A (rest) room of one's own

Anna Quindlen

November 12, 1992|By Anna Quindlen

WHEN good fortune first shone upon me and I was given this position, some acquaintances asked me if I rated a private lavatory.

These were people laboring in the vineyards of investment banking and corporate law, people unfamiliar with any section of an aircraft farther aft than the fourth row, people with ficus trees in their corner offices tended by those people who labor in the vineyards of corporate plant management.

They did not understand that in the newspaper business it is a big deal if you get a private wastebasket.

So I had to reply that while I had snagged an office with windows, the reporter's equivalent of winning Lotto, I would not have a bathroom.

This is when it first occurred to me that in America plumbing is power.

Earlier this week the leaders of the Senate announced that women had broken through the infamous tile wall -- that is, that they would soon have a restroom of their own next to the men's lavatory just off the Senate floor.

Sen. George Mitchell insisted he had ordered the construction "to meet the needs of all senators" even before Carol Moseley Braun, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer and Patty Murray joined Barbara Mikulski and Nancy Landon Kassebaum.

"It says worlds about the men's club that they were counting how many stalls they might need before they'd build," said Harriet Woods, president of the National Women's Political Caucus.

Trend alert: plumbing as parity. In her recent memoir, Sarah Weddington recalls waiting in the Supreme Court lawyers' lounge to argue Roe vs. Wade and discovering that the only bathroom there was marked "men."

Two decades later, work has just begun on a female lawyers' facility.

Heretofore women lawyers arguing before the court had to ask a marshal to unlock the restroom for court personnel across the hall.

Heretofore Senators Mikulski and Kassebaum had to run downstairs to the first floor and use a public restroom. They did not use the restroom marked "Senators Only," which is kind of surprising since right-wing lore has always had it that women's rights exist largely to promote unisex bathrooms.

(The House of Representatives already has a convenient facility for women members. Three stalls, three sinks and a fireplace, as well as the couch on which John Quincy Adams died in 1848, when the place was still the speaker's office. A homey touch.)

I think the female members of the Senate have to look closely at whether this new bathroom is really a good thing. (I think they also have to look closely at whoever hangs the mirrors in there, since if they're at Bob Dole height, Barbara Mikulski will wind up seeing nothing but her hairline.)

It is a good thing that a private lavatory did not come with my columnist's job. In your private lavatory, you look into the mirror and say, "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who deserves a Pulitzer and a raise?" And your personal mirror says, "You do, and a better syndication deal."

Whereas if you go into the common restroom, it is not uncommon to hear disembodied voices coming from the stalls, like this:

"Was that the stupidest column she did yesterday or what?"

Private bathrooms as an executive perk are the greatest single reason for the "Huh?" response of many corporate big guys when they get the shaft.

So while I applaud the Senate women's room -- and believe the six female senators might want to band together and demand the death couch from their sisters in the House -- these women must remember the ubiquitous argument during this Year of the Woman: Will we govern differently? Will we be more in touch? Will we be kinder and gentler?

And when someone says, "Senator Braun, can I take a picture of you with my aunt Ida in front of the sink?" will we turn away?

On the one hand, plumbing and progress: we want no woman to miss an important vote because she was downstairs in line with the girls from a 4-H club in Idaho. ("Isn't that . . . Dianne Feinstein? She looks taller on TV.")

On the other hand, plumbing and populism: the disembodied voice from within the stall saying, "If she doesn't vote for that health care thing, I'm not voting for her next time around."

There are many ways to keep in touch with public opinion; not the least of them is while you have soap on your hands.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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