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We Are Where We Excrete

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The urinal is the political. So are the toilet and the condom dispenser and the diaper changing station and everything else commonly found in men's and women's rooms (and even the fact that there are men's and women's rooms).

This may sound like bathroom humor. But for Mary Anne Case '85, it's serious scholarship. For several years, Case has researched the "potty parity" issue, including gathering anecdotal information from a survey she designed (www.law.uchicago.edu/toiletsurvey) asking both men and women to report what is in and what goes on in public facilities. The professor at University of Chicago Law School, who teaches feminist jurisprudence and constitutional law, hopes to publish a law review article on the issue soon. She first considered researching toilet facilities in response to critics of the Equal Rights Amendment, who charged that its passage would forbid separate men's and women's bathrooms. Even if that were true, she didn't know if it would necessarily be a bad thing. "I started riding my hobby horse of sameness around a feminine model, thinking that maybe the solution would be something like airplane toilets," said Case.

That type of non-gender-specific private space would eliminate the common sight of a line of women waiting outside the women's room with no one waiting at the men's. But it would also take away the element of sociability important to many women, who also use the women's room as a refuge, "a place to feel safe, both physically safe but also psychologically safe, to get away and cry," according to Case.

"The question is whether a model should move toward more integration or toward a richer idea of what separate but equal would involve," she said.

Bathrooms that are separate are not always equal, she notes. Equal square footage, for example, does not produce equality.

"What are you equalizing: excreting opportunities, or are you equalizing waiting time?" said Case. "I'm not being frivolous when I say these are important questions to debate."

Just the kind of thing, in fact, that people might talk about in the bathroom.

--L.R.

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