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Patriarchy, Toilet Seats, and Feminism

patriarchy, toilet seats and feminism

I don’t know if you know (I didn’t so that’s why I’m telling you) that part of what defines a patriarchy is that everything is designed and organized around men.

Maleness is the assumed center of everything, and everyone who doesn’t identify as male in the way society expects men to identify must organize themselves around a society that hasn’t taken them into consideration.

So now that we’re clear on that, I have to tell you about something that happened last week.

We had a house full of guests, including 18 people we hosted for Thanksgiving dinner. By and large, it was awesome. (I fully embraced my Do Less philosophy and for the first time ever in my history of hosting felt like I had more than enough help. Yay!)

Let me start by saying that the rant that is about to ensue has nothing to do with any of the men who stayed in or visited our home during the Thanksgiving holiday. They are all amazing men who I adore and who I would deem above-average in their consciousness and respect for women.

However, I noticed one time when I went into the bathroom that the toilet seat was up. Not the lid (which, by the way, is way better to keep down because it’s better Feng Shui) but the whole seat.

Having grown up in a house full of women, I’m totally unaccustomed to going into a bathroom and finding the seat up. And it pisses me off to a degree that tells me my emotion around it is not about the toilet seat but instead about something it represents.

(Rule of thumb: when you get extremely pissed off about something, pay attention. If your level of anger about it seems out of proportion to the actual thing, ask yourself what that thing might symbolize that’s actually bigger than the thing.)

I don’t remember how it came up, but I started talking to Mike about it (who, by the way, never leaves the toilet seat up). As I was talking about it I could feel my heart race, and the words started coming out of my mouth faster and faster, with the intensity of hot peppers.

“A man leaving the toilet seat up is like slapping the woman who comes into the bathroom after him in the face!” I heard myself saying.

“There is nothing about my anatomy that would require me to touch a toilet seat, basically ever,” I said, “and the fact that they’re making me touch it unnecessarily is not only gross, it’s wildly disrespectful.”

“This is the patriarchy in action!” I went on. “Maleness is assumed. Women’s bodies and needs aren’t considered. It makes me so mad!”

Mike listened without defending men. (Thank you, Mike.)

(He did, however, ask me to make a PSA to women to be sure to wipe the underside of the seat if they’ve had a particularly exuberant trip to the bathroom, given that men with Virgo tendencies like Mike end up wiping the underside of the seat after the ladies quite a bit. Good to know. Point taken.)

And then I found myself talking about it with several other people, and I realized that a man leaving the toilet seat up after he pees and not considering putting it down for a woman who might come use the toilet after him (because she doesn’t need her hand to come into any contact with the seat) is just one insidious symptom of a society that centers around men and forgets to consider that anyone else lives here on planet Earth.

It basically says, “My anatomy counts more than yours, and I’m going to prove it by making you touch a gross toilet seat that you wouldn’t have needed to touch, except for my arrogance at not considering that you might have different needs than mine, based on your anatomy or any other difference we might have, because I’m a man and you’re a woman.”

Let me be clear: really good men leave the toilet seat up after they pee. I’m not saying you’re a bad guy because you leave the seat up.

But what the really good men leaving the toilet seat up in my home made me realize is how many other things well-meaning men do that they’ve been programmed to do while living in a patriarchal society, and how many other things women who would consider themselves to be awake don’t think are a big deal because they’ve also been brainwashed into thinking that a society organized primarily around being male (with being female or anything else on the spectrum only being considered as a distant afterthought) is not only normal but okay!

My rant on leaving the toilet seat up has two points:

  1. Men: remember the other half of the population. Put the toilet seat down.Twitter Logo
    Men: remember the other half of the population. Put the toilet seat down.
  2. If we want to live in a world that considers our daughters just as worthy as our sons of attention, resources, and respect, we all need to pay attention to the seemingly insignificant yet super-powerful daily ways that we all contribute to keeping maleness and the qualities of the masculine reigning supreme and how, by default, that keeps femaleness and qualities of the feminine subordinate.

Here’s are a few questions we can all ask ourselves:

  1. How am I contributing to the patriarchy?
  2. What am I taking for granted as normal that doesn’t need to be normal?
  3. In what ways do I assume male supremacy without even noticing?

The culture is not out there. We are the culture. If we want to change it, we can just get started changing it.

And for the love of God, guys, after you pee, put the toilet seat back down.

Over to you:

Does it drive you as nuts as it drives me when guys leave the seat up? What else really bugs you and what might it be symbolic of? Where do you notice assumptions about male dominance that you could perhaps be part of dismantling? Let me know in the comments!

  • Penny Porta says:

    Why is it ok that a man has to pick up the toilet seat…they have to touch it when women have done whatever…then they handle their junk after that with that same hand.
    I like the toilet seat down but it works both ways…
    I love your stuff…but I don’t find it a big deal maybe because it is never up in my home.

    • Kate Northrup says:

      To me it’s that a woman has no need to touch the seat and a man has the option to not touch the seat and pee sitting down (which is more hygienic anyway.) So a woman shouldn’t have to touch the seat when there’s nothing about her body that would require that and if a man chooses to stand and pee, then it’s really his choice to touch the seat. But either way, we put the lid down in our house because it’s good Feng Shui!

      • Maire says:

        So even though men are biologically designed to pee standing up, you would rather they pee sitting down to suit your narrative? You didn’t mention Feng Shui in your original piece (and I agree with leaving the lid down) – it was all about patriarchy. By asking men to pee sitting down, are you not trying to impose your own ideology on them? i am always amused by the way so many women get het up over the up/down debate, but to call it a symptom of patriarchy is the best yet! 😏

        • Kate Northrup says:

          They can pee standing up or sitting down…totally up to them. I just don’t want to touch the toilet seat. But either way – lid down for Feng Shui!

  • Mary mallott says:

    Hi Kate
    This has never crossed my mind and I find it intriguing. If the seat is up I put it down and leave it down, then my husband has to put it up. Does it really matter? I grew up in a house where there were 8 women with my dad and one bathroom. He had to lift the seat way more often than we had to put it down. Is it just good manners this whole toilet seat etiquette? I really never gave it much thought and am curious how you can Say it is patriarchy in action.
    Great read, thanks for making me think. Mary xx

    • Kate Northrup says:

      We put the whole lid down in our household because it’s better Feng Shui. So I might also be skewed because in Feng Shui a toilet seat that’s lid or seat is up means money getting flushed down the toilet which is bad for men and women!

  • Shannon says:

    Hi Kate, good point and some valid questions at the end that I will definitely put more thought into, thank you! But to be honest I’m a bit torn on this one, it doesn’t enrage me when I walk into a bathroom and see a toilet seat left up, it makes me feel grateful that I am blessed enough to have a toilet seat to sit on, when just a few kms down the road from me (I live in South Africa) there is a full township of hundreds of people who have to do their business in the bush. I understand the point you’re trying to make and it’s not really about the toilet seat, just wanted to mention what immediately came up for me. Xx

  • Hi Kate!
    Kudos to you for writing this post. It’s so funny. I had this conversation with my best friend back in grade school! I remember telling her how annoying it was when guys left the toilet seat up. And she shared a different perspective – “Guys might find it annoying that we leave the toilet seat down”.
    Somehow, that convo always stuck with me.
    Reading your blog made me think about how it’s not necessarily black/white, and I so agree that our society is arranged around men. So things are definitely skewed. No doubt.

    Here’s my dream: that boys are taught to pee sitting, not standing. Apparently, the ability to pee standing is a macho thing?!? I know plenty of men who were trained to sit because it’s less messy and splashy. Deep respect for their mom! (I know presumptive of me to assume it’s their mom who taught them).
    I believe that when all men are taught to pee sitting down, and it’s the norm, it would be evidence that the patriarch paradigm would have really shifted. xo

  • Mara says:

    neutral to assume that the seat down is the correct idle position? (You added as a sidebar that the lid down is actually correct and I agree, but let’s set that aside and consider just the seat). It’s been assumed that the seat down is the correct idle position, but why? I think this is based on the design or looks of seats, it just looks better down then up, right? Well, huh, seems like the design is better for females then. Where’s the patriarchy in that? But if there is no aesthetic consideration then what is correct? if it’s the convenience of users, then in a mixed gender use is it patriarcial to make deferrence to the convenience of women, ie women shouldn’t have to touch the seat (but ok for men to have to)?
    TBH We’re pretty Matriarchal in our household. The seat (and lid)are supposed to be down! Lol

  • Jo Roy says:

    haha this made me chuckle – and as a house of females only – I only recently discovered that the underside of the loo seat needs cleaning attention!!!! I always put the lid down – because of the feng shui thing. If the lid is down then who ever uses has to select up/down – and it’s an even playing field for all!!!!???!! funny post.

  • Kim says:

    Let me first say that I am a member of your Origin group, and have benefitted greatly from your wisdom over the last year. I’m also a former airline pilot, so I know what it is like to be a “woman in a man’s world.”

    My reaction to your email was pretty close to your reaction to the toilet seat. I felt my pulse racing, my stomach did flip flops, and I couldn’t think about anything else. My first thought was to unsubscribe. The second was to launch my own rant. But I realized that neither of those two things would create what I want to see more of in the world, quite the opposite. (I’d like to see people working out their differences in a respectful way, that promotes connection rather than division. A “we” mentality rather than us vs them.)

    I agree that your reaction wasn’t about the toilet seat, just as mine wasn’t about your email. When I am triggered and have this kind of reaction, the first thing I look at is myself. Why am I reacting this way? Is this my stuff and something I need to work on, or something bigger? If I decide it’s bigger than me, and not something that can be changed by taking personal responsibility, then I start asking questions. “What will create the change I’d like to see here? A rant? Unsubscribing from the list? Having a respectful conversation about our difference of opinion?

    You said the perpetrators of the toilet seat crime were “amazing men who I adore and who I would deem above-average in their consciousness and respect for women.” If that’s the case, I’m wondering why you didn’t tell them that you felt slapped in the face when you came in the bathroom after them? What would their reaction have been? Would they have said that certainly wasn’t their intention? Would it have been an opportunity for dialogue and change? Is there the same opportunity for dialogue and change by ranting to your blog, or does it just create more of the “I’m so offended and YOU need to change” mentality that seems to be rampant in our culture? Maybe it really is about a toilet seat and they just forgot? (I have 3 boys, it happens.)

    I’m raising my 3 boys to be conscious men, and it saddens me to see us looking out for our girls (which we should do), and yet our boys see us bashing men as the source of all problems, instead of trying to have respectful conversations about our differences. I don’t want women to teach their daughters that my sons are insensitive or uncaring, just because they were born with a penis. (I realize this is one of my triggers.)

    To answer the question you posed in your call to action, yes, it does make me mad when guys leave the seat up, and I’ve actually had a conversation with them about it. One said, “Why do I have to put it up and down? Can’t I do it one way and you do it the other?” That made me stop and think. (And if we use your definition of the patriarchy, wouldn’t toilet seats be made so that the seat was always up for men?) I’m not sure they want to touch a gross toilet seat anymore than we do. (And as Mike pointed out, it’s not just men that make it gross.)

    Are there things that are worth fighting for? Absolutely. Is the toilet seat one of them? I guess it depends. As most parents know, sometimes you have to pick your battles. If we are arguing over toilet seats, are men going to listen when it’s something really important to us? Or will they just feel bashed again, and tune out?

    With your platform, position and influence, you really have the ability to change the world. If we are looking for reasons to be offended or discriminated against, we will surely find them. If we want to create connection and a sense of shared humanity, we can choose that too.

    Here are the questions I suggest we ask ourselves –

    1. How am I contributing to fear, anger and division?
    2. Am I getting upset and ranting about something that could be respectfully discussed and used as a catalyst for change? (As Brene Brown so brilliantly states in Braving the Wilderness, “People are hard to hate close up, move in.”)
    3. In what ways can I create more connection and mutual understanding between men and women, rather than more division?

    Just my 2 cents, take it for what it’s worth. And thanks for giving me the opportunity to practice stating my opinion (in what I hope was a respectful way.) It’s something I would have just stayed quiet about in the past, but I feel that our world is too divided and there is too much at stake to do that any longer.

    With respect and gratitude.

    • Kate Northrup says:

      Great response Kim! In retrospect I think I absolutely should have said something directly (though to be fare there were several men at my house and I didn’t know which it was.) But, that being said, I tend to shy away from confrontation (something I’m working on) and I didn’t want to embarrass anyone (people-pleasing behavior that I’m also working on) so that’s why I didn’t. And interesting point about if the toilet were really designed from a patriarchal standpoint the seat would default to up (though one woman did say that she went to the ladies room at a Mason’s Temple and the seats were spring-loaded to go back up – even in the ladies room!) Anyway, thanks for weighing in. I’m going to have to agree to disagree about the fact that toilet seats are worth talking about not because they’re a big deal in and of themselves, but because I think the way we behave around anything is symptomatic of the culture we live in and the problems therein. And, overall, I don’t get this angry about stuff so that’s why I dug deeper. Thanks for joining the conversation and for making some excellent points that made me think too!

  • Erin Caplan says:

    I generally like your posts but am not seeing how addressing this addresses the patriarchy. Seat up or down- this is not a real problem in my book. I just love my functional plumbing.

    • Kate Northrup says:

      Agreed…I’m grateful for plumbing and a toilet and great men whether they leave the toilet seat up or down (by the way in our house we both put the lid down so both of us are doing something anyway.) The reason I felt like ranting was that I noticed how much it annoyed me, which seemed an overreaction to the actual thing at hand. And when I dug deeper that’s where I connected it with my anger about women not being considered in so many other places in our culture. So that was the connection for me, but I get that this is not an issue for everyone.

  • Hi Kate
    Freezing in the office? It’s because air-conditioning standards were set in the 1950’s to suit a 44 year old male wearing a business suit!!
    It drives me nuts and it’s not good for the environment!!

  • Elaine says:

    Another concept that shows a patriarchal society is birth control. Women have beautiful cycles that allow times for both fertility and fun. But women have given this away, rather than pay attention and work with what is natural and feminine.

  • Simone says:

    It does annoy me when the seat is up and luckily I grew up in a family of girls and now have a husband who sits to pee or always puts the whole seat and lid down, so I rarely need to get annoyed. My dad used to complain to me and my sisters about the same thing Mike mentioned, the wiping of the toilet seat after use, which used to really annoy me, because isn’t that why there is a seat, so we can sit and pee and be done with it? Maybe households need to have urinals as well as toilets to accommodate all our needs!

  • Trevor says:

    Maybe he just forgot?
    Honestly this seems like a total overreaction to a non issue.

    Let me be clear by saying that there is definitely patriarchy in our society. I’m certainly not intending to veil that or diminish it in any way.

    But to make this small issue about patriarchy comes off as damaging to me.

    All this comes off as is making a mountain out of a mole hill and an excuse to find some reason to talk about patriarchy. And what is damaging is that it isn’t truly an example of it.

    Please inform people of actual, damaging patriarchy.

    Not some guy leaving a seat up.

    Ps: I hope this doesn’t come off as insensitive and/or patriarchical but rather as blunt and truthful. I believe in fighting towards egalitarianism but only if it makes sense, and brings everyone along.

    • Kate Northrup says:

      I found it a surprisingly extreme reaction to something small, as well. I agree with you on that point. And when I dug deeper I realized part of it was the seeds of patriarchy implanted in this ongoing behavior (not the occasional forgetfulness which is totally understandable.) Thanks for weighing in!

  • Andrea says:

    I too see red when the toilet seat is left up. To me, it has to do with manners and doing the right thing. Whoever has fallen into the toilet in the middle of the night because they left the light off will know what I mean. By putting the seat down, a man shows that he is aware of my needs and safety and that I matter.

  • Dawn says:

    I have so many way more important things to be enraged about, that the toilet seat up or down argument just seems like ridiculous privileged people problems. My old boss talked about my boobs all the time. My college professor groped me and when I complained to my advisor, I was called a liar. Domestic violence agencies lost funding because our crappy state of Illinois can’t balance a budget. Our president is a misogynist. Congress is trying to control women’s bodies by regulating access to birth control. Who cares if I have to touch a toilet seat a couple times a month because someone else forgot to lower it?
    My husband could just as easily argue that I don’t put the seat up when I’m done. If we want to be treated equally, shouldn’t a man’s needs be considered equally? A great solution would be to install a urinal in my bathroom, so my seat would always be down, but then that would be just one more gross thing I had to clean – which would just give me something else to be mad about.

    • Kate Northrup says:

      I see the toilet seat as symptomatic of the same cultural problem as your boss talking about your boobs and the groping (I’m so sorry those things happened to you.) And actually men could just as easily sit down to pee and then nobody would have to touch the toilet seat. We keep the lid down at our house so we both do something after we go.

  • Dom says:

    So I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this article because of the start of it, and while I don’t agree with everything you do on politics(and that’s okay), it’s just as infuriating to me when the toilet seat is left up. My husband never leaves it up, so when I find one up, it immediately angers me.

    I love the point you mentioned about Feng Shui, because it also angers me when the lid is left open(now I know why).

    Thanks for your perspective. While we might not always agree on politics, I think it’s important to be open to differing opinions. It makes our world a better and more diverse place. And when I say diverse, I mean diversity of thought.

    All love, Dom

    • Kate Northrup says:

      Thanks for diving in even though you weren’t sure at first. I totally agree that embracing other perspectives is so healing and I’m so glad you’re here!

  • CAndreaW says:

    And yet….there are so any other important things in the world to worry about.

    Just. Get. Over. It. Get yourselves ladies! This “toilet seat” thing is silly, “done” to death and just too damn old. How many guys complain about seeing blood soaked tampons in the trash or even underwear soaking in the sink?

    Where’s your Gratitude? Where’s your Thankfulness for having a toilet, running water, bidet, one or more en suite bathrooms, indoor plumbing, whatever?! A lot women in this world don’t even have a toilet to sit on, let alone gripe about some man leaving the seat up! Be grateful you don’t have to go in the bushes or the jungle, a coffee can, or even in the street like so many do in the lovely, uber wealthy city that I live in!

    Some women and their First World problems, I swear 😑

  • Sonja says:

    Hey there,
    this seems a bit funny to me. I grew up in a household where the men pee sitting and as far as I know have done for generations (when at home or at friends’, not on public toilets of course). We consider it rather rude not to. Might be because we’re in Northern Europe here, I never knew they didn’t in the States. Of course that is what my son does, too, I never even gave it a second thought. By the way, I have heard men admit that it is somehow almost impossible to stand and pee and NOT waste the occasional drop (not on me to assess this one). I have never ever had a man in my household leave the seat up. But I have family (female) who don’t consider it necessary to put down the lid, and THAT does bother me a lot whenever it happens, only I can’t put that down to a patriarchism issue… Maybe the subject really is manners, or having a set of standards we follow and expect others to follow as well. If they don’t, in our own houses, we consider it disrespectful towards us. It probably isn’t, it just doesn’t belong to their own standards. I know I once bothered the hell out of my mother-in-law when we were living at her house for a short period of time and I didn’t leave the door handle in an upright position like she used to do. I just never knew I should. Had she just asked me once, instead of being outraged at my misbehavior, it would have been a lot easier for everybody – especially her.

  • Ana says:

    Hi Kate,
    Don’t you think that in this post you’re making a big deal of something that is insignificant?
    I think that get your point and I’m very aware of how we (both men an women) behave in and asume (mostly uncounsioustly) a “male-supremacy” way.
    But I do not understand why women, are not suppossed to touch the toilet seat. It is not poisonous!
    Even assuming (my own experiences confirms it) that men tend to leave the toilet dirty, there are also a good bunch of women (I am assuming here that the people that uses women toilets are women) that leave it dirty also. In the later, isn’t it just because they don’t want any part of their anatomy touching a toilet seat, that, who ever knows, what kind of woman has touched it before? (I’m being a bit ironic here).
    I don’t find anything dirty or unhealthy in touching a toilet seat unless it is really dirty.
    Dirty women’s toilet seats pisses me off as much as toilet seats left dirty by a man. I find it as a lack of respect for the one that is going to use it afterwards.
    I don’t find any problem in a clean lid or a toilet seat up or down. And I don’t find an exhibition of patriarchy when they are up.
    The position in which we wee and poo in Occident is quite cultural I guess, and it doesn’t match well with the phisiological position. Therefore, in this case, maybe, apart from questioning ourselves how we are contributing with patriarchy (what I think is very important to do), we can also make ourselves the question: is this (fill it with whatever your are trying to impose- a toilet seat in a certain position, ie.) a universal truth? Valid for any person in the world?
    This simple questions help me a lot in avoiding trying to impose my point of view or necessities to others, ignoring theirs.
    Just an idea.
    Thanks.

  • Amy says:

    Thank you for writing this article. I see the the toilet seat as a device to talk about our male-centric society, and how women accept, and even apologize for it. What caught my eye about this article is the toilet seat, but my real issue is with toilet lids (which you briefly mention, thanks!).

    On a non-symbolic level, leaving the toilet seat up means leaving the lid up, and that is gross. There is a huge amount of pressure that occurs when the toilet is flushed, and a fine mist floats up out of the toilet and into the bathroom, settling all around it. If you have a fan that comes on with the light, who knows how far it goes, and I keep my toothbrush in the bathroom. So, gross. And disrespectful, in your or someone else’s home. I clean the bathroom, and when the seat isn’t down when flushing, I can only imagine that I should deep clean every time I do it.

    I get irrationally upset about this because when I have mentioned my feelings in the past, I have been called crazy. First of all, I am not crazy. And being a woman with a preference different from yours does not make me crazy. Secondly, this is my home, and I KEEP MY TOOTHBRUSH IN THAT ROOM. (Sidenote: I’m not married, and this was not my partner). I do have strong feelings about the patriarchy, the setup of our society and media, and the messages that both to send to women about their behavior and worth. I think the cultural conversations we are having now should be had, that we should have grace for ourselves and others while learning and coming to conclusions through discussion, that we should allow our beliefs to be fluid, and ourselves to be wrong or insensitive as we talk with each other (not to, or at each other) in order to learn, change, and advance the conversation in order to make changes in our society.

    I also think we can, and should, champion the issue of the toilet lid at the same time, making for cleaner bathrooms, and happier toothbrushes, everywhere.

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