To Pee or Not to Pee, Sexism at Harvard

To Pee or Not to Pee, Sexism at Harvard

by Irene Davall

She grabbed the ringing phone and said brusquely “Flo Kennedy here.” The caller, who spoke with a soft southern drawl, identified herself as a third -year divinity student at Cambridge. “I’m calling to tell you about a problem at Harvard and to ask for your advice and help.”

The year was 1973. After three centuries of being an all-male bastion, Harvard had reluctantly agreed that a limited number of women could sit for entrance exams. According to the caller, Annie Mae (not her real name), the women sat exams at Lowell Hall, an old building with only one bathroom which the administration refused to let the women use. They offered separate facilities across the street, but a trip to the toilet there could consume 15 minutes – time the women could ill-afford to lose when facing male competition for a Harvard education.

“I can’t talk to you now,” Flo said. “I am in a meeting. Tell me the date of the next exam.” Annie Mae said that would be a month later. “Call me back next week, Annie Mae. I’ll think of something.”

Flo Kennedy, an African-American woman, had been active in civil rights and women’s liberation for over a decade. After being one of the first women to be graduated from Columbia University Law School, she had recently relinquished the practice of law. Her new “hustle” was speaking on college campuses. As an adjunct, she had developed considerable expertise in organizing and executing demonstrations. Furthermore, word was getting around that Flo was willing to help students, especially females and students of color, who were fighting school administrations for rights and justice.

The evening Annie Mae called, several women were meeting in Flo’s office, probably planning to picket an ad agency or march at St. Patrick’s Cathedral to demand they stop illegally using tax-free money to lobby against women’s rights to abortion. We might have been planning the Miss America protest at Atlantic City, although that event was nearly a year down the road.

A friend once wrote about Flo: “When she decides to picket some deserving governmental agency or movie studio, she doesn’t wait to find out who, if anyone, is going with her. She would, if need be, picket all alone, calling a sidewalk press conference at the same time. She herself is a one-woman demonstration, and the rest of us, if we happen to be there, are incidental.”

Sure enough, Flo had decided to help Annie Mae and the women at Harvard by holding a demonstration she dubbed A Protest Pee-In On The Harvard Yard.

Years of calling press conferences, picket lines and protests had taught us that male-dominated media was not exactly enthusiastic about reporting our activities unless, of course, we were totally outrageous, carried signs, wore costumes or masks and created photo opportunities for the 6 o’clock TV news. A few months earlier we got some great coverage when a half dozen women got arrested for blocking pedestrian traffic. That day the women were wearing masks, long white shrouds and picketing Tricky Dick Nixon’s campaign headquarters. Myjournal says I rushed to the Democratic party headquarters still wearing a long red witch’s costume and reported how our women had been arrested. The Demo Press people put the story out on the AP wire immediately. That day we made both the New York Times and the Daily News.

For the Boston trip we made large roll-up signs and banners, developed suitable slogans and carried glass jars full of bright yellow liquid. A sizeable group of women met us at the Boston station gleefully displaying a fresh copy of The Harvard Crimson front-paging, without so much as a blush, the students’ plan to hold a Pee-In Protest on the Harvard Yard.

Flo headed the walk through Cambridge streets, followed by chanting women carrying signs reading:




We took a few turns around the Yard. Flo mounted Lowell Hall steps and began to speak to a sizeable crowd of curious students and a few local luminaries who seemed titillated at the mere mention that anyone would pee on the Yard at Harvard. Flo began by presenting figures on the disproportionate number of men’s to women’s rooms. In what to the uninitiated seemed an effort to be reasonable and fair, Flo explained that institutions such as Harvard were designed by men for men, but today women outnumber men if one counts all the secretaries who, faceless and nameless as they may be, still are born with bladders.

Flo explained how bathrooms were always an easy way to make people feel niggerized (a word she uses to describe all oppressed people, no matter their color). That, she says, was the way it was in the South not too long ago when there was a different one for colored and whites, and that things are not very different for women now. A man can urinate in urinals even when the stalls require change, or he can go off to some corner and inconspicuously pee. Whereas a woman always has to pay in public places unless she chooses to use the sink or that one free toilet that either has no door or no paper or a puddle or something just to remind you you’re a nigger.

Flo questioned why so few men, especially so few male students, had joined the protest. She reminded them that a few years before, the Boston Commons had been filled with howling Harvard males protesting the war in Vietnam. Now the issue was equality for women and men stood around, hands in pockets, insensitive and uncaring about equal toilet facilities for females.

The next scheduled event was the reading of a poem written for the occasion by Marge Piercy.

To The Pay Toilet
You strop my anger, especially when I find you in a restaurant or bar
And pay for the same liquid coming and going.
Sometimes a woman in a uniform’s on duty.
Black or whatever the prevailing bottom is
Getting 30 cents an hour to make sure no woman sneaks her full bladder under a door
While a row of weary women carrying packages and babies
Wait and wait and wait to do what only the dead find unnecessary.

At a signal from Flo, women stepped slowly forward one by one, grasped the glass jars and symbolically spilled some of the bright yellow liquid onto the hallowed steps of Lowell Hall. Suddenly an anguished cry rose from the crowd and a Southern female complained “You ain’t going to pee? I thought you-all were going to pee. I’ll pee. I’ll pee right on the steps of old Lowell Hall.” For a few moments it looked as though a third-year divinity student was going to have the final word. Then, as though on cue, Flo raised her clenched fist and shouted “Let the Dean of Harvard be warned. Unless Lowell Hall gets a room for women so that women taking exams don’t have to hold it in, run across the street or waste time deciding whether to pee or not to pee, next year we will be back doing the real thing.”

Late that evening, Flo summed up the day for us. “First: It was more fun than most of us ever expected to have on any single day of our lives. Second: We have helped some smart women to cross the Harvard gender line. Third: On this day, in this place, women have taught the Harvard power structure their first lesson about Women’s Liberation.”

Flo and I are appalled to remember that a whole generation of young feminists grew up since we demonstrated for women’s rights in Boston, Atlantic City, on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and a lot of other places.

We were talking about it recently and decided we should try to teach these young women some of the tricks we developed 15 years ago. If they can learn from our hard knocks and experience, they will not need to reinvent the wheel every time they face a problem.