Permit me to gloat. I started as a freshman at Yale in 1992 and was appalled by the fact that this ancient institution was unable or unwilling to provide soap dispensers in the dormitory bathrooms. Furthermore, if you tried to leave a bar of Irish Spring in the bathrooms, the custodians were instructed to throw it away. As this is an amenity I take for granted even in the most isolated rural convenience store, I was less than impressed by its absence and complained about it to the folks in charge, who politely told me to deal with it. Which I did, carrying my shaving kit and soap with me each time. (What worried me was my fellow Yalies who didn’t carry soap with them.)
Actually, that’s the funniest part of the whole sad spectacle. From the first day I showed up, Yale was showing us how to use condoms, reminding us to use them, and gleefully giving them away everywhere on the theory that if access to condoms was ubiquitous, we’d use them and thereby prevent disease. Meanwhile, actually giving us SOAP to prevent disease was too damn proletarian or something.
Well, at last they’ve given in. The Boston Globe reports that in three of the twelve dorms they’ll introduce soap dispensers on a trial basis. (Yale calls them “residential colleges.” What’s the difference between a regular “dorm” and a “residential college”? Around twenty-five thousand bucks a year.) I don’t claim any credit for that, since my complaints were circular-filed and there has been an ongoing agitation to get suds in all the little Boola Boola rooms. But I’m very happy. Welcome to the twentieth century, Yale!
This minor victory gives me hope that another crusade of mine might bear fruit someday soon. Yale’s dorm bathrooms may have soap, but they are a long way from civilized yet, because the bathrooms are co-educational.
A bit of background here: I went to Yale sight unseen, the first from my small-town high school in southeastern Oklahoma to go there. I chose Yale over Harvard mostly because Yale let out for Oklahoma’s deer season, and I liked Frederic Remington’s paintings and Bill Buckley’s politics. The whole transition was, to say the least, a bit of a culture shock.
Not the least of which was the realization that, while the freshman dorms were sex-segregated by floor, the room assignments in the residential colleges, where upperclassmen lived, was done by lottery. These rooms were not located along hallways, but rather organized around staircases with three or four suites and a restroom on each landing. Each suite was all male or all female, but if I ended up across the hall from a suite of women, the bathroom on that floor would be co-ed. Which is exactly what happened my sophomore year.
The funny thing is, restrooms in the lecture halls, labs, and offices at Yale are normal. In fact, one day after class, during some renovations on a lecture hall that involved replacing room numbers and signs, I went into a washroom that was unsigned (but I thought I remembered was a men’s room). While I was there the place filled up with women who were not happy to see me. Then I went back to my dorm, where my female floormate came in and washed her hands without alarm.
Of course I petitioned the administrators of my residential college, Branford, to change the policy, and even forced a referendum among the Branfordites, which I lost handily. Actually I saw the ballots, which contained a fair amount of abuse for me and my idea. Someone called my plan to actually have men’s rooms and women’s rooms “puritanical” and “heterocentrist.”
Meanwhile in my girlfriend’s residential college, Saybrook, the policy was faintly more sensible. If you drew the first suite on a floor, you could request that that bathroom be designated single sex. When my girlfriend and her roommate did this at the room draw meeting her junior year, they were audibly hissed.
I wrote about this experience in 1995 in Light and Truth, a conservative student magazine. I was surprised that Yale’s feminists, ordinarily so concerned about “privacy” (by which I now realize they just meant “abortion rights”) and sexual harassment, hadn’t spoken out against the policy. I noted the story of a friend at Cornell who had her clothes stolen in a coed bathroom, and had to make her way down the hall clad in a shower curtain:
Branford’s steel-doored shower stalls leave no convenient escape route for women so stranded. Nor do they offer protection from a persistent or drunken assailant; and unless women wish to carry tear gas into the shower with them, how can one persuade a harasser to leave his own bathroom?…I am also surprised that parents have accepted such a situation so quietly. Were my daughter forced to share a bathroom with four or five male strangers, I would firmly suggest she find a more traditional university.
Why would Yale run the risk of a lawsuit if a student were sexually harassed or worse in its coed bathrooms? My theory is that the policy is a relic of Yale’s admission of women in 1969, a tumultuous year across the country. The larger issue of the admission of women to an all-male university probably overshadowed the details of who uses whose john, and the policy continued from unexamined there.
Also at that time, there were radicals dedicated to eliminating such distinctions between men and women. When fugitive hippie bank robber Kathy Power took over a building at Brandeis in 1968, her group of activists began to remake the building. Here’s Jacob Cohen, writing about Power in National Review in December 1993:
Meanwhile, inside the occupied building, the Sanctuarists proceeded to create a commune, a prefigurement, they said, of the utterly emancipated and uninhibited world of the future….Signs over the men’s room and women’s room were removed, and the partitions around the toilets torn down, because the organizers said, in the world to come there would be no self-withholding, bourgeois notions of privacy, even in the toilet.
My campaign went nowhere, but the year after I graduated the story of the Yale Five broke. These were Orthodox Jews who had a religious objection against sharing a washroom with women, but were not permitted to move off campus because of a new regulation requiring all sophomores to live on campus. In a move typical of Ivy League openness to traditional religion, they told the Yale Five tough dreidels. Their case made the New York Times and was written up in Wendy Shalit’s 1999 book, A Return to Modesty.
Richard Brodhead, Dean of Yale College, in his letter responding to the Times article, countered that “Yale College has its own rules and requirements, which we insist on because they embody our values and beliefs.” Apparently these values and beliefs, which are held strongly enough to threaten the expulsion of five religious students over the issue, still include an affirmative commitment to Kathy Power’s agenda. Or as Yale spokesman Thomas Conroy put it more directly: “…that aspect of the Yale educational experience is not going to be attractive to everyone, and we understand it means some prospective students will choose to go to school elsewhere.” In other words, if you have religious objections, or any kind of objections, to forced intimacy with strangers of the opposite sex, you’re probably not Yale material.
Since then the issue has died down. But with attention on those newfangled soap dispensers in Yale’s bathrooms, maybe it’s time students, parents, and alumni renewed pressure on the administration to take account of the basic standards of civilization. Both its long struggle against soap and its clueless coed-bathroom policy reveal a flabbergasting arrogance. Apparently the everyday social norms, or if you prefer, the “self-withholding, bourgeois notions of privacy,” that the rest of us take for granted just don’t apply to the Ivy League.