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Biology Doesn't Write Laws: Hillary Clinton's Bathroom Break Wasn't As Trivial As Some Might Like to Think

12/25/2015 02:28 pm ET | Updated Jan 21, 2016
  • Soraya Chemaly Feminist, writer, and satirist (not always in that order)
JIM COLE/AP

As a lot of the world now knows, last Saturday night, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was late returning to the stage at the Democratic Debate after a five-minute break. Almost immediately media reported that she was delayed because of a line at the women's bathroom. As the break came to a close, with Clinton nowhere in sight, the moderators of the debate started without her.  Within minutes, Clinton walked back onto the stage, smiling, and said, "Sorry," to knowing laughter.  Women, the laughter acknowledged, live in the interstitial spaces of a world shaped by and for men.

Clinton's wry smile and later explanation, "You know, it does take me a little longer. That's all I can say," sent tetchy sexist commentators, and more egalitarian commentators, aflutter.

Rand Paul's wrote a popular tweet, going straight for the tried and true conservative "women cat fighting" narrative, that read, ".@CarlyFiorina has ZERO trouble making it back from commercial breaks @HillaryClinton." Because everyone knows women pee competitively.

Mike Huckabee opined that Clinton's "best moment in the entire night was when she was in the restroom."

Donald Trump, it goes without saying, made the biggest splash. He took the opportunity, once again, to put his bottomless reservoir of shame and misogyny on public display. "I know where she went, it's disgusting, I don't want to talk about it," Trump said, talking about it. "No, it's too disgusting. Don't say it, it's disgusting, let's not talk." Bodily fluids freak Trump out, but women's in particular. This summer, Trump told a lawyer who needed a breast pump that she was disgusting and after Megyn Kelly's challenged him on his sexist record during the first GOP presidential debate he jumped to, "you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever."

Bernie Sanders joined the fray, saying that Trump "must have a very unusual relationship with women," if he doesn't realize they pee. "I guess I'm a man, men are allowed to go to the bathroom."  Bless him for pointing out the double standard.

Today, writing in the New York Times, Frank Bruni began his column simply, "Everybody pees."

One of the only women commenting on the debate situation was Jennifer Weiner who included the episode in a recap simply titled, "The Year of the Toilet," following up on a November piece by Emily Bazelon on the broader need to make public spaces more welcoming and egalitarian to diverse populations. Weiner was in a small minority however.

When Clinton said, "That's all I can say," she knows what she's talking about. Pointing out subtle, implicit and structural sexism doesn't make you any friends.  After Megyn Kelly asked Trump about his history of derogatory and demeaning comments towards women, references to her as a "cunt," "whore," "bitch," and "slut," skyrocketed in social media.

I write and talk about controversial subjects all the time - violence, rape, race - but I have never received as vitriolic a response as last summer, when I wrote about the disparity in public facilities for men and women, The Everyday Sexism of Women Waiting in Bathroom Lines; it was a piece about norms and knowledge.  Angry people mostly men, by the hundreds, wrote to tell me I was vulgar, stupid, ignorant and should learn to stand in order to pee, because it's superior. It continued for weeks, until I wrote a follow-up piece on the ten most sexist responses.

People may think that women no longer face sexism in media or politics when they speak, but that ignores the very obvious fact that even before women say anything they have already, in split seconds, jumped through hundreds of "what if I said something about sexism" hoops. Can you imagine the backlash and media frenzy if Clinton had actually, in some detail, pointed out that the women's room was farther away or that there is often, especially at large public events like this debate, a line that women patiently wait in while men flit in and out and makes jokes about women's vanity? That the microaggressive hostility evident, structurally, in so many of our legacy public spaces is relevant to women every day. "Bathroom codes enforce archaic and institutionalized gender norms," wrote Princeton students Monica Shi & Amanda Shi about their school's systemic sexism this year.

Fiorina, the only other woman candidate hasn't uttered a word about the subject of Clinton's delay.  She's fighting her own battle against people in her own camp.  Steve Deace, a radio host and Ted Cruz supporter tweeted during the GOP debate that Fiorina had gone "full vagina" when she made an allusion to sexism, saying she'd been "called every b-word in the book." Fiorina, apparently failing to understand that her own choice of expression buttresses the very problem she faces, shot back with, "I've now been called the V-word as well by the Cruz campaign, yes V, and I won't say that word either." It's too bad, really, we could have had a more meaningful #Vaginagate redux.

Many people, like Trump, believe it would be so much better if we just kept pretending women were simply messier version of men who should continue to deal, in quiet, small and private spaces, with their needs, discomfort and difference. That they should speak when spoken to, look pretty. Always.  And not curse.  Many men can go through their entire lives having no idea what women's needs are.  No one, particularly, it routinely seems, conservative men, really wants to know about what makes women women or human. Women, too, as subject to the culture's misogyny often likewise cringe when faced with words like "vagina," "rape," "menstruation."

But, it goes further than just not knowing or wanting to know.

Trump specifically used the word "disgust," which, politically expedient, has a particular resonance in conservative circles. Disgust is having a moment.  Studies show that the word is particularly powerful one for conservatives who tend, far more than liberals, to respond viscerally to descriptions that illicit shame, fear and horror. Second, Trump was talking not just to Clinton, but about women. Disgust, and the stereotypes it both relies on and perpetuates, distances women from men, the dominant societal and political group that he is so proudly part of. Disgust is step one of othering people, step one of justifying injustice. While it can be applied to distance oneself from virtually any other group, "the locus classicus of group-directed projective," wrote Philosopher Martha Nussbaum in her book, Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, "is misogynistic disgust."

A profoundly conservative disgust and ignorance about women is why women like Purvi Patel are jailed for decades. It's why a woman in Tennessee just used a coat hanger for an abortion and is being charged with murder.  It's why thousandsof women in Texas have had to figure out give themselves abortions.  It's why millions of already impoverished women face even more dire economic circumstances if their access to safe and affordable medical care specific to women's complicated, repugnant and disgusting bodies.  It's why maternal mortality in the country has risen by 136% in the past 25 years, while the rest of the world's had declined, with black women experiencing four times the risk.  It's why three UN investigators recently reported that they found the degraded status of women's rights in the United States "shocking" and "myth-shattering."

Disgust about women's bodies, hardly limited to Trump, is inseparable from a cultivated and politically useful ignorance.  The GOP's party platform is shaped around the idea that women are not competent adults, capable of moral reasoning and autonomous decision making, but, rather, are stuck somewhere between children and men, in need of eternal male intervention. It is filled with men passing oppressive anti-women laws who admit to never having thought about women's lives or bodies. The party's paternalism, its fundamental reliance on notions of complementary and binary gender roles, relies on maintaining ignorance, sometimes referred to as "mystery," about the "opposite sex."

Keeping people ignorant of women's bodies and bodily habits is the polite thing to do.  But, we aren't talking about people. Women already know. We're talking about keeping men ignorant.  Men run the world, and, for women, it's an unsafe and uncomfortable one. But, insisting that the way men do things is inadequate for meeting our human needs is so whiny, a word mainly associated with the high-pitched plaintiff keening of dogs.

In some countries a lack of facilities for girls and women means girls can't go to school, women can't move freely and safety in their own neighborhoods, their ability to get food, water and work all compromised by the dangers of seeking out safe sanitation. In militarized zones and refugee camps, a trip to the bathroom for a child or woman carries with it the almost certain risk of sexual assault and possibly death. Girls and women, in an effort to stop having to use toilets, stop drinking, making themselves sick with dehydration and other ailments.  In wealthy nations, the effects on women aren't nearly so blunt or harsh, but they are meaningful none-the-less.

The argument, "it's biology, get over it" is a silly one. Biology, as one reader put it, "doesn't design restrooms." Biology also doesn't write laws. That, too, is relevant.

As scholar Judith Plaskow wrote in a paper on sanitation, toilets and social justice, "Not only does the absence of women's bathrooms signify the exclusion of women from certain professions and halls of power, but it also has functioned as an explicit argument against hiring women or admitting them into previously all-male organizations."

On Saturday, Clinton and other women also had to travel farther than their male peers, whose restroom was conveniently located much closer to the stage. Her career as a senator came to an end in 2009, two years before the 76 women who were then serving in the House finally got a bathroom even remotely close to the Speaker's Lobby.  As Representative Donna M. Christensen, a Democrat from the Virgin Islands, tweeted two days after, "The first woman came to Congress in 1917. We are finally getting a ladies rest room near the floor of the House."

Male members, if you'll forgive the expression, could take for granted the fact that if and when they needed a bathroom it was close and would not impede their ability to listen to or participate in debates or vote on legislation. The men's room was not only near but, had a fireplace, a shoeshine stand, and televised floor proceedings. There was also an attendant who warned men if session breaks were coming to an end.

The male-centeredness of our opinion making and public space continues to reflect the male-centeredness of our understanding of the world.

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