A Babylonian Captivity, a Restroom Revolt

Ray Waddle

It was April 1970, and the women had had enough. They were tired of leaving the YDS library stacks and study carrels every time they needed to find a women’s restroom. The nearest one was an inconvenient distance away. More and more women were attending YDS now, yet the physical facility lagged behind by about 40 years in one detail. There were far more men’s restrooms than women’s. 

So the women made history and the news too. Ten of them liberated a restroom there in the library – a lavatory for men only. Their achievement, and the equality it symbolized, wasn’t lost on the School in an age of manifestos, consciousness-raising, and resistance to old-boy networks. 

“At 10:15 on a Thursday morning a contingent of about ten graduate student women walked past the bleary-eyed men students gathered for ritual pipe-smoking and gossip in the library lounge, tacked the letters ‘WO’ on the door of the men’s room, claimed possession by placing a bouquet of plastic flowers in the urinal, and sat down,” wrote Carol P. Christ ’74 Ph.D., who was there.1

The occupation continued through the day. They placed a declaration of aims on the door – the need for a women’s restroom in the vicinity. They wearied of this male lavatorial “Babylonian Captivity.” One male student barged in and washed his hands “in sullen defiance,” reported Yale Daily News.2 That prompted the women to buy a lock for the door, allowing only other women into the restroom. They resumed their vigil. 

By afternoon, YDS Dean Colin Williams arrived, reportedly bearing a handkerchief as a kind of white flag, hoping to broker peace, or at least a satisfactory compromise. He proposed that the restroom be available for “common use.” The women accepted. A new sign went up: “These facilities are for either men or women – please remember to lock the door when in use.” 

The incident would become a flashpoint, an early turning point in the gender debates on campus, and a fond memory in YDS lore. Several participants looked back on the episode in spirited reminiscences. Women’s progress in attaining leadership positions at YDS was still slow for decades after. But the lessons of that day weren’t forgotten. 

“Like the body’s other equally powerful imperatives – its needs for food and sleep, the finality of death – elimination serves as a foundation around which societies elaborate the distinctions and rules that help constitute power relations in a particular time and place,” wrote Judith Plaskow ’75 Ph.D., one of the demonstrators.3

The protesters that day billed YDS for the lock – $1.53. “They received prompt recompense,” wrote Carol Christ, “from the dean’s ‘indiscretionary’ fund.” The small but storied restroom – one urinal and one stall – remained unisex until the library was renovated in 2001. – Ray Waddle 

1 Carol P. Christ, “Liberation of the Yale Divinity School Library Men’s Room,” in Pulling Our Own Strings: Feminist Humor & Satire, edited by Gloria Kaufman and Mary Kay Blakely (Indiana, 1980), p. 96. 

2 “Girls Occupy John,” Yale Daily News, April 14, 1970, p. 1. 

3 Judith Plaskow, foreword to Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender, edited by Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner (Temple University Press, 2009), p. viii.