Where's the loo?
Most Cambridge colleges “went mixed” some twenty years ago. But they still preserve unexpected corners of male power and privilege. None of these corners is more irritating than the location of the female loos.
Imagine it. You’re sitting in the SCR – that’s the fellows’ common room – after dinner. You casually ask for the Ladies. The chances are that there will be a bit of a flap, while the equivalent of an AA route map and a compass is produced. It usually involves going out into the courtyard, through the rain, into the next court, up a staircase three doors on the left – only to discover a set of facilities which you know to be decidedly inferior to whatever is laid on for the men, and much less ‘convenient’ in almost every way.
Some colleges, to be fair, are a bit better organised; and my own, I confess, treats male needs with almost equal disdain. But the general rule seems to be that women’s ablutions are lower down the pecking order than men’s.
I have never really understood why single sex loos are necessary, anyway, in a place like a university (King’s Cross station late at night is probably another matter).
Why can’t we just share?
In my more paranoid moments, I strongly suspect that the answer has to do with men’s urinals being one of the few remaining sites of exclusively male wheeling and dealing. Men will disappear for a pee in the middle of a meeting and come back, after a cosy chat in the loo, with the business fixed.
Women can’t do that. Female toilets are strangely discreet places, for the simple reason that you never know who is locked in the cubicles – invisible, but capable of overhearing every word that’s said. There can hardly be a woman in the land who hasn’t learned her lesson on this one: bitching in colourful terms about a woman who two minutes later emerges to wash her hands.
This was something that repeatedly got Ally McBeal into trouble in that wonderful old television series. As the joke used to go: How do you know if you’re an Ally McBeal fan? Answer: If you look under the toilet stalls to see who’s using them before you start talking.
Surely it would be easier, and an imaginative blow for female power and equality, just to make urinals a thing of the past and put everyone in the same facilities. It’s already common enough in the USA (in fact, Ally’s loo was a ‘unisex’, as I recall). It’s we Brits who have this illogical obsession with urinary segregation – to the extent that we are even known make students use separate toilets from the staff.
. . . So what did the Romans do, you’ll be wondering.
Well domestic loos were something of a rarity. But the evidence from Pompeii suggests that, if they were present at all, the usual location was in the kitchen. There was convenient water supply and Roman assumptions about hygiene were rather different from our own. Better not to think too hard about the consequences.
Outside, and in places such as baths, they had an excellent line in splendid multi-seaters. like this one from North Africa. Though whether these were also mixed sex we don’t, I think, know.
I’d like to imagine that they were.