The 1970s Feminist Fight Against Pay Toilets

Illustration for article titled The 1970s Feminist Fight Against Pay Toilets

You’re looking at assemblywoman March Fong Eu smashing a porcelain toilet on the steps of the California capitol building on April 26, 1969. She was protesting pay toilets in public buildings.


Once upon a time, wrote Pacific Standard in 2014, many of the publicly accessible restrooms in America—think rest stops and airports—cost a dime to enter. But the practice collapsed over the course of the 1970s, thanks to concerted lobbying efforts.

It wasn’t just women who opposed the pay toilet. The Committee to End Pay Toilets in America, or CEPTIA, managed to generate quite a lot of press and attention for the cause and three of its four founders were men. Eu’s bill—which would be defeated the day after her toilet-smashing, according to the Eugene Register-Guard—was supported heavily by F.L.U.S.H, Free Latrines Unlimited for Suffering Humanity, which was founded by Sacramento Union columnist Tom Horton. You don’t stop having to go just because you don’t have the correct change in your pocket.

But there was a feminist case against the practice, too, and that’s the argument March Fong Eu was making. Urinals were oftentimes free, meaning the financial burden fell disproportionately on women. And as the momentum for women’s lib built, pressure grew against the practice of charging for access. NOW sometimes joined the fight. For instance, a February 1975 issue of The Cumberland News reports on hearings before the Maryland state Senate that, “‘The practice of installing and utilizing pay toilets is sexually discriminatory in that women are usually discomforted by them and men are not,’ said Naomi Mestanas of the National Organization for Women.”

There was a fair bit of cheeky performativity to these protests, obviously. (I mean, CEPTIA was founded by a bunch of high schoolers and called “CEPTIA.”) But the push worked. (It didn’t hurt that, as Pacific Standard points out, ensuring free public access to shitters was, generally, an uncontroversial and popular move for local politicians.) Eu continued to lead the charge and in 1974 California would ban pay toilets in public buildings. In 1975, the Associated Press covered what was by then a full-on trend:

The argument against pay toilets is linked to the drive for equal rights for women. Opponents of pay toilets argue that women are unfairly handicapped by the locks on booths in public restrooms.

The publication State Government News, issued by the Council of State Governments in Lexington, Ky., reported that legislatures in 20 states were considering measures to abolish, or at least restrict, the pay toilet.


Something to think about the next time you find yourself fishing frantically for a quarter to put in the tampon machine at the airport.

Illustration for article titled The 1970s Feminist Fight Against Pay Toilets

Photo via AP Images.

Senior Editor, Attic Haunter, Jezebel


I remember one of my great aunt's favorite couplets: "Here I sit all broken hearted, paid a nickel, only farted."