“If Donald Trump dresses as Hillary Clinton, he still can’t use the little girls’ restroom,” said Senator Ted Cruz of the great Princeton, class of 1992, before throwing in the towel. There is a context, but you can skip it, as it only makes things worse. As a medievalist who tries not to read too many books written since the advent of movable type, I rarely find myself on the frontiers of contemporary thought, but on this public bathroom stuff, I have been way out ahead of the curve for years. An enlarged prostate is a stern tutor of bathroom philosophy.
My party has a three-pronged program concerning public bathrooms. (1) There ought to be many more of them [axiom], and they ought to be salubrious [corollary]. (2) In particular, there ought to be a crash program of public bathroom construction in New York City with the aim of approximating the ratio of comfort to pedestrian mile to be found in London, Paris, and other civilized cities. (3) Any woman ought to have access to any public bathroom anywhere.
I hope that this third plank does not lure me too close to the cutting edge of the culture wars or, for that matter, of Mr. Cruz’s not quite rapier-like wit, which I find more to resemble a fungo bat, actually. The need for gender justice in this matter needs no progressive political theory for its justification. It is a matter of anatomical empiricism. Simply observe the queues outside the ladies’ room at the Eighth Avenue end of Penn Station at rush hour, or at the Metropolitan Opera entr’-acte. In my house both men and women use the same bathroom, and I can remember that arrangement going back as far as the time of my grandparents.
Of course, when it comes to elimination, the distinction between public and private is of great anthropological weight and it is easier to eliminate it in a blog essay than in general social practice. But doing so, even on an accidental basis, can lead to anthropological insight.
This anecdote concerns a woman I know intimately and who was many years ago my companion to a series of Gauss Seminars. The Gauss Seminars in Criticism are a prized cultural institution at Princeton. Famous literary scholars, artists, and thinkers in many fields come to town to deliver a series of talks before an invitation-only blue-ribbon audience of their peers and votaries. The animated discussions that follow are as probing and brilliant as the talks themselves. They take their name from Christian Gauss (1878-1951), a once famous Dean of the College, literary critic, and mentor of such luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson.
The venue for the Gauss Seminars has not been constant, but they usually command a space of architectural nobility. In the year of which I speak—it might have been 1977—a mansion on Prospect Street, home of a recently defunct all-male undergraduate dining club, had been bought up by the University—and the Gauss was meeting there to hear the late great anthropologist, Dame Mary Douglas. The audience was properly august and Douglas’s lectures highly stimulating.
The break between formal and informal discussion arrived, and my aforementioned female companion left in search of a jakes. After a certain amount of wandering about marble halls, she found one. It was denominated “LADIES” on a scarcely visible, hand written three-by-five card. She was not surprised to find in it, in addition to the stalls she sought, a wall of stand-up urinals. This place had been, after all, a men’s club.
Sequestered in her stall, attending to her business, she was alarmed to hear two loud, hearty, male voices burst confidently into the bathroom and head in the direction of the urinals. Furthermore, the voices were unmistakably those of two local, eminent, semi-public intellectuals well known to her, Professor X, a philosopher with a distinctive and carefully preserved German accent, and Professor Y, a patrician and prize-winning litterateur, one of the ornaments of our neighboring state university. You would probably recognize the names of these gentlemen, but they some time ago went to their eternal rewards and deserve their peace.
The split second in which she might have made known her presence came and went. She was forced to adopt church-mouse mode. As these guys did their business they conversed loudly. After a few damning remarks of faint praise for Mary Douglas’s lecture, they began talking about their own most recent books. Both had recently published one and to acclaim. But the inadvertent eavesdropper could not help noting a certain edge to the ego-heavy self-congratulation. Years earlier she had studied Beowulf at Oxford. She remembered the scene in which Beowulf and his nemesis Unferth indulge in a bibulous argument about Beowulf’s swimming prowess, as once revealed in a contest with somebody called Breca. That form of semi-ritualized competitive male boasting or verbalized testosterone is known in Old English as gielping. I think that the equally expressive, if somewhat more vulgar, expression in our contemporary tongue is pissing contest.