing children.” As that century grew to a close, the separate spheres ideology became enmeshed with “the realist movement, the public health concerns of the sanitarian movement, and the vision of modesty embraced by late Victorian society.” These same movements produced women-only library rooms, parlors, and even rail cars leaving the rest of the space exclusively for men. At a time when women were denied the right to participate in the political process, patriarchal legislators aimed to “mandate spaces in the dangerous public realm be set aside to serve as protective havens for women, as surrogate homes away from home.” Such spaces were seen as necessary not only because women were treated as a weaker sex, but also because “Victorian modesty was threatened if a woman could even be seen entering the [toilet] facility.”

I now wonder to what degree this construct perpetuates general objectifications of women. By this I suggest that objectifying women as innately helpless victims imprints a doctrine of benign/beneficent objectification that becomes fodder for sexual objectification.

Casting women as innately helpless victims is not a benign objectification. The subconscious imprint might contribute to sexual objectification, but any factors which emphasize weakness will intensify a predator’s interest.

To be extraordinarily candid, I too was ignorant of my own subliminal bias until I myself donned various skirts over the summer break. In a very real way I felt guilt for whatever concern which my anomalous attire might spark while in the public realm. I also felt shame that wind or stride-induced air currents might draw attention to my lower anatomy. Ultimately, though, I came to realize how century-old Victorian notions had skewed true understanding of gender equality. I would never instruct a female to obscure her various anatomies and I reject the notion that skirts predispose females to assault (though there are people who believe that to be the case). As antifeminist and misogynistic as either of those attitudes would be, it is likewise antimasculist and misandrist to act as if any hint of male anatomy is obscene or that a skirted male is automatically a predator. Having to engage in this internal dialogue with myself suggests that I missed the mark of equality for to truly experience equality begins by regarding myself with the same wholeness of person that I have been taught to accord to others. As a corollary, to accord special moral consideration to any specific adult population must be understood to arrest the pursuit of true equality. Such practices necessarily presume one group as delicate victims and the rest as brutish victimizers.

In this line, North Carolina’s lawmakers foolishly presumed that gender-segregated toilets provide a measure of security. Predators who do not already heed criminal law will not suddenly obey the words or picture on the bathroom door. That state’s toilet law presumes that different is dangerous and that outward appearance signals inward intent. North Carolina’s legislators conjured an improbable hypothetical risk to girls while ignoring the actual danger to boys. Thus the pedophile male who prefers boys will therefore go unnoticed while the transfemale in the men’s toilet will be harshly scrutinized. Gender profiling based on dress is therefore just as unproductive as race profiling based on neighborhood. Dr. King dreamed of a day when people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. We now allow blacks and whites to use the same toilets so why not cisgender and transgender?

Considering our modern understanding of genetics, biology, psychology, and sociology, it seems to me that the simplest and most logical solution is to abolish gender-segregated toileting altogether. If policymakers truly believe in equality among all persons regardless of race, sex, gender, and ethnicity, instead of legislating which toilet to use, they would better serve the public by calling for innovative redesign of facilities and by setting toothy policy that severely and comprehensively penalizes invasions of privacy (not just toilets, but upskirting, voyeurism, drone overflight, etc). Ironically, even the very act of legislating which toilet to use is an invasion of privacy. State governments would never get away with passing laws mandating the underwear to be worn by men and women, so how can it be Constitutional to force public disclosure of the even more private anatomy beneath their undergarments?

Gender-segregated toileting also effectively compels certain citizens to associate—against their will—with other citizens in violation of the First Amendment’s freedom of association (which is as much a freedom against compulsory association as it is a right to associate). Beyond this, where caregivers and carereceivers are concerned—whether parental or medical—there are Title IX and A.D.A. consequences if toilet access is limited based on gender.

The ideal public toilet would have larger stalls with floor-to-ceiling dividers. Designers should experiment with materials to find the right balance of translucency and opacity that ensures privacy, but discourages lewdness. The stalls should have motion sensors not just for flushing, but for positive ventilation and lighting during occupancy, and for ultraviolet sanitation after each use. Consolidating public toilets means equal wait times at stadiums and theme parks, and it means families, partners, and children do not have to separate and regroup.

There is a definite irony in that my quest to be comfortable in a summer swelter produced such an unsettling contemplation of my own heteronormative compliance and bias. Having now traversed the eye of this looking glass, I would like to think that my path of reflection produced a healthier concept of equality than I had before.

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