Were public toilets used to oppress ladies?

It’s the bane of many a city but finding a public toilet can be one of the biggest annoyances in modern life and in London they are relatively few and far between and one visit to some of them might be enough to put you off for life. What makes it worse in someways is that unlike other places, London and most British towns and cities used to have a comprehensive network of public conveniences but decades of cost-cutting has resulted in many of them closing which isn’t very convenient at all.

When I walk around London there are still some very good toilets but you have to know where to look, many are locked up or even more curious have been transformed into every thing from cafes to art galleries.

A few years ago various schemes were set up where venues such as pubs or even McDonald’s allow public use of their facilities but for a century or so, it wasn’t very easy to spend a penny in London especially if you were a member of the fairer sex.

There simply were no public toilets around and it proved to be a serious restriction on the free-movement of women who unlike men weren’t so readily or quickly able to relieve themselves down some side alley. This likely wasn’t an oversight given how unescorted ladies in public wasn’t at all the done thing.

But if you can’t use the toilet, you can’t meet friends in public or engage in any lengthy public activity.  Towards the end of the Victorian age it looked for a while like relief was in sight for ladies as in 1898 Urinettes appeared across London. They were small compared to toilets and rather than have your private parts hidden from view by a door, privacy was simply by a curtain.

Fascinatingly whilst for men it was generally free of charge to spend a penny, for ladies it was half a penny which was an outrageous and prohibitive amount of money for a poor lady. Not that it mattered much because the Urinettes were hurriedly removed across London due to ladies using them in an unclean fashion.

Obviously the city administrators have never used the male toilets in Baker Street Underground Station, welcome as they are they do usually call for a pair of waterproof shoes to cross the floor and the ability to hover above the seat whilst doing anything more substantial than having a wee!

It didn’t help that every step towards progress was deliberately sabotaged by various men – when the women wrote to the vestry in Camden requesting toilet access for women in the already existing men’s toilets, men opposed women’s toilets being situated next to theirs.

When on Camden High Street a model of a women’s toilet was built, hansom cabs deliberately drove into it to show what an “inconvenient position” it was in!

In 1919, a law came in stating that women couldn’t be banned from certain professions on the basis of their sex however many organisation would not employ women under the pretext that there were no female facilities.

Of course it has been illegal for employers not to provide facilities for both sections for decades across the U.K. but as with many things, laws only change when culture changes before hand, at least that is the case in the U.K. but was the first real step in providing ladies with public toilets?

In 1928, the iconic London Department Store, Selfridge’s finally realised that they’d make more money if women were able to shop for longer! Whilst it is a cross between ancient history and a joke in London, it’s worth remembering that in many places around the world access to toilets remains problematic for women.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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4 Responses to Were public toilets used to oppress ladies?

  1. It’s still a problem.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Marilyn says:

    The worst situation for a toilet was when we were in Italy! I had to go, but when I went in, it was a hole in the floor you had to stand over! There was a man in the one next to me (it was closed off but you could see his feet in the room)! I was shocked at that!!! I walked out to tell the man running it I could not go in there… that there was no toilet seat! He only spoke Italian and got mad at me and was trying to show me to squat!!!! What a nightmare!! I went back in and did!!😳😩😂🤣

    Liked by 1 person

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