The bizarre, antiquated origins of sex-segregated restrooms 

click to enlarge San Francisco gas stations will soon be able to offer unisex bathrooms, but restrooms for males and females have remained separated. Bathrooms were separated as part of “Victorian modesty,” one professor says. - JULIE JACOBSON/AP FILE PHOTO
  • Julie Jacobson/AP File Photo
  • San Francisco gas stations will soon be able to offer unisex bathrooms, but restrooms for males and females have remained separated. Bathrooms were separated as part of “Victorian modesty,” one professor says.
A few years ago, a Boston transplant residing in San Francisco was overcome by nostalgia and opted to attend a nearby New Kids on the Block reunion show (NKOTB is a Boston band in much the same way Train is a San Francisco band. Sorry, rest of world).

Before the show, he wandered into the men’s room and found ... nothing. Not a soul. It struck him that he was one of the only men present within the arena (other than the five aging singers onstage).

The women’s rooms — let’s put it this way: It was a bad scene.

In the less chaotic, everyday world of San Francisco, this is happening daily, albeit on a smaller scale. Thousands of single-seat restrooms in city businesses or public areas are labeled as male or female despite being otherwise indistinguishable. Long lines form as men or women wait to use their designated toilet rather than visit the identical one that simply has a different demarcation on the door.

The Board of Supervisors last month passed an ordinance allowing gas stations to have unisex restrooms. But it did not address the confounding situation of identical, single-stall restrooms being arbitrarily assigned to one sex or another in the larger world outside of gas stations. That was left to West Hollywood, which last month became the first city in California to mandate unisex toilets. “Gender Neutral Restrooms,” read signs on that city’s lavatories. “This restroom may be used by any person regardless of gender identity or personal expression.”

Well, that’s a bit flowery. But if calling yourself a man or woman is an existential question for you, this is a pretty big deal.

But it would be a relief — pun intended, sorry — for everyone.

Men and women, in fact, share restrooms throughout much of the Western world. Mandatory segregation of toilet facilities in this country stems from an 1887 statute in Massachusetts (home of New Kids on the Block) necessitating “suitable and proper washrooms and water-closets shall be provided for females where employed, and the water-closets used by females shall be separate and apart from those used by males.” By 1920, 42 other states enacted similar legislation.

“Proper water closets” were not a trifling matter in an age of cholera. But separating them by sex was also a symptom of the age: “Late Victorian society became obsessed with concerns of modesty, concerns surrounding the human body and bodily functions,” University of Utah law professor Terry S. Kogan writes. “Any move by women outside the domestic sphere was viewed by many people with serious concern.”

Segregated restrooms, then, are a holdover from a truly bygone era. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, America also featured ladies’ railroad cars, ladies-only parlors in stores and hotels, and ladies’ reading rooms in public libraries. These often featured entree to ladies-only restrooms, invisible and inaccessible to anyone else in the library.

“Victorian modesty,” Kogan continues, “was threatened if a woman could even be seen entering the facility.”

These were vestiges of a society in which women were viewed as weak — physically and mentally — and perceived as unfit to cope with everyday life. At around the same time women were mandated to have their own restrooms, a wave of paternalistic laws were passed to protect women by, in essence, barring them from a number of jobs, vocations or public areas.

How odd it is that, in the present day, laws enacted due to women’s alleged inherent frailty, vulnerability and weakness actually force them to wait far longer to use the restroom, standing in long queues and bypassing a perfectly good toilet.

Joe Eskenazi is a staff writer at SF Weekly, a sister publication of The San Francisco Examiner. Email him at

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