Sunday, March 21, 2010

Of Toilet Training and Equal Rights

Call my teaching philosophy reactionary conservative, but I am a believer in students coming to class on time and prepared. (Whether students should have to go to class is one thing. Once they are in class, let us conduct a proper one.) Being prepared means having pen and paper or a laptop to take notes. It also means being able, barring unforeseen accidents or emergencies, to sit for forty minutes without needing to leave to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. (When I gave double period lectures at Ohio State, I was careful to give a five minute break in middle). To my shock, I have learned from an experienced educator, whom I have the utmost respect for, that, as a matter of policy, one is supposed to grant female students, because of their special needs, unlimited bathroom privileges (even knowing that this privilege is being abused). This strikes at what I understand as the bargain of civil rights that, among other things, allows women into my classroom to get an education in the first place. 

Being given equal rights and being treated as an equal means taking on the responsibilities taken for granted by the rest of society. For example, as the Jews of Napoleon's Sanhedrin would point out, Jews, by taking on the privileges of being equal citizens, also take on the obligations of serving in the army, taking on socially "useful" trades and making the necessary "reforms" of their religion to remove any hatred or bias against their gentile countrymen. As I so often point out in my classes, Jews gaining equal rights was not simply a matter of gentiles becoming more liberal and finally agreeing to give Jews what they "deserved." There is a bargain being made here; this is not a simple offer and their might be good reason to turn down this Enlightenment offer of emancipation. The same thing applies to women. Women are now being given the opportunity to be equal citizens, go to school and get jobs. I think this is a good thing and fully support it. The flip side of this is that women are expected to take on the same responsibilities of men.

If I were teaching history in the year 1800 to an all boys class, I would do so on the assumption that my students, barring serious emergencies, were capable of sitting in class for forty minutes without having to go to the bathroom. Those incapable of holding in their bladders are probably not fit to be in school and should probably go back to being serfs and working in the fields (where they will probably die of famine or the plague). It is interesting to note that early factory regulations had to include specific clauses telling adult male workers that they were not allowed to relieve themselves on the work floor. This was a generation of people raised on farms and used to being able to take care of their bodily functions at will. Toilet training is not something natural, but it is necessary for living in the modern society.

Over the past two hundred years we have had the women's rights movement and largely as a result of this I am now teaching a class in which there are women. As a John Stuart Mill feminist, I welcome girls into my class as "one of the guys." The same basic assumptions that I have about guys also apply to them though. It would not be an excuse for a girl to say that as a girl she has a "smaller brain," is intellectually inferior and therefore should automatically get a letter grade higher. (It is funny to read nineteenth century literature and see women unashamedly recues themselves as they are "mere weak women.") If she, as a girl, is intellectually inferior then we must admit that women's rights were a mistake and this girl should leave my class and go "back" to working in a kitchen and raising children. Similarly, a girl is only in my class in the first place because we assume that she can control her basic bodily functions. If she cannot then she has no business using her feminine situation as an excuse. On the contrary, if this is indeed a feminine problem and not just the general human laziness of one individual, she should acknowledge the failure of the women's movement and recues herself to the kindergarten classroom or to where societies that have thought of women as simply large children have usually dumped them, the kitchen.

It should be noted that concern over the female ability to control bodily functions are at the heart of women being exempt by the rabbis from various religious commandments. This "leniency" for women has, in practice, served to place women in a secondary position in that it relegates them to a position of outsiders. The man is taken as the norm and the female is the oddity to be worked into the system. The rabbinic formulation is that "women are exempt from time-bound commandments." It is taken as a given that these commandments are at the heart of normative Judaism and not extra duties to be placed on men.

It is perfectly plausible, if we are going to assume that women really are not capable of controlling their bodily functions and this is not just a matter of female students taking advantage of gullible male teachers, to say that girls should be taken out of mainstream schools. They could have their own schools, with classes they can come in and out of as it suits them; they could even take a week off once a month. We would not have to worry as to whether they are actually learning anything. Everyone would know that these were not real schools and were not meant to actually offer an education, but finishing schools meant to give "MRS" degrees. Even if this was the case, I would still wish that any girl who proved to be an exception to this rule would be allowed to attend a real school, with real classes, to get a real education. My classroom door would certainly be open.


Clarissa said...

I agree with you completely on equal rights and responsibilities. The main point of my doctoral dissertation was that the feminist movement has reached a deadend precisely because for most women accepting equal responsibilities has been an insurmountable obstacle.

However, I do not find your argument on bodily functions to be convincing. Bodily functions are by their nature impossible to control. If you need to use the bathroom, there is no effort of willpower that can make you stop needing it.

In strictly utilitarian terms, I don't need the students in my classroom to sit their struggling with their desire to pee. They can't concentrate on what I'm discussing with them, they are distracted, they fidget. For this reason, I would never be opposed to students using the bathroom as much as they need.

I consider my students to be responsible adults who should have the capacity to figure out their priorities. If they leave the classroom all the time to use the loo, they lose the material I am discussing in the meantime. That is their loss and it is their responsibility to recover that information through their own devices.

I'm not their Mommy and I'm not their probation officer. They make their adult decisions and have to take on their adult responsibility. From what yoy tell us, you seem to be babying them a little too much. I don't really see the pedagogical rationale behind it.

Garnel Ironheart said...

The women's lib movement always had a quiet hypocrisy about it.

Consider divorce law: women are equal, they're just as capable, etc. etc. until they divorce. Suddenly they're helpless wretches whose ex-husbands need to support them for the rest of their lives because they can't handle doing it themselves. Oh, but when it comes to parenting they are superior to the fathers so barring unexpected problems they always get custody. Some equality.

It's the same thing in your case - equal access, equal rights, and then some extra too. Remember: all animals are created equal but some are more equal than others.

Miss S. said...

Hmmm....(I'm trying to figure out a way to word my comment without being overly graphic).

Women are indeed a bit different in regards to using the facilities. All I can say is that some women have 'issues' revolving around their menstruation. When my mother entered into her late thirties, she developed issues fibroids that basically had her running to the restroom every 15 minutes in order to clean up. She was bleeding at the rate you would normally bleed in an hour. She had surgery to correct this. And fibroids is a condition that usually develops as you get older. However it is not unheard of in younger women (I knew women in college who had issues with them).

Then there is also the idea of being young and foolish and unprepared. I actually had this issue with my GA...who is not all that young (in her 20s). She asked me if I had any feminine sanitary products because Aunt Flo was here and she was totally unprepared. I stock such things in my office and my purse, so she was in luck. But no one can assume that every woman does the same.

For the most part, periods have the ability to make you feel dirty about 80% of the time. With bad timing, needing to sit 40 minutes without going to the restroom would be...well, really unsanitary (won't go into details as to why...use your imagination :-D ).

Clarissa said...

"For the most part, periods have the ability to make you feel dirty about 80% of the time. With bad timing, needing to sit 40 minutes without going to the restroom would be...well, really unsanitary "

-I'm sorry but as a woman (who has been menstruating for the past 22 years) I have to say that you are describing a case of a woman who has not even tried to establish a healthy relationship with her own body. And that is her own personal responsibility. If menstruation makes a woman feel "dirty", she should analyze the reasons for her discomfort with her sexuality and deal with them.

Clarissa said...

Garnel: I agree with everything you say except with your attempt to ascribe this hybocricy to ALL feminists. As a feminist, I see it as a central goal of my activism to fight against this kind of hypocrisy.

Miss S. said...

And that is her own personal responsibility. If menstruation makes a woman feel "dirty", she should analyze the reasons for her discomfort with her sexuality and deal with them.

While I agree with what you are saying, I do not think that even the majority of women are at that point yet. If you read the comments on this post you will see what I am talking about. Many women were appalled that the methods that women deal with menstruation were even being discussed. They felt it was unbecoming...something that is to be kept private. In fact it seems as if birth control methods are more easily discussed than feminine hygiene methods which really makes no sense at all. But it does seem to be this way.

In every situation you have how things should be, and how things really are. There are a lot of issues and problems with our society where the majority do not meet the acceptable minimum standard. When you expect for others to rise to this standard, then you need to be prepared to lose the battle. However this does not mean that you should sign up to fight. I encounter this a lot in conversations about racism. Several of these conversations have ended with the other person (or people) calling me names. Rarely do I do the same, so in many ways, they come out on top.

Also, I think my meaning of 'dirty' was misconstrued; and was probably to harsh of a word. Perhaps I should have said 'un-fresh' -- or something similar. Of course I can't speak for all women...only myself. But the consistency of my flow is that I can always 'feel' it. Similar to being sweaty but being unable to take your shirt off...that sort of feeling. It's not an issue of disgust...but discomfort.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Clarissa, I appreciate your integrity. There is a world of difference between equality of opportunity and equality of results. It sounds like you're in favour of the former. Kol hakavod.

Tobie said...

Your argument is based on an a priori assumption that control of bodily functions is an appropriate condition for receiving an education and for entrance into your class and then examines which people can and cannot meet those conditions. One might, legitimately, argue that the criterion applied is arbitrary and therefore distinctions made along those lines falls into the category of discrimination.

Obviously, intelligence is relevant and therefore excluding the less intelligent from your class is fair. Equally obviously, a height restriction (for example) is irrelevant and barring short people from your class is unfair. Control of bodily functions, then, falls into a gray area between central and peripheral. I think that the question then must be utilitarian: how much are the women harmed by not being allowed into your class or (alternatively) not being allowed to use the restroom versus how much you, their classmates, and their education is harmed by them going to the bathroom. My personal inclination is that women are perfectly capable of sitting 40 minutes without using the bathroom (possibly unless they are pregnant) and therefore the restriction does not diminish their utility too much, but nor do I really see how anyone else is harmed if they do go to the restrooom.

In any case, I think the above analysis is more useful than a general discussion of the validity of woman's education or what have you.

Izgad said...

You hit the nail right on the head that my a priori assumption is that students need to be able to control their bodily functions. This has nothing to do with taking attendance or not. The operational assumption as to why students are in my class in the first place is that they do not have the historical training to handle the material by themselves and would therefore benefit from going over the material in a classroom lecture and discussion setting. Just as it is perfectly reasonable for me to expect that students are capable of listening and taking notes, it is also reasonable that I expect them to be able to stay in their seats and not have to leave class.

I am curious how sympathetic the Israeli or American legal systems would be to lawyers asking the judge for quick breaks for bathroom emergencies. If I, as a teacher, had to constantly stop my class to take care of my needs I would soon be out of a job.

LC said...

1. You should be more forgiving of your female students. The time between class periods is not sufficient for both changing classrooms and taking care of feminine business. This essentially forces girls to choose whether it is ruder to arrive late to class (which is interpreted by teachers as a sign of disrespect and disinterest) or to ask to use the bathroom in the middle of class (which is not when done infrequently).

2. Furthermore, given the age of your female students, you should also cut them some slack. It usually takes several years for even severe menstrual difficulties to get treated, so some of them do literally need to change pads once every hour or so.

3. By the way, this isn't just a problem for women. Studies indicate that child incidence of kidney stones is on the rise because children avoid drinking enough water during the day so that they won't have to use the restroom more than once.

4. Your argument can be easily extended in ways you don't want it to. You can treat people equally without it being fair (for example, not making buildings handicap accessible is uniform, but it blocks the wheelchair-bound).

5. I have no problem with women thinking of menstruation as unclean. On a related note, I fully support the legalization of violence against pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for oral contraceptives.

Izgad said...


I oppose all government mandates for wheel chair accessibility as an infringement on personal liberty. I support private businesses making their buildings wheel chair accessible as a usually innocuous and simple way to be helpful and to gain access to a perfectly legitimate economic subgroup. This does not change the fact that this is an act of charity, which one pays for in one way or another.

Before you open fire on anti birth-control/abortion pharmacists, keep in mind that this group also has guns and is perfectly capable of fighting back and waging civil war. The whole idea of freedom of consciousness is that it is a cease-fire agreement that allows us to not have religion wars.

LC said...

So what you are saying is that it is perfectly permissible to restrict access to subgroups that have been historically discriminated against when eliminating injustice costs something?

You do not have freedom of conscience when it impinges of the freedom of others. For instance, refusing to stock birth control forces women with severe hormonal imbalances to risk infertility. Refusing to stock emergency birth control forces rape victims to either become pregnant or undergo an abortion (which is pretty universally considered more morally problematic than Plan B). Essentially, you are stripping women of the right to make their own medical decisions.

In short, pharmacists do not have the right to deny women birth control any more than I would have the right to sue someone for religious discrimination if they wanted to hire me as a tutor, but only on Saturdays. The fact that states allow it IS violence against women, which is why I firmly support beating the hell out of pharmacists who do that, and which is also why this scenario is the exception to the "bail is not a part of this living arrangement" agreement I have with my sister.

Izgad said...


Do you have a supply of birth-control pills stashed away in your place of residence to sell? Are you obligated have some just in case someone needs them. The pharmacy exists not to benefit society, but to make a profit for the owner and allow him to indulge his private whims and beliefs. (Think of all those rich men wanting to indulge their fantasy of owning a professional sports team.) I grant you that zoning authorities might have the power to insist that they will only grant licenses to pharmacies that operate in a manner that benefits society and offers birth-control pills.

Anonymous said...

As as Ashkenazi Jew who has ulcerative colitis (Ashkenazi Jew being relevant because due to inbreeding, they have a higher incidence of inflammatory colon disorders such as IBD and Crohn's), I wholeheartedly reject the notion that I do not deserve an education during a flare-up, when I need to go to the bathroom around every fifteen minutes, and thus, could be considered somewhat incontinent.

I think that there are a lot more mature ways to handle this situation, such as a conversation with the specific student in question, asking her if she is feeling okay, wishing her well, talking to her other teachers to see if she does this in every class, or, if necessary, occasionally giving pop quizzes that take one class to complete (or 2/3 of a a class), such that a student would not want to leave in the middle unless actually necessary.

Anonymous said...

wow. maybe you should consider the fact that students leave the class because they find it very boring. (not necessarily the instructor-the subject) perhaps they are leaving just to clear their head

Jeremy said...

You wrote "not simply a matter of gentles becoming more . . . "
I believe you meant "gentiles."

Izgad said...

Got it. Thanks.