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Embodiment, Elimination, and the Role of Toilets in Struggles for Social Justice

By Plaskow, Judith | Cross Currents, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Embodiment, Elimination, and the Role of Toilets in Struggles for Social Justice


Plaskow, Judith, Cross Currents


... at the end of the row one free toilet
oozes from under its crooked door,
while a row of weary women carrying packages and babies
wait and wait and wait to do
what only the dead find unnecessary.

Marge Piercy, "To the Pay Toilet"

Revaluing the body, and especially the female body, has been central to the feminist project. One need only think of the significance and success of Our Bodies Ourselves and its sequels to appreciate the extent to which reclaiming women's colonized body space has played a vital role in feminist theory and activism. In religious studies, feminists have written extensively about disparagement of the body and sexuality and identification of women with the body in Western thought. From Rosemary Radford Ruether's explorations of dualism in classical and Christian culture written in the early 1970s to Margaret Farley's Just love published in 2006, historians, ethicists, theologians, and others have both critiqued influential canonical texts and attempted to formulate alternative, appreciative, and non-dualistic understandings of sexuality and human embodiment. It is interesting, therefore, that in forty years of feminist theorizing about the body, elimination as a fundamental aspect of body experience has been largely ignored. Foucault may be right that for the last three centuries, "sex has become something to say, and to say exhaustively," but excretion seems to be consigned to the shadows. (1) In the words of Norman O. Brown, "Repression weighs more heavily on anality than genitality." (2)

In this essay, I seek to remedy the neglect of elimination by outlining a new project on embodiment, elimination, and the role of toilets in struggles for social justice. The project has two strands that are deeply interconnected. The first looks at the ways in which access to toilets is a prerequisite for full public participation and citizenship. The distribution, quality, and structure of public toilets are both symbols and concrete representations of a larger system of social hierarchies. Almost all the social justice movements of the last century in the United States have included struggles for adequate toilet facilities as an at least implicit part of their agendas: the civil rights movement, feminism, disability rights, and rights for transgender persons. In addition, an absence of toilets is a major problem for homeless persons and is a pressing health issue in the two-thirds world. How does looking at toilets help us to map power relations in our society and globally? What local battles have been fought over toilet equity? The second strand of the project involves reflecting on elimination as an aspect of human embodiment. Why the relative silence around this issue even among scholars who have written extensively about the body? What does our need for excretion say about us as embodied persons? How have attitudes and practices around excretion changed over time? What would it mean for feminists to reclaim excretion in the way we have reclaimed sexuality? What would sanitary facilities look like in a world in which people were both comfortable with this aspect of embodiment and committed to enabling a maximum number of persons to participate fully in public life?

The topic of toilets is intriguing partly because it provides a vehicle for exploring many intersecting issues: bathroom design and distribution can perpetuate a wide range of social inequalities, and bathroom activism has the potential to bring together very diverse interest groups. (3) In this paper, I will focus on some feminist issues surrounding bathrooms in the Western cultural context as an instance of the broader problem of toilets and social justice. Sometimes the absence of women's lavatories so clearly reflects the exclusion of women from public power and public space that it leaves one almost dumbfounded. There was no restroom for women senators near the Senate floor, for example, until 1992, when the number of women in the Senate went from two to seven.

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