Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Researching Female Public Toilets: Gendered Spaces, Disciplinary Limits

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Researching Female Public Toilets: Gendered Spaces, Disciplinary Limits

Article excerpt

Abstract

I have always been drawn to study intimate yet public spaces--most notably Victorian ladies' public lavatories and American honeymoon suites. Such research raises larger questions concerning the legitimacy of certain objects of inquiry and of feminist and interdisciplinary work in general. This paper aims to go behind the curtain of academic research and to think about the challenges one faces "back-stage" when investigating spaces or objects connected intimately to sexuality and the gendered body.

Keywords: Public Toilets, Interdisciplinarity, Sexuality

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Since 1996, I have been exploring the subject of public toilets for women ("Female Urinals"; "World of Unmentionable Suffering"). (2) Though my research has moved on to consider other intimate yet public spaces--namely, American honeymoon suites--I still occasionally find myself returning to lavatories. This revisiting is driven by the sense that, despite publishing historical information about them, I've never engaged with many of the questions which have been raised by my research and writing--larger questions to do with the legitimacy of certain objects of inquiry and of how they expose one's own disciplinary limits. What follows, then, is an exorcism of some questions which have persistently dogged my research. Its intent is to go behind the curtain of academic research to think about the challenges one faces "back-stage" when investigating spaces or objects connected to sexuality and the gendered body in an interdisciplinary mode.

One danger of writing a piece like this one is that it opens one up to the charge of anecdotalism. However, as Irit Rogoff has argued, one of the most urgent tasks facing academics is to consider who is allowed to speak about what or, perhaps in this context, what one is allowed to speak about. These are important questions on a political level and it is only by engaging them that we might, in Rogoff's words, "break down the barriers of permissible and territorialized knowledge rather than simply redraw them along another formalized set of lines" (Rogoff 23). I would further defend this discussion on the grounds that, too often within academia, the process of research is treated as a mechanical act, while the process of mobilizing facts into argument is seen to be an intellectual one. This division is misguided, not least because it ignores how the institutions and disciplines that control knowledge give a particular shape to enquiries from the start.

London, Winter, 2002: I meet Dr. Timothy Boon, Head of Collections Development at the Science Museum, whom I first encountered at a conference at the Women's Library. (3) In order to contextualize the long and sometimes fierce nineteenth century campaign to provide public conveniences for women, I've been trying to learn more about how and where British women relieved themselves before lavatories became a feature of the late Victorian streetscape. (4) Such information is hard to come by. Even diaries and literature, where the strictures of decency are sometimes relaxed, give little away. In the first break I've had in some time, Tim tells me that the Science Museum has a reasonable collection of female urinals dating from the eighteenth century. I am immediately interested because urinals and bourdalous were most likely to have been used by women publicly, unlike a chamber pot which is used domestically or privately, say, in a carriage. (5) Tim generously offers to show the museum's collection to me.

At the Science Museum, an endless sprawling institution in South Kensington, I am grateful Tim leads the way. I never would have discovered these urinals myself. There are three on exhibit, located in a display case entitled "Technology in Everyday Life, 1750-1820." This case fascinates me. It more closely resembles a cabinet of curiosities than a modern museum exhibit, grouping objects together so broadly--by material, for instance--that the connection between them is initially hard to discern. …

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