Amherst College’s Bathroom Problem

The first floor of Merrill has one women’s room that seems more similar in size to the elevator than either of the men’s rooms

I can’t sit through an hour and twenty minute class without having to pee at least once. It’s really unfortunate because it makes me seem like I don’t care about the class. I just like to stay hydrated! And, yeah, I do take a lot of Econ lecture courses.

But these numerous bathroom breaks have given me the opportunity to form some strong opinions on the bathrooms at our school, specifically in the academic buildings and libraries. Once, on a whim, I went to the men’s room on the second floor of Frost, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

I think it’s safe to say that most of us choose to only use either the men’s or women’s restrooms here on campus. This is not to erase the identities of members of our community who identify outside of the gender binary. I’ll get to that. But assuming that most people use one or the other, it goes fairly unnoticed that all bathrooms at Amherst are not created equal.

The good news is that the newer buildings, like Keefe and Beneski, have equivalent men’s and women’s rooms. The designs of newer buildings facilities make it clear that urinals are equated to stalls, meaning that if a women’s room has two stalls, then an equivalent men’s room will have one stall and one urinal. This is good to keep in mind when evaluating the plethora of urinals in some of the men’s rooms on campus.

The men’s room I used on that fateful day last fall is just around the corner from its (supposedly) equivalent women’s room. But while that women’s restroom is cramped and furnished with two stalls and one sink, the men’s room only a few feet away is spacious, well-lit, and complete with three stalls, four urinals, and three sinks. What?

Frost’s second floor women’s room (left) and men’s room (right)
Frost’s second floor women’s room (left) and men’s room (right)

With a little investigating, I realized that this was part of a larger pattern of men’s bathrooms on campus being generally superior to their female counterparts. In this regard, Frost is one of the biggest offenders. While its first-floor bathrooms are on par with one another, its other levels exhibit the same kind of inequality as the second floor. On A-Level, the women’s room has three stalls and two sinks, while the men’s room has two stalls, three urinals, and three sinks. B-level has a rather disheartening women’s room with one stall and one sink while the men’s room boasts one stall, two urinals, and two sinks.

Merrill’s facilities are similarly biased. The fourth floor women’s room has two stalls and two sinks, while the men’s room has two stalls, two urinals, and two sinks. The second floor is the same. Similarly, the third floor women’s room has two stalls and three sinks (the logic of this is beyond me) while the men’s room has two stalls, two urinals, and two sinks.

But what’s really cute is the first floor of Merrill, which has one tiny women’s room, equipped with one stall and two sinks, and two men’s rooms, both with two stalls and two urinals. One has one sink, one has two. So the first floor of Merrill can accommodate eight men doing their business, but only one woman. It’s a good thing women are made of glitter and cotton candy rather than human organs!

My personal favorite bathroom injustice to complain about is in Chapin Chapel. Classes are held on the first and second floors of the building, while restrooms for both genders are located in the basement, and a men’s room is conveniently located on the second floor. So if you’re a woman taking a class on the second floor of Chapin, you’re expected to travel down two flights of stairs to the basement to use the dark, dank women’s room. This means that women have to miss more class time if, god forbid, they have to pee.

Converse is infamous for having the crappiest bathroom set-up, but for those who are unfamiliar with it, the men’s room is located on the first landing (between the first and second floors) and the women’s is on the second landing (between the second and third floors). As there are plenty of offices and classrooms on the first, second, and third floors, it’s a pretty fair situation in terms of location. But, unsurprisingly, the men’s bathroom has two stalls, one urinal, and two sinks in comparison to the women’s two stalls and two sinks.

The handicap-accessible restrooms are located in the basement, which one can presumably access via the building’s elevator. The men’s room is newly renovated, with two stalls, a urinal, and two sinks. The women’s room – which, during the renovations of the men’s room, served as a unisex bathroom – has a measly one stall and two sinks. This familiar set-up raises the question of whether our school’s architects think women don’t have bowels or bladders but compensate for this by obsessively washing their hands. Maybe we’re meant to pee in the sinks?

The newly renovated men's room in the basement of Converse
The newly renovated men’s room in the basement of Converse

To make clear the inequality we’re dealing with here, I’ll sum up: in the buildings of Frost, Merrill, Chapin, and Converse there are a total of 52 places for men to do their business (27 toilets and 25 urinals) and only 22 toilets for women. This is not to mention the difference in bathroom spaciousness or convenience. You don’t have to be a “hardcore feminist” to see something wrong with this picture.

Now, you might be thinking, of course it’s not malicious. The school was originally designed for men and it’s hard to renovate! (Not so hard that they didn’t redo the men’s basement-level bathroom in Converse. It’s really nice in there.) But there’s a pretty easy solution to the disparity between the gendered bathrooms. This solution has, in fact, already been employed by the lovely people of the basement level of Converse. Why not make more bathrooms gender-neutral?

You’ve heard the case for gender-neutral bathrooms before – it’s more inclusive to trans* individuals, as well as those who don’t identify with the gender binary. Many trans* people have spoken about the difficulties of navigating gendered bathrooms, and even people who deviate from stereotypical performances of gender, such as butch women, have given accounts of the problems caused by the enforcement of gender in public bathrooms. Judith “Jack” Halberstam in the introduction to Female Masculinity describes this as “The Bathroom Problem.”

And, in the case of Amherst College, gender neutrality in bathrooms would clearly serve to benefit even the most feminine cisgendered women. I’ve seen a line of women waiting outside of the single-use women’s room in Fayerweather when the identical single-use men’s room was unoccupied. These arbitrary labels for single-use restrooms can easily go, without making even the most gender essentialist individuals feel uncomfortable. If the school is unwilling to go through the expensive and time-consuming process of renovating and redoing a lot of restrooms, Amherst should make more bathrooms gender-neutral.

Gender-neutral bathrooms would also be good for building community and breaking down the walls of gender difference erected by society. Several residences on campus already feature gender-neutral bathrooms, including houses on the Hill as well as Humphries. It’s difficult to combat gender inequality while still enforcing the perceived need for men and women to use different spaces to perform the same bodily functions. Sharing bathrooms on campus would be a good step towards bridging the gaps between men and women at Amherst.

Bathrooms in Frost and Merrill could easily have signs indicating “restroom with/without urinals,” which would spare a lot of individuals the stress of being forced to make statements about their gender identity every time they have to pee, and would save a lot of women on campus the time of waiting to use a toilet. This “bathroom problem” is a good opportunity for the school to step up – and into the twenty-first century – in terms of improving gender equality on campus as well as trans* inclusiveness.