Women need johns

Get with it, architects: Public buildings need more toilet equality.

By Garrison Keillor
January 9, 2008 4:37PM (UTC)
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I went to see "Sweeney Todd" last week and the high point was after the movie when I headed for the men's room, passing a long line of women waiting to get into the women's, and when I got inside the men's, a tall woman in a long black coat emerged from a stall and walked out. She didn't run or skulk or sneak, she simply walked purposefully out of the men's toilet, having done what she needed to do, and didn't linger to hold a press conference or wash her hands. A couple of men glanced back from the urinals and noticed her and were very cool about it. "Was that a woman?" one of them asked. "Yes, she was," I said.

As for the movie, oh well. The funny lines mostly get lost and after a while you get tired of the color gray. It's nice when the bodies of dead customers slide down the chute and drop into the cellar and land on their heads, otherwise a long two hours.


But an American woman who steps out of line in a simple urgent revolt against stupid toilet inequality -- that is worth the price of admission. Men's and women's toilets are roughly of equal size, which is a false equality: What matters is the time spent waiting. Men require 3 square feet and 15 seconds to pee, and women need 15 square feet and have more to unhitch and pantyhose to deal with and then they need to hang out and talk about feelings. So the line extends down the hall and around to the popcorn stand. Why is this allowed to exist? Because architecture loves symmetry, I suppose, and so it's up to women to step out of line.

Did I forget to say that this was in New York? It was in New York, on the Upper West Side, the National Liberal Refuge & Historical District -- and now you're asking, "How do you know she wasn't a transvestite?" Because she had small feet, that's why. Anyway, I came down the hallway crowded with about 57 openly disgruntled New York women, seething, muttering, glaring at the men sweeping past them, and I strolled into our clubroom as the interloper loped past me on her way out, and the coolness of the male patrons was interesting.

At Benson School in 1952, a girl in the boys' toilet would've been an international incident, but in New York, men smiled, went about their business, zipped up, washed their hands, and went off to dinner as if nothing had happened.


The country wants change. Here's how it happens. People talk it to death for decades and then somebody crosses the line and suddenly the line doesn't exist anymore. Men would not accept women in management and then, lo and behold -- Women in Management! Accepted. (Thump.) The country is not going to elect a black man president until one day it does and we all wake up the next morning and go to work and that's that.

OK, so it wasn't the Mutiny on the Bounty, but if women breech the door marked "men" and enter the last male preserve, what then? The men's toilet today is a sort of church, a place to drop your public face and be a mammal for a moment, and women will change that. You will stand at the trough in this most private of moments and a ladylike hand claps you on the shoulder and says, "Move over, bud." And she stands next to you. You do not look down. You dare not look. Your eyes are glued to the wall ahead.

"I remember you, you jerk," she says. "We hung out at Cross Lake that summer. We were an item. Then I never heard from you again. I cried my eyes out over you. Nobody ever treated me that way before. I'm still not over it."


"No, no, no, it ain't me, babe," you're thinking, but it was you, babe. You can run but you can't hide. The sign says "men" but so what? Call the cops, tell it to the judge, start a movement (Americans for Dignity), open a Web site, talk until you're blue in the face -- what I saw is the future, babe. Unless ...

Architects, back to the drawing boards. Make the women's 40 stalls, make the men's 20 urinals and two stalls. Whatever they want. Mirrors, the works.


(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)

© 2008 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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