Gender Politics at Wal-Mart

Yesterday I had my gender politics adjusted by an 18-year-old. I was in a Wal-Mart in a small Virginia town, one of those enormous retail depots in the middle of nowhere that employs half the local population to service the other half and looks like it could feed, clothe, and equip a standing army. I asked a young employee where I might find a “men’s room,” and she looked me up and down and said, rather pointedly, “You mean a restroom?” I acknowledged that I would accept a bathroom for any gender, even one not found on the user’s birth certificate, and was promptly directed to a pair of clearly gender-labeled restrooms “at the front.”

This was about a week after a Google employee was fired for circulating a memo that suggested that there might be biological bases for the disproportionately low number of women who are hired as engineers, and it made me think about the training that my young Wal-Mart employee must have received, one that apparently included the stern injunction that a store restroom should always be referred to as the restroom and never the men’s room or the women’s room. It’s actually encouraging that such sensitivity to gestures of gender neutrality had found its way into the byzantine warrens of Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, which I have personally visited in my erstwhile role as a facilitator of corporate finance. It doesn’t seem the kind of place where nuanced considerations of bathroom labeling would gain much traction, but it is one where ideology takes the back seat to efficiency and profit. And someone –or some committee– long ago decided that what you call the bathroom shouldn’t distract the customers from their mercantile errands. Offend as few people as possible, even if it means correcting the old guy about his toilet syntax. “Restroom” it is.

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