A Loo of Their Own

In 1917, Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first female Member of Congress. But for decades, women made up a small fraction of the representatives to the House and Senate. Even today, there are only 79 female House members (out of 435) and 20 female Senators (out of 100).

And as such, the facilities have been slow to adapt, especially in the House.

Let’s start with Room H-235. It’s situated on Statuary Hall which can be seen on the floor plan of the Capitol here, but like all the rooms off that area, are too small to itself be highlighted on the linked-to map. H-235 is now known as the Lindy Boggs Reading Room, named after Lindy Boggs (imagine that), a prominent (and female) House member from 1973 to 1991 who later served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See. The Reading Room is, in the words of Salon, “the only bipartisan meeting space in the Capitol building dedicated to women members.” (Salon went so far as to call it, in the headline of the linked-to article, “America’s most powerful ‘powder room’”.) The Reading Room was borne out of necessity — or, perhaps, nature. After World War II, the number of female representatives in the House grew into the double digits, but there wasn’t a ladies’ room near the House floor. The Lindy Boggs Reading Room, set aside for its current use in the early 1960s, aimed to solve that problem, according to the House’s official website.

But that, over time, became increasingly inadequate. First, there are only two stalls off the Reading Room, and with there now being more than six dozen potential users of the facilities, that’s simply not enough. Second, while the Reading Room is in the Capitol, it isn’t all that close to the House chambers. At a five minute walk through dozens of tourists each way, doing one’s business can prohibit a Representative from doing the nation’s business. And constructing a new, closer bathroom wasn’t as easy as one would think. Salon further explained: “We have to work with what is already there. It’s our responsibility to care for the historical fabric of the building,” said Eva Malecki, spokeswoman for the architect of the Capitol’s office. “We can’t put in plumbing where there is a historic mural.” In late 2010, Politico reported that the estimated cost of installing a ladies’ room would run about $200,000.

Eventually, House leadership paid up. It took nearly a century after the first woman joined the ranks of Congress, but we’ve finally reached a bit of gender equity when it came to the facilities of the House. Room H211 — the Speaker’s Lobby — is right off the House floor. As of July 2011, there are four stalls and two sinks there, ready to serve the women who serve in the House.

Bonus Fact: In 2005, the City Council of New York passed a law (Local Law 57/05) requiring, with some exceptions, that “places of public assembly” have a minimum number of bathrooms based on the number of people the the place is designed to accommodate. That’s not so strange — not at all. But the law goes one further, setting the minimum number of women’s toilets at twice that of the number of men’s toilets. (For example, for a place with occupancy of 151 to 300 people, the law requires 2 toilets — “water closets” — for men, but four for women.) Why? Because, as the preamble to the law asserts (pdf), “according to studies by Dr. Sandra Rawls on patterns of behavior in the use of bathrooms, it frequently takes women twice as long to use the bathroom as it does men.” (Yes, that’s in the actual law.)

From the ArchivesThe Candy Desk: Another feature of Congress.

Related: “Washington Through a Purple Veil: Memoirs of a Southern Woman,” the late Lindy Boggs’ memoir from 1994.