Culture of convenience from where women sit

April 14, 1995

Public loos, computer games and trainer envy will all be debated at this week's British Sociological Association conference, reports Claire Saunders. When Cardiff Council planned to build a public library without any public toilets in 1984, it little realised the strength of public feeling it was about to unleash .

Local outrage led to the establishment of a campaign called "All Mod Cons" and last year a bill was presented to Parliament that would have placed a statutory duty on local authorities not only to provide sufficient toilets, but to grant equal provision of toilets for men and women.

Sadly, it ran out of time and the parliamentary session ended without passing the Bill.

The work of two researchers in Wales and Scotland on "The role of the toilet in the engendered city" will be presented at this week's conference which is on the themes of "Congested Cities:Social Process and Spatial Forms".

Julia Edwards, lecturer in public and social policy at Glamorgan University, and her colleague Linda McKie, lecturer in health promotion at Aberdeen University, have a clear feminist perspective on the issue.

They ask why more toilets are not provided for women, especially when it has been shown that women need twice as many as men for the provision to be equal. They have been following the work of the campaign, interviewing members and compiling statistics.

"As local authorities are forced to make cuts, public toilets are one of the first facilities to go. And yet for the elderly and for women with small children these are an absolute necessity," says Dr Edwards.

She argues that few men realise the importance of public toilets because they do not have "intimate contact with intimate family tasks" - and it is men who tend to make the decisions about town planning.

The pair also argue that the modern automatic toilets now common in many cities would never have been introduced if women had had a greater say in town planning - for the simple reason that you cannot get pushchairs, let alone wheelchairs, into them.

"Campaigners for toilets have always tended to be women," says Dr Edwards.

"In Victorian times, despite their prudery about such matters, they built toilets that were a celebration of sanitation. The women's agenda coincided with men's and they made progress - today this is not the case."

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