The dreaded line for the restroom.
Every woman has encountered one or two or 100 such lines. It's almost a primitive ritual in America: A woman goes to a crowded public gathering and ends up praying at the bathroom door for the others in front to hurry.
Plumbing engineer April Trafton has several techniques for coping. At Dodger Stadium, she waits until the Dodgers are at bat. At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, she lingers in the courtyard during intermission--then makes a dash for the washroom minutes before the curtain goes up.
Some women invade the men's room--occasionally deputizing a male companion to stand guard. This action has varying consequences--like risking arrest. (More about that later.)
Most just submit to the wait. Almost all grumble about it. Meanwhile, men usually breeze in and out of their facilities.
In an age of creature comforts sophisticated and superfluous--like SUVs with VCRs--why are women still waiting for toilets?
The question has that if-they-can-put-a-man-on-the-moon quality to it. Shouldn't this be easy to resolve? The answer is mired in a mixture of bureaucracy, plumbing codes, social convention and, no surprise, a bit of male chauvinism.
That doesn't mean some men aren't sympathetic. But the laws governing women's bathrooms seem to change only when men are inconvenienced.
For instance, in 1987, the Restroom Equity Act was signed into law after being introduced by Art Torres, a state senator at the time. Torres, now the California Democratic Party chairman, was inspired after he had to wait--and wait--for his then-wife to use a restroom at the Hollywood Bowl.
"I looked at this line, and I said, 'What's going on here? Is the plumbing out?' " recalls Torres. "Then she told me how this had always been a problem and how she sometimes resorted to going to the men's room."
The law mandated more facilities for women in large new public projects, but it didn't cover existing structures. The Bowl and several other major Los Angeles facilities have, however, substantially increased the number of restrooms for women and men during renovation projects in recent years.
"I think standards for women's restrooms are so low that nobody complains. It was just given as a norm--which is wrong," says Mike Garcia, general manager of the Greek Theatre, which recently more than tripled its facilities from 27 women's stalls to 97.
The current rules governing the number of toilets, urinals and sinks in public restrooms are charted in Table 4-1 of the Uniform Plumbing Code, adopted by California as the basis for all its plumbing standards. Cities can tweak the code, but only to make it stricter.
There have been some increases in numbers of toilets for women, but the figures haven't risen substantially over the last decade. It's not that the International Assn. of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials--who write the code every three years--are against more toilets for women. It's just not the group's most compelling issue.
Plastic piping versus copper piping, for example, is the sort of topic that captivates the plumbing industry.
"The only time I ever want to be a man is when I go to the bathroom," says Trafton, who as a plumbing engineer who has sat on code writing committees is one of the few women in a position to help change the code. The male-dominated community of contractors, engineers and architects isn't known for its sensitivity to the concerns of women, says Trafton. But, she says, "I think they are beginning to address it. I truly think it is better than what it was. . . . The only place I think we need to address it a little bit more is in stadiums."
Trafton herself has never suggested any changes to codify an increase in bathroom requirements. "I never really felt a strong need for it," she says. "There were other things that concerned me more. I don't like air-admittance valves."
Women Take Longer to Use the Commode
Technically, there's already more than gender equity--or "potty parity," as it is sometimes called--at work. For more than a decade, the code has specified that women's toilets outnumber men's toilets (not including urinals) in large assembly areas at, roughly, a 3-2 ratio.
For most women, however, the issue is not getting as many bathrooms as men--it is about getting more. Women simply take longer in the bathroom--and it's not because they're primping.
A 1988 study of the bathroom habits of men and women at four public venues revealed that women took 55% to 65% longer in public bathrooms than men. The wait is for the stalls, not the mirror.
"The myth was if women would quit fooling around and get their business done, they'd get out faster," says Sandra Rawls, who conducted the survey for her 1988 doctoral dissertation in housing, interior design and resource management at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Rawls, who is now an interior designer in Naples, Fla., put in her statistical survey what most women have already assumed--it takes women longer than men to use the bathroom.
"This can probably be attributed to clothing management problems, the cleanliness and maintenance condition of the stall, and the problem of where to place items, such as a purse," wrote Rawls in her dissertation. But for men, "use of the urinal requires only a minimum of clothing adjustment, while a briefcase and newspaper can be held under an arm."
Rawls' study, earned her an invitation to speak to a convention of plumbing engineers. "They were really for changing the codes," says Rawls. They said if people are cutting budgets, they fall back to minimums."
Who changes the code? Plumbing professionals who are members of the International Assn. of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials write it. Their code has been chosen for use by the California Building Standards Commission, an 11-member board appointed by the governor. Anybody can propose changes to the code.
Complaining helps, too.
Nearly every big theater or stadium that has undergone a renovation in the last decade has used the opportunity to add restrooms for women--and men sometimes--because of complaints.
Even the $1-billion Getty Museum was plagued with long restroom lines when it opened in 1998. More were subsequently added.
The Hollywood Bowl, the Rose Bowl, the Pantages Theatre and the Greek Theatre were all notorious for having long bathroom lines for women before renovations.
The Rose Bowl went from 15 multiple-stall women's restrooms to 20. It also increased men's rooms from 12 to 17. Now things are better, but far from perfect at the 93,000-seat stadium. "I don't think you can get enough restrooms if you have a crowd of 100,000," says Cathy Lama, project coordinator for the Rose Bowl.
The Pantages Theatre, which holds 2,700 people, took advantage of renovations this year for the "The Lion King." The theater went from 13 women's stalls divided between two bathrooms to 31 stalls spread over three bathrooms. As with the Rose Bowl, the wait is better but not perfect.
"It's not like before, when some people were in line the whole intermission," says Pantages Theatre general manager Martin Wiviott.
Few theaters renovate the way the Greek Theatre did. The $2-million bathroom renovation of the theater, which seats 6,162, took three years. Not only are there 97 stalls in a bathroom, but the sink counter tops now slope slightly toward the mirrors so that water won't pool at the edges where women are standing. There are even cup holders in the stalls.
The theater also expanded the men's room from 35 to 55 stalls and urinals.
It's a different story in restaurants and clubs. Unlike theaters or stadiums, where the code takes into account that many people want to use the facilities at the same time, the requirements for restaurants are slim. A restaurant with a total capacity of 300 need only provide two toilets for women and two for men, plus one urinal. With a capacity greater than 300, the code requires four toilets for women and three for men (and increases again when capacity exceeds 600).
Resorting to Using the Men's Room
Women who weary of standing in line to use the women's restroom have been known to go into a men's room.
I did just that last September at Twin Palms in Pasadena. A sprawling restaurant with a capacity of 476, it was packed with diners, bar patrons and revelers who had attended the Alabama-UCLA game earlier in the day.
There was a line of roughly a dozen women snaking out of the women's restroom. Inside were four stalls--as the code requires--but one was broken.
Why not use the men's bathroom when it had emptied out?
I asked for women volunteers to go in with me. When the last man had exited, we dashed in and occupied all three stalls. Later, when I walked out of the stall, I found that the other women had left. Only a restaurant security man was standing there, glaring at me. I washed my hands and he opened the door for me.
"You need to fix that ladies' room," I told him and walked by.
"It's time for you to leave the restaurant," he said as he followed me to my table.
I was part of a group of 11 that included my brother and his wife, their infant daughter and our friends. Stunned, I said I had no intention of leaving. "We'll get the police then," he said walking away.
He returned with the manager and another private security officer. "You crossed the line when you used the men's room. That's sexual harassment," said the manager. "We'd do the same if a man used the ladies' room."
By the time we gathered our things and collected money for the bill, three uniformed Pasadena police officers arrived at the table and stood by, talking to the manager.
Later, outside, we saw one of the officers. "Why did you throw us out?" a friend asked.
"We didn't throw you out. You left when they asked you to leave," said Pasadena Police Sgt. John Perez.
Victor Ciulla, president of the restaurant, expressed regret about the incident in a recent phone interview.
Ciulla said when his employees find a woman in the men's room, "we try to find out why they went into the men's room." That didn't happen in my case. "I certainly apologize for that," he said.
But he stood by his restaurant's policy of asking those who use the wrong gender bathroom to leave the restaurant. "Our security people are all off-duty police officers," he said. "A woman being in the men's room, they've told us, is a lewd act and they could be arrested. We could have decided to press charges for a woman in the men's room and we obviously didn't do that."
It's unclear what law he would have invoked. California Penal Code 647 prohibits lewd or lascivious acts in any restroom. However, the law says nothing about women going into men's rooms to urinate.
There is no Pasadena municipal law on cross-gender bathroom use, says city spokeswoman Ann Erdman. Nor is there a law in the city of Los Angeles. Santa Monica allows women to use a men's room when three or more people are in line for the ladies' room.
At the Sunset Room, a Hollywood restaurant and dance club where capacity can soar to 700 women waiting for restrooms are occasionally ushered into the men's room by an attendant.
"I think there should be more women architects," says Sunset Room manager Natalie Beydoun. "If they planned the place, [restrooms] would be 2-1."
But until codes demand it, women will continue to wait. Seeing men wait makes it slightly more bearable. That's what happens at the 382-seat Canon Theatre which has a women's room with two stalls and a men's room with two stalls and two urinals.
"The Vagina Monologues," the show currently playing at the theater in Beverly Hills, has no intermission, so women converge on the upstairs bathroom before the curtain.
"Once the line starts getting long, I send a monitor up," says house manager Jim O'Hanlon. "She waits until the men's room is empty. Then she lets up to six women in. Any men who come up stand in line until those six ladies are out."
The practice is particularly useful while "The Vagina Monologues" is playing because the show draws so many women.
"Sometimes the men get upset," says O'Hanlon, "but, especially with this show, they kind of stand back a little."