Commentary Magazine


A Ladies' Room of One's Own

I am sometimes puzzled by all the talk in universities these days about the “loss of the canon.” My own liberal-arts college, at any rate, most certainly has not lost its. To be sure, our canon is not comprised of those much-maligned Great Books. Instead there is our required course on “Peoples and Cultures”; there is the astonishing array of sensitivity and “safe sex” sessions which freshmen are forced to attend; and there are the harassment codes to which we must strictly adhere. These immediately introduce us, if not to the best that has been thought and said, then at least to the worst canonical biases of our time.

The prerequisite for appreciating the Old Canon was simply a willingness, in the eloquent formulation of W.E.B. Du Bois, to engage ideas “above the Veil.” (“Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac. . . . So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil.”) The prerequisites for entry into the New Canon are more daunting, involving, among other things, a talent for overlooking contradictions: one must not be racist, sexist, or ethnocentric unless one happens to be black or a woman; one must be positively sympathetic to diversity of gender, race, and sexual orientation but not to diversity of ideas; one must never admit a devotion to truth except to the truth embodied in the harassment code; one must deride the “notion” of historical fact but never question the facts of those who tell their own “survivor stories”; one must cleanse oneself of fidelity to the fixed meaning of texts, except to the texts of the postmodernists. Equipped with such understanding, the would-be adept of the New Canon may dive right in.

But what is left to dive into? If studying the Old Canon required only an ability to transcend the cultural Veil, the parameters of study—man and his nature—were breathtakingly limitless. The opposite is true of the New Canon, where the prerequisites are seemingly limitless while the object of study—oneself, one’s own origins—is of a quite narrow scope. If an Old Canon student could echo the Roman playwright Terence, “I am a man: nothing human is alien to me,” the student entrapped in the New Canon seems to be forever chanting the dirge, “I am my gender, race, and sexual orientation: everything human is alien to me, except for my gender, race, and sexual orientation.”

In any case, my chief concern here is simply to take an anecdotal look at the toll exacted by the New Canon, in one area which I find peculiarly emblematic of the whole.

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But first, an introductory tour. The New Canon makes its presence felt immediately, in freshman orientation. At my college, this mandatory ritual consists of, among other things, a “Feel-What-It-Is-Like-To-Be-Gay” meeting. Our Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Union (BGLU) representatives tour the freshman dorms and require each student to declare, “Hello, my name is [freshman inserts his/her name here] and I’m gay!”

Next comes National Community Building Workshop (NCBW), a day-long program in which each freshman is required to join a group and compose a list of insults he or she does not want to be called, as in “I’m a woman—don’t call me a chick!” or “I’m Hispanic—don’t call me a Spic!” At my NCBW I humbly offered “conservative” as my preferred group, and for my insult, “Don’t call me a free-market apologist!” There was considerable uncertainty about whether this counted.

One student tried unsuccessfully to pretend he was not in his room when it came time to round us up for NCBW. The rest of us nervously huddled in the hallway while our advisers banged on his door. “We all know you’re in there!” Then, at a higher pitch: “You’re not going to get out of this! We’re just going to wait and wait until you come out!” When this, too, failed to entice, the tone shifted again: “C’mon, . . . National Community Building is fun!” you know, that very special kind of fun which requires banging down your door to escort you to it.

Later that week, at a session on “Race, Gender, Identity, and Community,” all the students in my freshman class were herded into a darkened auditorium. There we were asked to keep our eyes closed while various slurs were hurled at us from all directions. This marked the conclusion of “diversity sensitivity,” and rounded out our freshman orientation.

Having been thus introduced to the New Canon, perhaps I should not have been surprised when, this past year, our administration waived the rule against defacing campus property just in time for the Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Union to chalk our buildings and sidewalks with obscenities, the better to celebrate National Coming-Out Week. Nor should I have been surprised that in addition to National Coming-Out Week we had Women’s Pride Week, and Students of Mixed Heritage Week, and Queer Pride Week, and Bisexual Visibility Week, Latino/Latina Awareness Week, and Eating Disorders Awareness Week. After all, maintaining the proper climate of moral correctness demands constant reinforcement, and if anyone should object, the Dean’s Office is ready to respond swiftly with an all-campus mailing. Thus, a memo dated October 14, 1994 warned:

This week has been National Coming-Out Week, a time marked by events on campus and personal messages in the Daily Advisor. In response to one of the messages in the DA, a letter that was homophobic and threatening to all homosexuals and bisexuals was submitted to the DA for publication. . . . The Dean’s Office condemns the letter both for the bigoted attitude it betrays and for the unallowable sense of violence it contains. . . .

Pretty tough. So, should I have been surprised when the administration declined to spring to my defense when my door, which sported a poster of the economist George Stigler, was defaced with “F—THE PATRIARCHY!” stickers? Or, when the campus sprouted with posters blaring “I NEVER LIKED THE NAME WENDY ANYWAY: HAPPY WOMEN’S PRIDE WEEK,” that it declined to send out an all-campus mailing denouncing conservaphobia? No, I should not. For, as the president of the college clarified the issue for me over coffee: “It is right that you should have to deal with this. You’re going to have to face radical feminism after college, too. We can’t insulate you, Wendy.” This must be why the administration also did not see fit to intervene when the BGLU, expressing “Queer Pride,” scrawled graffiti—including “F—moses and his homophobic laws”—Outside the Jewish Religious Center. There is anti-Semitism to face after college, too, so it is better that students not be insulated from it; indeed, why not expose them to as much as possible? Strange, which particular brands of intolerance the New Canon’s love of tolerance both fosters and then goes out of its way to protect.

And yet all such episodes, troubling as they may be to the likes of me, may also, curiously, be among the less harmful aspects of the New Canon, and anyway are of the kind that occasionally even provokes nationwide scandal (as in the notorious case of the student charged with racial harassment and threatened with suspension at the University of Pennsylvania for protesting a noisy black sorority party). The more dangerous, I would submit, are those which never attract attention precisely because they do not involve any obvious breach of free speech, or any imposition of some outrageous view. Take, for example, one campus phenomenon which has as yet gone unnoticed, and which involves only the most democratic of procedures: the phenomenon of the coed bathroom.

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On the surface, the bathroom meeting would seem to be the tamest of all freshman-initiation rites. Unlike “Feel-What-It-Is-Like-To-Be-Gay,” the National Community Building Workshop, or Peer Health’s “safe-sex” demonstration, no one is forced to join a group, lie about his sexual identity, insult other students, or handle bananas in appalling ways. To the contrary, the bathroom meeting is the very paragon of civility. All the students of a particular floor or “entry” gather together in their common room and discuss whether the bathrooms on each floor should be single-sex or coed; and then everyone votes on the matter. What could be fairer?

But then again, why does the vote always go one way? It happens like this. A girl, usually the one wearing the baseball cap, speaks first. Alluding vaguely to some liberating experience she had while at summer camp, she proudly announces that she has “absolutely no problem” with the prospect of a coed bathroom. Everyone nods in approval, prompting another girl, a bit less tomboyish than the first, to speak next. She, too, declares triumphantly that she has “no problem” with a coed bathroom—it is really “no big deal”—and, she tells us, we can trust her opinion because she has brothers. The incest taboo notwithstanding, this is immediately accepted as conclusive proof that she is “comfortable” with her body.

The chorus is now in full cry, as each young woman tries to outdo the last by advertising how “comfortable” she is with her body, how relaxed, how generally serene. Even the shy girl crouching against the doorway, when her turn comes, will contribute a careless toss of the head and proclaim, if a little unconvincingly, that she has “seen it all.” Whatever that might mean in the case of a nervous eighteen-year-old, the implication is quite clear as she expounds, grandly: “Nothing fazes me.”

The young men are generally silent during this entire ordeal, as if tacitly to acknowledge that women have the most to lose by the coed arrangement and, as such, must decide the matter among themselves. (This pattern exactly comports with Rousseau’s prediction in Emile that if we should seek to raise our daughters like men, “The men will gladly consent to it! The more women want to resemble them, the less women will govern them, and then men will truly be the masters.”) It soon begins to appear as if a vote on the bathroom will not even be necessary, as all seem in accord.

But then one girl objects. She is not so sure, she begins hesitantly, studying the crevices in the wood floor and inwardly reminding herself that this is not a good way to make friends. But the prospect of sharing a bathroom with men she hardly knows is enough to make her voice sound fierce. She braces herself for a fight. Yet to her surprise the other girls actually seem, for a moment, to take her part, as the poor benighted miss is surrounded by a pack of worldlings patting her on the back, flattering and reassuring her. “Don’t worry, I was just like you once,” one of them begins condescendingly, smiling with the smug authority of the victorious. “And then . . . I became COMFORTABLE WITH MY BODY.”

And so our last hold-out, mortified, relents, worried less about adjusting to the arrangement itself—she has been guaranteed that, after a few weeks, sharing a bathroom with men will no longer embarrass her—than about overcoming the general perception of her as immature and “uncool.” To seal her fate, the resident advisers take this opportunity to announce that if anyone has problems with the coed bathroom, please do come and talk with them—there are any number of good campus counselors at “Psych Services.”

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I happen to have been that benighted miss last year, and I would like to think I gave in because I saw the coed bathroom as a very small concession. But try as I might, I never did become enthusiastic about this very small room without a lock, and with only a sink, a toilet, and a shower crowded together. In the beginning, when we planted this lovely garden of togetherness, we all agreed to use a sign to indicate whether a young woman or young man was occupying it. But as classwork began to build up, and we grew increasingly “comfortable” with one another’s bodies, it became inevitable that one day I would step out of the shower and . . . mysteriously, the sign had disappeared, and a young gentleman had joined me in our cubicle.

Don’t get me wrong. I was quite comfortable with my body—had been, all along. It was the intricacies of the opposite sex’s body which I wasn’t necessarily so eager to study so early in the morning. Not having any privacy was one more thing to worry about when I much preferred to be thinking about, say, American legal philosophy. I tried to negotiate with my resident advisers by requesting that our floor’s two bathrooms be assigned, respectively, to a single sex, but I wasn’t surprised when they informed me that the decision was irrevocable. We had all voted on it, hadn’t we? Fair is fair.

So for the remainder of the year I carried around toothbrush, toothpaste, and washcloth and employed them in the building which houses the college administration and where the bathrooms were still marked, in dear sweet black lettering, with what to me seemed the most reassuring words in the English language: “Women” and “Men.” To be sure, I had been instructed in endless classroom sessions that all such words were nothing but social constructs—and yet to those in the administration, evidently, they still meant something, and they did to me as well. For some inexplicable reason, when I walked through the door marked “Women,” and looked at my reflection in the mirror, I saw an expression of what could only be called relief. Perhaps it was a secret satisfaction that none of my male professors could enter this place; or perhaps it was only the feeling that I had found, in our quagmire of indeterminacy, at least one thing which could be known. At least I was a woman; at least I knew that much.

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And so, when the time came to plan for the next year’s housing arrangement, I made sure that I was part of an all-girls suite. That way, I reasoned, our bathroom would be a ladies’ room by default.

But things did not turn out to be quite so simple. One day, early in the fall, once again I stepped out of the shower to find a strange man in the bathroom with me—or, rather, the rear of him.

“What are you doing here?”

“Ugh . . . just trying to take a leak. . . .”

“Well, I’m sorry if there’s been some misunderstanding,” said I, clutching my white towel in what I flattered myself was a most emphatic manner, “but this is not a coed bathroom.”

For the first time the young man glanced backward to peer at me. He must have been amused at the sight of this small, soaking-wet frame trying to appear intimidating, because he still refused to leave, laughing and protesting weakly instead, “Well . . . there was no sign,. . . .”

But, see . . . that’s what I’m here for,” I announced, “I am the sign. THIS IS NOT A COED BATHROOM. THIS IS NOT A COED BATHROOM! Do you think you can read the sign now?”

“OK, OK,” he mollified, quickly zipping up and scuttling out the door. As he darted down the hall I could hear him muttering, “But you don’t have to raise your voice. Gosh—she sounds just like my mother. . . .”

Upon reflection I considered that my visitor might have been right, and it would not be a bad idea to put up a sign. I snipped what I thought was an amusing New Yorker cartoon of Queen Elizabeth, affixed it to a white sheet of paper, and added a balloon above her head: “This is NOT a Coed Bathroom—Ladies Only, Please. Thank You For Your Cooperation, Gentlemen.” Then I returned to my studies, satisfied that the matter was settled.

But the following day my suitemate Karen1 knocked on my door and asked me please to come into the common room. There, all four of my suitemates were sitting on the floor wearing very grave expressions. Andrea spoke first. “Wendy, we have been talking and we were thinking, well . . . that sign of yours is really very exclusionary of one gender.”

“Exclusionary of one gender?” Was she serious? “Well, yes,” I admitted, “but remember, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?”

“But what if I have a guy in my room late at night?” Karen protested. And then Cynthia, unresolved family dramas bubbling to the surface, added, “I’m not going to have someone telling me what to do now that I’m at college!”

I drew their attention to the fact there was, after all, a men’s suite just one door away, toward which they could certainly direct any male callers. And furthermore, if they required such visceral confirmation of their adult identity, well, practically every dormitory bathroom on campus was coed and they could simply visit one whenever they were experiencing a spasm of insecurity. There were many, many opportunities to be “comfortable” with one’s body on campus, but virtually none for modesty or privacy. In a last desperate appeal to their political sympathies, I pointed out that destroying one of the few remaining ladies’ rooms would eliminate the range of “bathroom possibilities” available to women, and hence was really not a pro-choice thing to do.

Needless to say, they remained unconvinced. A vote was taken, democratic as ever, and I lost miserably: 4 to 1. Queen Elizabeth came down, and our bathroom conformed to standard.

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It was in the wake of my defeat that I began to speculate about the significance of the coed bathroom and its relation to the New Canon. But first I had to collect more data. One mustn’t simply extrapolate from one’s own experience about such things.

I heard from a girl on my floor that her sociology class was studying gender roles in freshman entryways—for this her parents were paying $25,000 a year?—so I asked her for the names of some of her classmates. Eventually I spoke with a number of these students, and one was kind enough to share her final paper with me.

Erika had surveyed accounts of the coed-bathroom “experience” from many freshman entries. Mind you, I was not particularly sympathetic to her conclusions: Erika celebrated the coed bathroom as a way of “loosening the division between the sexes” and counteracting those “undertones of sexism left over from the Victorian era which imply that the woman simply is not supposed to think or feel . . . the inherent belief of male dominance that prevents the woman from feeling fully comfortable.” For my part, I was far from convinced that the threat to female “comfort” in the 90′s was coming from the Victorian direction. Still, the stories Erika uncovered during her interviews were very revealing.

For it seems that the world of the coed bathroom, and for that matter of the coed dorm, was not all sweetness and light. Erika reports of one freshman entry:

One evening a couple women [sic] were singing loudly in the bathroom, at about one in the morning. Several men from downstairs wanted to sleep and asked them to “shut up.” The two sang for a couple more [sic] minutes and then stopped. One woman went in the shower; the other was in the bathroom dressed. In came the guys with a bucket of water and they dumped it on the clothed woman and went back downstairs. They came up again shortly thereafter and dumped another bucket of water on the girl who had just gotten out of the shower and had only a towel on.

As Erika sadly concludes: “This incident divided the men and women of the entry, just as their Junior Adviser had made the division between women and men when it came to streaking.”

Streaking? Yes. But not to worry—this particular practice is not yet mandatory, only a tactic resorted to by a select few who mean to overcome any lurking sexual “hang-ups” that might have miraculously survived the coed bathroom. Erika explains:

In one anecdote submitted by a male, he tells a story of going absolutely nude through his dorm. Accompanied by another man, who totally agreed, he justifies his reasons for exposing himself to both men and women without any qualms: “Now let me try to tell you why I do things like this. First and foremost, this is not sexual for me at all. . . . I just feel totally free in the nude. It is the greatest thing in the world. . . . Being nude totally rules. The sense of freedom and liberation is incredible. . . . I feel that nudity also makes us closer than we already are as an entry. I mean, totally nude, there is really absolutely nothing to hide behind. It would also help to increase self-confidence, poise, and self-esteem.”

Nor, to be fair, is it just the men who seek self-esteem through nakedness, though women do seem to require a much more elaborate rationale before taking it all off. Arriving at what had been obscurely advertised as “A Performance Piece on Women and the Bible, by Shoshana Friedberg,” I was amazed to find the theater absolutely packed—and mostly, I noted, by men. I soon learned why. The program read, “Shoshana will explore differences between text and stage.” As soon as the piece began, she proceeded to peel off all her outer clothing, and then all her undergarments. Next, with a flourish, she poured some sticky reddish substance from a bottle, applied it liberally over her breasts and thighs, and lay down on the stage, moaning and groaning about the exclusion of women from history. This went on for a half-hour. Her cries of “Oh! The pain of childbirth!” and “Oh! The rape of Tamar!” were interrupted only once, when she abruptly rose and threw herself against each of the four corners of the stage. Then she resumed her moaning and writhing, this time with a red apple stuck in her mouth.

The audience must have managed to get the gist of Shoshana’s performance, for it was effusive in its applause. When she reappeared, all flushed and tumbled, she agreed to take questions. One male student, garbed in dramatic kente cloth, gushed, “Did you feel free? I thought you looked very free.” Shoshana indicated that yes, actually, she had felt very free. Another groupie breathlessly approached the stage. “Can I just tell you how brave you are?” she wondered aloud. Shoshana having nodded her permission, the girl continued: “You are soooo brave! So brave!”

Now, since Shoshana was one of the activists who, during Women’s Pride Week, had drawn our attention to the perils of sexual harassment and the “objectification” of women, what I was dying to know, and asked, was this: when naked, did she worry that the men in the audience might “objectify” her? Absolutely, Shoshana replied, with no trace of irony; but then she was “always concerned about the possibility of being objectified by the male gaze.” I pressed further: “Do you find this objectification is more a problem for you when naked than when not?” At this, Shoshana grew a bit uncomfortable. “Well . . . I guess so,” was her response. But, she added defiantly, the lesson to be learned from this was not that one “shouldn’t go around naked, necessarily, because those attitudes [against nakedness] were products of prudishness and sexual repression, anyway.” This was something she learned, she explained helpfully, in a religion class entitled “Eve and the Snake.”

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So much, then, for my research, which only tended to reconfirm that the ability to overlook contradictions may be the central requirement for entry into the New Canon. In the world of the coed bathroom, young women are “free” to perform strip-teases and parade about in wet towels, secure in the knowledge that their college administration will come down like a hammer on any young man found guilty of “objectifying” them with the “male gaze.” In the world of the coed bathroom, everything is sexual, but nothing is sexual, and woe to him or her who suggests otherwise; in the immortal words of Erika’s informant, “being nude totally rules.”

But the point I want to make by retelling these anecdotes is that the permanent advent of coed bathrooms on campus is not just another sign of the erosion of the mystique between men and women. It is that, of course. But it is also an allegory of the present intellectual atmosphere in our universities, where everything is relative, nothing is “essentially” different from anything else, there are no fixed meanings—and in the name of this very open-mindedness students are daily invited to accommodate the most monstrous propositions, philosophical no less than sexual.

Hence my final example. For all sorts of obvious reasons, the Holocaust is a subject that comes up with fair frequency on my campus, where it has become, alas, a touchstone of that weird mix of relativism and political correctness which is the New Canon’s special contribution to the vulgarization of our intellectual life. Thus, in a discussion of winter-study projects this year, I heard one student proffer: “Mine’s on the Holocaust, and actually . . . I’m not too happy with it.”

“Oh, why not?” I inquired, not without dread.

“Well, the person who’s leading the seminar, apparently, her parents or something died at Auchwitz, so she’s kind of biased.”

Biased? Biased as opposed to which ‘perspective,’ the Nazi perspective?”

“No, no, that’s not what I mean at all. You’re twisting things. It’s just all so black and white for her, . . . you know.”

“No, I’m afraid I don’t—please tell me.”

“Well, it’s all Hitler, Hitler, Hitler with her . . . just Hitler, Hitler, and that’s the end of it. She’s not very open-minded.”

“And to you, it’s not Hitler, it’s . . .?”

“It’s really more structural, it’s the whole militaristic system, people following orders, that’s the sort of thing that’s to blame—you have to understand the German militaristic mentality. Authority and domination.”

But there is worse. I actually used to hear quite often over dinner, or in philosophy class, that the Holocaust did not “occur”—rather, it “has purchase, compared with the currency derived from other events.” One student even explained in my presence that since he was not alive during World War II, he “couldn’t really say that the Holocaust happened,” but since most people “seem to agree about it,” he would more properly coin it “a perfectly reasonable conceptual hallucination.”

So troubled was I by the frequency of such conversations that I decided to recount a few of them to my philosophy professor. Generally a mild-mannered man, he seemed to gather how upset I was, and sincerely tried to offer what comfort he could: “Don’t worry, these students—when they get out of college, they won’t be like this. You know what I mean? They’ll get over talking like that, in the real world. Trust me.”

His response, I discovered, was typical of professors—a variant of, “Pretty soon they’ll all be in law school, anyway.” And at least it had the virtue of acknowledging that there was a world that differed, miraculously, from this one—unlike the dismal prospect of sameness that had been held out to me by our college president. But though he spoke with genuine concern, my professor ended up worrying me even more. For if the late Allan Bloom once feared that our universities were failing to provide a sufficient counterweight to the leveling impulses of democracy, now the question is whether democracy (a/k/a the “real world”) can prove a sufficient corrective to the corrupt moral and intellectual habits incubated, as a matter of conscious policy, by the university.

The New Canon, in short, has made a dwelling place for the worst tendencies of mind, and called it home. To me—and, I wonder, to how many silent others?—it has come to resemble nothing so much as that little cloacal room with a sink, a toilet, a shower, and no sign on the door, none whatsoever.


Footnotes

1 Names have been changed throughout.

About the Author




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