Standing up suddenly from my desk I caught the chair just in time before it clattered to the floor. Fury and humiliation exploded together to drive me out the door. I knew from the burning that my face was beet-red and my eyes smarted. Law is a profession that eats its young and I was assigned to an especially hungry bigot. Every day I started with a reminder to myself to just survive the insults, keep my mouth shut and not take it on board. But today my tolerance cup was full and overflowing and there was no more space left. I was tired of being called Island Royalty (because after all, Bushlings, you can read and write) and sick of the slurs cast at my womanhood, my race, my person.
I made it to the Ladies Room with no time to spare. The salt water had already begun to leak down my cheeks. As I crashed in through the swinging door past the universal sign of a stick woman in a skirt I was too blind to find the cubicle handle. Two gentle hands seized my shoulders from behind and pushed me in the door. “Lock it” were her only words, harsh yet gentle at the same time. For several minutes I stood, back against the wall, face in hand, shoulders shaking in silent sobs.
When the worst had passed I looked down at my hand to find a tissue there, hastily pressed into my palm as I had been pressed into the cubicle. Sensing the end of my waterworks she said to me “Here is some more” and I found a fistful of tissue waiting under the door. I gratefully accepted and blew my nose.
Through ringing ears I heard her say “OK, I’m going now. You stay in there as long as it takes to pull it together. And baby girl, never, ever let them see you cry.”
The rebuke shot like a rod giving straightness to my backbone. Her soft slippered tread could be heard on the cold tile out the door until it whispered shut behind her. I resolved right then and there to be untouchable, always outside the reach of my little turd of a supervisor.
It never happened again.
Another day in the same ladies room I came to wash my face and was met by the sound of sniffling. Reaching for the tissue I intended to pass under the cubicle door I was stopped sharply by the sound of violent retching. Wordlessly I slipped to the kitchen, grabbed a glass of water and pushed my shoulder back through the door. She was kneeling at the bowl when the tissue and cup were slid under the door. Maybe I imagined it, but I remember hearing a strangled thanks. Quickly I splashed cold water over my face, dabbed it with paper towels, and returned to my desk. Several months later four ladies announced their pregnancies in my firm. I can only guess at which one of them I had found weeping and scared on her knees that day.
The Ladies’ Room is the seat of power in that place and all like it. Good news is shrieked out in giggles, gossip whispered, and mascara applied under bright lights in front of the mirror. Lunch hours and happy hours and hours of need alike are prepared for in front of that mirror. Nature calls a lady in but she also comes on her own power when in shock, in distress, or for private moments to wash the boredom from her face when she is bogged down with an especially mind-numbing task. Engagement rings and newly pregnant bellies are flashed and makeup bags litter the counter.
Every woman that has entered the corporate arena has fought her way into the territory of man. Many of us have struggled, many have sacrificed pieces of ourselves, and many of us have scars from battles lost and battles won. We have assumed our positions, lifted our arms, and fought our way forward. Our power has grown and spread from its traditional place in the home and into the global world of commerce and trade.
But even as we worked to conquer this hostile new ground there is one place that has always been truly ours. That place is the Ladies Room.