Who knew that toilets would have such a complicated history?
It all started at the beginning of a summer scholarship at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. I spent much of the first week soaking up the atmosphere, walking in the footsteps of the heroes and villains from my research.
But then, on a perfectly unremarkable trip to “the ladies”, I noticed a set of lights above the door (right). The light would flash when a division was called in either chamber.
It seems nowhere was safe from the call of the chamber and duty. When a division was called, either the green or red lights would flash summoning Members or Senators to decide and be counted. But, of course, the history of the lavatories of Old Parliament House has inspired more scrutiny and newspaper ink than you might think. Especially for the women in the building.
As I wrote in a previous post, the first women were elected to Parliament in 1943. Yet it appears that the first ladies’ toilet was not established until 1974. Thirty-one years later. What did Enid Lyons and Dorothy Tangney do while in Canberra you ask? Were there no female toilets at all in Parliament House?! Well of course there were. But they weren’t for female parliamentarians. They were for junior staff or service staff.
So the implication of this was that Dame Enid Lyons, Australia’s first female Cabinet Minister (though without a portfolio), and Dorothy Tangney, who has a seat named for her, were not entitled to the same privileges as their male colleagues.
The situation finally changed in 1974, when Kathy Martin (LP) and Ruth Coleman (ALP) complained about the lack of amenities for female senators. At which point, one of the urinals in a toilet on the Senate side was boxed in (above right). And it became the “LADIES TOILET” (below, right). Victory.
Other Working Women in OPH
At about the same time, women were claiming their rights in other parts of the building. Up in the press gallery, on the House side of the building, I found this curious placard, the finer text which reads:
The toilet was originally for men only but that changed in the early 1970s.
It is said that Gay Davidson of The Canberra Times came across one of the female teleprinter operators, who had a broken leg, hobbling off on the long hike to go to the nearest female toilet. Gay offered to stand guard outside the men’s toilet instead, and over the next few days used and encouraged other women to use the facility herself. She eventually told the Serjeant-at-Arms what was happening and the toilet officially became unisex.
So simple a thing as going to the loo was a problem in this place. Everywhere.
And on it flows…
Indeed, the toilets of Parliament House continued to be a point of fascination. In 1978, this news article from The Canberra Times noted that there was now a proliferation of names for the toilets in the building. From the ‘dignified doors’ labelled Gentlemen, to the Ladies Powder Room. The issue was obviously burning enough that it received a mention at the end of this article about Susan Ryan, the ALP’s first female Minister. Senator Ryan recalls her early days in the male-dominated Federal Parliament.
One recollection which illustrates that domination was the way in which lavatory doors on the Senate side of Parliament were marked. “They used to be labelled Senators and Ladies,” Senator Ryan said. “After a couple of years they put male over the Senators, so now they are Male Senators and Ladies.”
Women and Politics at the Time
When Kathy Martin and Ruth Coleman, the Senators that secured the first lavatory for Women Senators, entered Parliament this is how they were described in the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1974:
First Kathy Martin:
Although only a neat 7½ st., Kathryn Martin, of Queensland, evidently packs a man-sized punch in the political scene. Slim, with blond cropped hair and an attractive figure and legs, Miss Martin won a Senate seat for the Queensland Liberal Party. At 32, once married but divorced some years ago, she devotes most of her time to politics.
Or for Ruth Coleman:
Green-eyed effervescent Ruth Coleman came to politics via her second marriage in 1967, to Jim Coleman Secretary of the Western Australian branch of the Trades and Labor Council. As the wife of a prominent trade union man, she naturally joined her local ALP branch.
It may not be surprising to read this kind of commentary about female politicians from this era, but it remains shocking. If anything, it underlines the point that it took 31 years and some noisy complaining to get something as simple as a ladies lavatory. We need to remember the women that went ahead before us. For the big and small things they achieved just by being there. For the things they fought for. Including toilets.
And the museum has done this—in a special exhibit just for ladies located in the ladies lavatory. If you have the time, and you’re a lady or have someone to stand guard, go and check it out.