History sheds some light on bathroom battles

Take the long view — the opponents of transgender/unisex bathrooms are all wrong. The history of ancient bathrooms shows that they’ve been unsegregated for ages and that separate bathrooms are a recent invention.

The evidence is ambiguous but one of the interesting features of most ancient and medieval bathrooms is that they generally do not appear to have been segregated by gender. Even though women were prohibited from participating in or entering many kinds of all-male spaces in the ancient world, the latrine wasn’t one of them.

In fact gender-segregated bathrooms were an innovation of the Victorian era, when they struck a blow for women’s rights. Up until the introduction of segregation in the nineteenth century, men had exclusive access to public restrooms. The result was that women were effectively tethered to their homes. While urinating over gutters or into “urinettes” (a small portable device that was used under long skirts and discretely emptied) were options, they were hardly preferred. Gender-segregated bathrooms, therefore, were actually a positive step. The 1887 Massachusetts law that mandated that workplaces provided bathrooms for female employees made it possible for women to hold down jobs without “holding it.”

Now I wonder, though, how the history of clothing was affected by this practice. In ancient Rome a woman would hitch up her stola and tunica intima to use the latrine, so there was still some privacy hidden behind folds of cloth. I’m more disgusted by the fact that they all would have shared the same sponge-on-a-stick for wiping themselves afterwards, which is why I’m bring my own roll of toilet paper when the physicists get around to inventing that time machine.

I’m also thinking that only providing bathrooms for men was the kind of sneaky exclusionary trick that was also done by not having pockets on women’s clothing.


  1. Nullifidian says

    I’m more disgusted by the fact that they all would have shared the same sponge-on-a-stick for wiping themselves afterwards,

    You germaphobe! They did soak them in vinegar.

  2. Silver Fox says

    In Elizabethan London there used to be chamber pot men who wore long, black cloaks and charged people, often women, to relieve themselves within the privacy of their cloaks. Picture the chamber pot man standing on a busy thoroughfare and a woman slips behind his cloak and do her business while he stands holding his cloak around her. When she was finished she would pay him and be on her way. It was his job to empty the pot somewhere.

  3. cartomancer says

    I’ve been pointing this out for ages!

    It is generally thought that Roman public baths were segregated by gender, however. The most complete baths – those at Pompeii – have two segregated sections, the smaller of which is generally thought to be the women’s bath. This is just a guess, though – no ancient writer explicitly claims that baths were segregated, and not all archaeological sites show the same divisions as the Pompeian baths. I would think it’s far more likely that the divisions were along class lines rather than gender.

    The xylospongium is also poorly attested as far as archaeological survivals go. That this was how some Romans, particularly soldiers on campaign, wiped themselves is not in question, but excavations of Roman sewers and middens generally turn up bits of rag and the like instead. Sponges were actually moderately expensive in Rome, given that they had to be caught by hand by specialist sponge divers, so they would have been luxury toilet paper rather than your everyday stuff.

  4. magistramarla says

    I seem to remember some theories that the usage of Roman baths might have been segregated by time, as in the women were allowed a few hours in the day to make use of them when it was not a popular time for the men to be bathing.

  5. A Masked Avenger says

    I’m not an expert in economics, history, or anthropology, but I have a theory about this, which is mine and is a theory:

    Bathrooms (like everything else) have a cost. It’s cheaper to poo in the street, or behind a tree, and AFAIK actual bathroom facilities came into use as people urbanized — but a communal ditch was cheaper than a multi-hole Roman-style communal latrine was cheaper than separate latrines was cheaper than gender-segregated toilets was much, much cheaper than multiple separate single-occupancy bathrooms. The facilities improved, in part, because we could afford them.

    I’d conjecture that they also evolved in lockstep with culture. Locker-room culture is partly a product of locker rooms, and partly a force against changing how locker rooms work. In my lifetime I’ve seen restrooms with a row of toilets, without separate stalls. I’ve also seen a long trough instead of urinals. And I’ve seen stalls and urinals retrofitted in those same facilities. I remember standing in a semicircle pissing, and I remember the dominance displays of large-dicked extroverts with bullying tendencies — and I remember their victims holding it until they could piss in the trough by their lonesome. I remember doing that myself. (I even remember sneaking behind trees during recess for a private piss, but that’s a whole nother story.)

    Today, though, improvements are glacially slow, because there’s enough privacy for the majority, and because we’re used to it. Awareness of transgender people is prompting some to accommodate them in the existing two-bathroom setup (which is only right, since that’s what we’ve got today), and prompting others to demand that they use the “other” bathroom — but both sides, for the most part, seem to take the his-and-hers bathrooms for granted.

    My contention is that we can now afford to accommodate everyone, and break the his-and-hers model completely, and we should do so. One option is individual, unisex bathrooms in new construction. Another is to improve stalls’ privacy (by running the walls floor-to-ceiling), making the sink area unisex, and letting everyone use the same bathroom. A separate bank of urinals could maybe be designated a “standees” room, just to speed things up. People don’t wash their hands with their dicks hanging out anyway, so we can teach people that the sink area is unisex (by removing privacy walls and making it open to the world, for example).

    None of that would work in an impoverished society of subsistence farmers or hunter-gatherers, but in our ridiculously affluent society it’s achievable easily and at reasonable cost.

    (In re “bathroom culture,” note the problem that India has with public defecation, and their “Do your Poo in the Loo” PSAs. There’s nothing “natural” about his-and-hers facilities.)

  6. says

    I’m more disgusted by the fact that they all would have shared the same sponge-on-a-stick for wiping themselves afterwards,

    Reminds me of the old joke about the guest from ${foreign_place} who came downstairs to breakfast and said, “I’m not sure about some of your american innovations. I think the toilet brush is a bad idea, I’m going to go back to using the paper.”

  7. cartomancer says


    Yes, I have come across that theory too. It’s just as plausible. Though looking for one protocol to explain the bathing times and habits of all Romans is doubtless hiding to nothing. I expect huge places like the Baths of Caracalla and the Baths of Diocletian were open pretty much round the clock to anyone who could pay, and in the city of Rome itself you could always find somewhere to bathe however crowded the big social centres were, while smaller bathing establishments in the provinces had peak times and perhaps some sort of rota for the citizens, formal or informal.

    I seem to recall that Juvenal’s sixth satire criticises a woman who visits the cheapest baths in Rome (the ones costing only a quadrans to bathe) as being scurrilous and mannish in her behaviour (and off-puttingly intellectual too, since that’s where all the poor philosophers went to have their discussions). My guess is that women were generally not forbidden from bathing when it was popular with the men, but were frowned upon for doing so and thought to be up to no good (i.e. sexually promiscuous), so most didn’t. Social status policing then, rather than hard and fast rules.

  8. says

    Ha! My Latin teacher had one of those sponges on a stick – she used it as a pointer. And I can’t help thinking the latest moral panic over transgendered people using public restrooms came suspiciously hard on the heels of the Supreme Court finally legalizing gay marriage – although according to Wikipedia at least a few “bathroom bills” were introduced before then. Am I being excessively cynical/conspiracy-minded or did anyone else get the strong impression that the GOP saw that they were going to lose on gay marriage and had their new boogieman waiting in the wings?

  9. Ice Swimmer says

    As for how Victorian era women could conduct their business in their crinolines and bustles, I find this to be plausible. (Not sure if this link’s been shown here before.)

  10. prae says

    I wonder if this whole bathroom battle will come here to germany at some point, too. After all, the reich right is on the rise here as well…

    Also, vinegar for the sponge? I was thinking they just rinse it with water. I guess vinegar would be an improvement over that, at least.

  11. =8)-DX says

    @Sara A #11

    I can’t help thinking the latest moral panic over transgendered people using public restrooms came suspiciously hard on the heels of the Supreme Court finally legalizing gay marriage

    Your suspicion is accurate. Because it was literally the same people who were writing anti-marriage-equality cookie-cutter bills and ammendments, who after having nothing to do switched to writing anti-trans-bathroom cookie-cutter bills. Seeing the broad public acceptance of the marriage equality ruling, they decided to just move to another target.

    So yeah, those two things aren’t just correlated, but one the direct consequence of the other. There’s a similar dynamic in the evolution denialist and forced-birth movements.

  12. Rieux says

    “urinettes” (a small portable device that was used under long skirts and discretely emptied)

    Discretely emptied? I suppose that’s better than being continuously emptied….

  13. rq says

    Vinegar is actually pretty good at removing the odour of pee from fabrics. Not sure if there’s actual science behind it, but I’ve used it for years in various situations – it’s cheaper and does the trick. (Also works on cat pee, if the cat is not a male.)
    Not sure on its disinfecting properties when sharing the same sponge, though. :/