In March, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a case about whether schools have to let transgender students use bathrooms and locker rooms that are consistent with their gender identity. Similar issues will now be re-heard in courts of law and of public opinion. School bathrooms have become an epicenter in the culture wars, however unlikely they might seem as a civil-rights battleground.

Yet school bathrooms have always been sites of contestation, where prevailing cultural anxieties have been projected onto them. As an amenity, school facilities blur the distinction between private and public, intimate and communal. As a space, they reside in the borderlands between adult supervision and adolescent freedom. Ever since they were introduced more than a century ago, school toilets, showers, and locker rooms have been implicated in major social debates in America. Their history illuminates the current debate around trans students in school bathrooms.

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School baths began as a Progressive Era reform to counter unease about public hygiene and disease. Against the backdrop of rapid urbanization, high immigration, and the rise of mass education, municipal authorities installed bathing facilities to socialize the urban poor into the habits of sanitation. This effort was part of a wider public-bath movement, which targeted the lack of bathing facilities in the slums of growing industrial cities like Baltimore and Chicago. In this context, school baths were a pedagogical tool: By teaching students to clean themselves, reformers hoped that children would get their parents to bathe regularly as well.

The public-bath movement faded away, but school baths became an established part of the school routine across the country. When Boston public schools started experimenting with enforced baths in 1901, the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote that “the bath is a civilizer, and that soap lubricates the rails of progress.” Three years later, the Los Angeles Times described the introduction of baths at school—taken under the supervision of the school nurse—as “the newest educational innovation” on the West Coast.

By 1921, the New York Community Service was recommending that all new schools install bath units for children from the tenements. The superintendent of the city’s schools even described public-school baths as more valuable than public libraries as a philanthropic gift. These early examples show that school baths were never ideologically neutral spaces. An ethos of urban rescue, directed at working class and immigrant families, animated their introduction.

During the early 20th century, consumer culture also began to reinforce communal bathing as the epitome of American manliness. Brands like Cannon Towels and Ivory Soap advertised their products with pictures of naked athletes or soldiers showering together. These images carried an erotic charge, but they also embodied the ideals of homosocial bonding and rugged masculinity that defined the period. In the 1950s and 1960s, Bradley Group Showers marketed its water-saving column showers with posters of topless schoolboys happily soaping down together.

But even in this era, school baths generated controversy and dissent. In particular, concerns arose over the modesty of schoolgirls. In 1940, 16-year-old Joan Aveline Lawrence sued her Alabama high school after she was suspended for refusing to take a shower. Apart from arguing that communal baths violated her constitutional right to privacy, Lawrence contended that they were “immoral.” Close to 300 girls signed a petition supporting her lawsuit, and some parents even described communal showers as a “step towards Communism.” Although the judge threw out the case, the complaint foreshadowed legal complexities that would engulf school bathrooms in the second half of the century.  

Given the close physical contact between students in these spaces, school bathrooms became implicated in the desegregation of schools following the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. According to the historian Phoebe Godfrey, white girls at Little Rock Central High refused to share bathrooms with black girls in the fall of 1957, when the “Little Rock Nine” became the first African American students to enroll at the school. Rumors spread, suggesting that white girls would contract venereal diseases by sharing toilet seats with their black classmates.

But the spectral threat in the bathroom did not stop there. The Governor of Arkansas claimed that federal troops were leering in girls’ bathrooms on the pretext of protecting black students, a charge the White House vehemently denied. Whether or not this actually happened, the accusation effectively dramatized accusations of federal overreach, presaging more recent objections against the Obama administration’s now-rescinded guidance on transgender students.

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If school bathrooms featured in the civil-rights movement of the 1950s, they played an even more important role in the women’s-rights movement of the 1970s. In 1972, the U.S. Congress passed Title IX to ensure equal access to federal educational programs in general, and to athletic programs in particular. Among other things, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights required schools to provide locker rooms of equal size and quality to both men and women.

Nonetheless, some school districts took decades to retrofit their locker rooms, often at considerable cost. In two North Carolina high schools, the girls’ basketball and softball teams had no place to change until a Title IX review in 2008, which led to a $50,000 renovation two years later.

During the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton years, fears of drugs, promiscuity, and disorder led school administrators to devise new methods for surveilling school bathrooms. At Terryville High School, in Connecticut, students protested in 1988 when the school decided to hire bathroom monitors to prevent teenage smoking. Four years later, New Hampshire’s Mascenic Regional High School installed cameras in bathrooms to combat vandalism and sales of marijuana. School bathrooms became ground zero in the nation’s moral panic over juvenile delinquency.

In this “War on Drugs” climate, the courts regularly affirmed these intrusive measures as legal ones. In 1981, a U.S. District Court found that the privacy of a New Haven 10th grader had not been violated after a school employee watched him buying marijuana through a two-way bathroom mirror. In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that schools in Oregon could compel athletes to take random urine tests in locker rooms. The judges argued that “public school locker rooms … are not notable for the privacy they afford,” and that there is “an element of communal undress inherent in athletic participation.” Drawing on this logic, they ruled that students had little reasonable expectation of privacy, and that it was constitutional to subject them to a drug-testing regime.

Cultural portrayals of school bathrooms reinforced their legal construction as zones of peril. In the 1976 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Carrie, the title character murders her classmates after being bullied in an after-gym shower. Five years later, the cult comedy Porky’s featured a group of teenage boys peeping at girls showering in school. In the popular imagination, school bathrooms brimmed with pathology and repressed sexuality.

Partly due to these anxieties, school showers—particularly communal showers—fell into disuse in the late 1980s and 1990s. In 1996, The New York Times published a feature with the headline, “Students Still Sweat, They Just Don’t Shower.” Mandatory showers became problematic as the concept of “children’s rights” gained currency, eroding the legal and social authority of schools. In 1994, the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue a Pennsylvania high school over its compulsory showers policy, echoing Joan Aveline Lawrence’s lawsuit a half-century earlier. But unlike in 1940, the school district backed down, and others similarly ended compulsory showers to avoid the threat of litigation.

Teenagers were also given a convenient alternative to showers: deodorant. During the 1980s, teenage spending rose by 43 percent, and personal-care companies quickly took notice. In 1990, Mennen Corporation introduced the first deodorant targeted at teenagers. By 1993, Arrid was spending $5.3 million to advertise its Teen Image line. By 1995, the teen-antiperspirant market had doubled, to $55 million. To a new generation of teenage consumers, school showers appeared obsolete, even regressive.

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With their newfound legal and financial autonomy, students in the 1980s and 1990s could evade school showers—but why did they choose to do so?  “Showering with other guys … it just seems too weird,” a student told the Chicago Tribune in 1996. That weirdness was a matter of cultural perspective. By this time, the sexualization of teenage bodies had increased the perceived hazards of communal showers. Rising awareness of homosexuality in the 1990s led teens to worry about being the target of the gay gaze. “You never know who’s looking at you,” a high school senior told The New York Times, mirroring wider concerns about President Bill Clinton’s plans to include gays in the military.

Similarly, growing worries about pedophilia and sex abuse caused teachers to back off from enforcing communal showers. In some cases, these concerns about sexual exploitation were justified—the Penn State child-abuse scandal, for instance, and the more recent hazing scandal in Sayreville, New Jersey.

Yet the demise of communal showers also reflected a broader decline in shared public space. That process had begun in the recessionary 1970s and continued through the 1980s, when neoliberal policies cut spending on public goods. In 1978, California passed Proposition 13, which limited property taxes and slashed school funding. As a result, schools stopped giving out clean towels, and mandatory showers ended. Similarly, the Ellington School Board in Connecticut banned after-school showers in 1979, ostensibly to save energy, but also to save money in a tight fiscal environment.

For all the humiliation and bullying that went on in them, school showers had a fundamentally egalitarian and social democratic dimension, which was incompatible with a new paradigm of economic and sexual individualism. By the 1990s, teenagers took more showers than ever—but they did so at home. Even when schools found the money to build private shower cubicles, the cultural shift was so profound that they often went unused.

The history of school toilets and showers shows that even seemingly innocuous spaces can wield complex ideological meanings. But what is it about school bathrooms that makes them objects of such intense controversy? Maybe it’s that almost everyone has an awkward teenage memory of the locker room: being snapped with a towel, or worrying about being too scrawny or too chubby. Private insecurities from the past can easily take on public meanings in the present.

Because school bathrooms put people at their most vulnerable in a confined and intimate space, they are especially susceptible to suggestions of transgression and trespass. To that extent, the arguments in the trans bathroom controversy have a long genealogy, reflecting changing conceptions of normal bodies and behavior. Ultimately, everyone has used a school bathroom, yet no one fully controls what goes on in them. As the present bathroom controversy continues, so too will that battle for control.


This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.