New York

Inside The Gig Economy’s New Wave Of Women’s Clubs

In the 19th century, New York’s first women’s clubs provided an essential safe haven. Now the city’s new women-centric gathering spots are looking to fuel a different kind of revolution.

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On a dreary Saturday evening in April, the headquarters of the Wing, a women-only social club–slash–co-working space, felt like a warm pink cocoon. The club, which opened last October, occupies a 3,500-square-foot penthouse loft on 20th Street, and on this night it was packed with a hundred or so women who had come to watch an advance screening of Hulu’s new adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. An enormous bubble-like light fixture cast a flattering glow on velvet sofas in shades of millennial pink and dove gray. Members chatted in the club’s “beauty room,” lined with vanity stations outfitted with pink velvet and gold chairs and a smattering of products by Chanel (a Wing partner), and mirrors hanging against custom-designed wallpaper depicting women walking dogs and shaking out umbrellas. The hand soap was Aesop. And, in perhaps the greatest luxury of all, there wasn’t a single man to be found.

The Wing bills itself as “an offline destination for women to build essential relationships, hatch plans and you know…run the world, together.” Practically speaking, that means a place where its members can spend the day working at the loft’s communal tables, having a drink and socializing, taking a shower or getting a blowout, and attending a wreath-making workshop or book club. Since Donald Trump’s election, the club has increased its political programming — in January, it chartered a bus to bring members down to Washington for the Women’s March, and it’s held discussion panels on organizing with groups like Planned Parenthood.

At the same time, as the Wing’s profile has exploded, it’s been courted by brands eager to reach its demographic. On this evening, both purposes were being served. The screening, which was to be followed by a panel discussion with cast members, Hulu execs, and the activist Tamika Mallory, was the first of several events in a paid partnership with Hulu; on Monday the club’s regular book group would meet to discuss the novel (and watch a video address by Margaret Atwood), and on Tuesday, Wing members were invited to attend a “Patch Up the Patriarchy” party, where they could pick up patches inspired by the book.

I wandered over to the club’s café area, where glasses of cold rosé were lined up next to trays of canapés (catered by the women-owned Lower East Side restaurant Dimes) that looked more like tiny, beautiful sculptural objects than food and were made with ingredients like rosewater and gooseberries.

Then the lights flickered and we all settled in to watch a dystopian allegory about women’s political subjugation and sexual slavery.

When the Wing opened last fall, it was in good company. Across the country, a wave of businesses have recently launched, designed to provide space for work and communion for a mostly — or, in the case of the Wing, exclusively — woman clientele. Earlier this year, Hera Hub, a chain of “spa-inspired co-working space[s]” that launched in San Diego in 2011, announced it would be opening its fifth location in the U.S., in Phoenix. There are new and new-ish women-focused co-working spaces in St. Louis (RISE Collaborative Workspace), Seattle (The Riveter), Pittsburgh (Coterie), Mill Valley, CA (The Hivery), and Charlotte (Coterie again). Here in New York, in addition to the Wing, there’s SheWorks Collective, a tiny women-only co-working space in Union Square, and New Women Space in East Williamsburg, which offers workspace and programming led by “women, femme, trans, and gender nonconforming identifying individuals.”

The Wing is the most high-profile of the bunch. There are currently 700 Wing members, and a waitlist of several thousand eager to pay the $2,250 annual fee to become Wing Women. They’re in luck: In early April, the club announced that it would be opening three new branches — one in Soho, one in Downtown Brooklyn, and one in D.C., each of which will be nearly three times as large as the original space — thanks to an $8 million infusion of venture capital.

When I first read about the Wing and other women-geared spaces, I was skeptical. I understood the ways in which men often tend to dominate discourse in professional settings — borne out by academic research, such as one study that found that women speak significantly less in group settings when they’re outnumbered by men ­— but the rhetoric surrounding many of these spaces seemed rooted in the premise that a gathering of women is a feminist project by virtue of being a gathering of women, conveying collective benefits that extend beyond its individual members. It’s an awfully lofty conceit for profit-seeking enterprises that are, just like any other business, selling a product to women who can afford it. But I also wondered what that product really was. Then came the presidential election, and the idea of a space where you could get away from men suddenly held a newfound appeal.

“There was a sense I had last summer: OK, this is amazing, we’re opening in the golden age of women in power,” says Audrey Gelman, the Wing’s co-founder. “Then obviously everything went in a very different direction. And this became a little more protective feeling, rather than triumphant.”

My first thought when I walked into the Wing was that it was even prettier in person than on Instagram, less reminiscent of a traditional office space than of an unusually bright, extremely elegant hotel lobby. Light streamed in from a wall of windows, and the place was softly buzzing with women chatting quietly or typing on laptops. Mid-century sofas and chairs in a muted palette were set up around coffee tables, forming a constellation of conversation spaces interspersed among a handful of communal worktables. A woman wearing a “The Future Is Female” T-shirt sat in front of a set of bookshelves displaying only women authors, as she clacked on a laptop plastered with a Hillary sticker that said, “Bitch, please.”

I sat down on a pink velvet sofa with Gelman, who was wearing a long-sleeved gray Carhartt T-shirt and a necklace with a gold W (available at the Wing’s online merch store for $40, alongside Wing shoelaces and T-shirts that read “Girls Doing Whatever the Fuck They Want in 2017”). Initially, Gelman told me, the idea for the space was simply focused on convenience. In a city where many women leave their apartments early in the morning and don’t come up till late at night, Gelman imagined a centrally located spot where a woman could shower and change her outfit between work and drinks, touch up her makeup or get a blowout, charge her phone, and just generally take a breath.

At that point, Gelman, who’s now 30, was already a familiar name in New York, known both for her professional precocity — at age 26 she served as the spokesperson for Scott Stringer during his successful campaign for city comptroller — and for her social circle (she’s close friends with Lena Dunham, and at one point dated the notorious photographer Terry Richardson). But she had never started a business before. “I did not grow up admiring people in business. I was a red diaper baby,” said Gelman, who grew up on the Upper West Side, the daughter of a psychologist and a scientist. “That’s just not the milieu I grew up in or the impact I wanted to make.”

But she saw a niche to fill. “There weren’t really spaces that considered what a woman’s experience is in the lifespan of her day,” Gelman recalled. She soon hooked up with co-founder Lauren Kassan, who had worked with fitness studios as a director at ClassPass and was familiar with the sorts of amenities they offered. “We spent a lot of time going into the bathrooms of co-working spaces and gyms and hotels, creepily taking pictures,” Gelman recalled.

When the Wing finally opened, it had all the amenities Gelman had originally envisioned — spacious showers, lockers, a well-lit beauty room, a breastfeeding/pumping room, a café, and house calls by hair stylists and makeup artists from women-owned beauty companies. But it also had communal worktables and phone booths where members could make calls. And there are several events each week, all free to members, who can gather for things like “speed dating” — essentially a member meet and greet — time-management “boot camps,” and discussions on diversity in fashion. “It became more of a workspace,” Gelman said. “And also more about community.”

When I spoke with members, it was the sense of community that they continually brought up. Roxanne Fequiere, a copywriter who lives in Harlem, told me that when she joined, it just seemed like a pretty, convenient place to get work done and hang out before appointments downtown. “I thought it would be a very functional thing,” she said. “I didn’t expect to make connections necessarily, but it happened so naturally and seamlessly that it surprised me.”

Fequiere has made close friends at the Wing (when we talked, she was about to take a trip to Disney World with two of them), but I spoke with other women who said that even if they haven’t formed such deep connections, there’s something gratifying about the simple, small social interactions that occur there. Miran Kim, a violinist with the Metropolitan Opera, joined the Wing mostly to use the space to work on her calligraphy side business. “The other day I was talking to a girl about some dresses she was draping, and another day I had a conversation with an actor about Tchaikovsky,” she said. “There’s something really special when you walk into a room and it’s full of women who are generally on the same page as you and obviously doing something in their careers that is really important to them.”

Gelman said that it wasn’t till after the Wing opened, when she read a report called “How We Gather,” by Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile, two students at Harvard Divinity School, that she realized the project might serve a purpose that was more than practical. The growth of internet culture and the decentering of religious institutions, the authors asserted, had left many millennials feeling globally connected but locally isolated. As Gelman describes it, “There is this natural human craving that we have for fellowship and community that isn’t being satisfied, because there aren’t really those community spaces that we go to on a weekly basis anymore.” The report goes on to examine ten organizations that have emerged to serve as replacements for this lost sense of community. Reading the report, Gelman recognized the extent to which the Wing met the criteria the authors described. “We realized the role that it was playing in the emotional lives of our members.”

When I spoke with Joanna Black, the founder of SheWorks Collective, she also brought up the idea of community. SheWorks Collective is less a growth enterprise than a side project for Black, an entrepreneur who had a long-term lease on a loft in Union Square and decided to turn the extra space into an eighteen-desk co-working center. She had the idea when she was living in Austin, trying to start a new business while working from home with a young child. “It was the most challenging time in my life,” she told me. “I was busy trying to take clients’ calls; I had my daughter screaming in the background. I felt completely isolated.” Black says that many of the women who rent desks at SheWorks are mothers and women who are starting new businesses or second careers, who find solace in being around other women who know what they’re going through.

To Gelman, the absence of men is a key part of what makes the Wing what it is. When I asked how the space would be different if men were around, she recoiled. “UGH, no,” she said. “When someone who’s born male and who identifies as male comes into the space” — the Wing is open to everybody except for cisgender men — “it does change the energy. If there were men here it would just feel like the rest of world.”

Women-only spaces are far from a new phenomenon. In its conception and marketing, the Wing has positioned itself as a modern-day version of the women’s clubs that emerged in the United States in the late nineteenth century — before the opening, Gelman and Kassan hired a historian named Alexis Coe to research the older institutions and prepare a dossier for them. One of the first of these clubs was called Sorosis, which was founded in New York in 1868 by a handful of writers angry that women had been banned from attending a Charles Dickens reading at the all-male New York Press Club. Over the next few decades, hundreds of similar clubs sprang up around the country, from Fargo to Little Rock. The clubs that formed during this era were almost entirely closed to any woman who wasn’t white, Protestant, and middle class. Then, in the 1890s, middle-class black women began forming their own associations, including clubs that provided social services and took up civil rights work. By 1906, Coe found, there were more than 5,000 women’s clubs in the United States. And as the country ushered in the Progressive Era, women’s organizations emerged as a driving force behind reforms like child labor laws, the creation of food protection regulations, and the settlement-house movement.

But beginning in the 1920s, the movement began to wane, says Karen Blair, a professor emeritus at Central Washington University and the author of The Clubwoman as Feminist. By then women had gained the vote, and there were more professional opportunities opening up. “You didn’t have to spend your energy volunteering with a club — now you could get paid, you could get recognition for applying your curiosity and education to new fields where women hadn’t been welcome before,” said Blair. Plenty of the organizations survived — here in New York, a couple of the original women’s clubs, like the Cosmopolitan Club, are still operating in opulent spaces on the East Side. But as a cultural moment, the energy was gone.

It came back, albeit in a very different way, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during feminism’s second wave, with groups like Redstockings, the radical feminist collective co-founded by the journalist Ellen Willis (who wrote about progressive politics for the Voice), and the formation of centers where women could find information about reproductive health services, attend a women’s liberation school, or take a GED class. “The radicals in the Seventies just appropriated spaces and did what they could,” says Daphne Spain, a retired professor of urban and environmental planning at the University of Virginia. As Spain describes in her book about the women’s-space movement of the 1970s, Constructive Feminism, many of these collectives offered services that women couldn’t find elsewhere that have since become a critical part of the American landscape. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, most of the women’s centers began to close. “Women had less time to volunteer at the center, because they were employed,” noted Spain. “So in a way, women’s centers sort of put themselves out of business by helping women move into the labor force.”

The current revival of women-centric spaces isn’t really surprising, even if you put Trump aside. With regard to the more traditional co-working spaces, it’s a reflection of the growth in the industry as a whole. “The shared economy is growing because people love the flexibility. But they don’t love the isolation,” said Joanna Bailey, the founder of the women-focused co-working chain Coterie, which has two locations and eight more in development. Even on first glance, many of the new spaces offer a design aesthetic that sets them apart from the bro-ish atmosphere that tends to dominate co-ed spaces.

It’s also the case that in the past few years, feminism has become an extremely marketable concept. Unlike historical women’s groups, the new ventures are very much about business: The annual membership for the Wing breaks down to $215 a month, which is less than you’d pay at a traditional co-working space like WeWork (where a “hot desk” at the chain’s Soho location starts at $450 a month) and at the more expensive co-ed clubs in the city, like Neuehouse (where comparable memberships start at $650). But it’s high enough to put membership out of reach for many women, which can make these places seem less like tools for smashing the patriarchy than for allowing a relatively tiny number of privileged women to advance within it. Or, as an editor at BuzzFeed Tweeted in response to an article in Elle about the Wing’s post-election activation: “oops you wrote ‘feminist revolution’ when I think u meant ‘treehouse for young capitalists.’ ”

Gelman insists that the Wing is trying to avoid exclusivity. “This is something we want to be accessible to more people,” she said. To that end, the club is planning to roll out some sort of tiered membership option, and Gelman says that in some cases they’ve worked out barter arrangements, where a member might lead a workshop in their area of expertise in lieu of a fee. Still, “we want to keep doing this, and we want to be economically self-sustaining,” she told me. “We also think that we’re providing something that’s really valuable.”

A few weeks after I visited the Wing, I went across the East River to New Women Space, to see another vision of what a women-centered community space looks like in 2017. If the Wing has the feel of a protected cloister, New Women Space feels exposed, occupying a ground-level corner retail unit in a newish condo building off the Graham L stop. I arrived there on a Saturday night for something called “Do the Hotpants Presents: An Evening of Women’s Networking + Empowerment.” I didn’t know what that meant, exactly, but I liked the feel of the place, a small but welcoming room lined with windows. Aside from a few perfunctory nods to intentional design choices — a couple of dangling Edison bulbs; burlap curtains — the aesthetic mostly read Ikea. In the bathroom, I found Mrs. Meyer’s hand soap and a book of essays by Audre Lorde.

Like the crowds at the Wing, the group at New Women Space was diverse, though it seemed to skew a bit younger and slightly less put together. A woman who looked to be in her early twenties sat down and immediately introduced herself; she was a Swiss student vacationing in Williamsburg for the week and had decided to come to the event after seeing it on NWS’s Instagram feed. We chatted pleasantly about the French presidential election for a few minutes before the program, which consisted of a series of three speakers who gave presentations on, respectively, finding your confidence, embracing your quirks as professional assets, and self-branding. I didn’t have much use for any of it, though I might have felt differently when I was 23. But there was something more interesting about the “networking” portion of the evening, as the women jumped off their plastic stools and began milling around with the sorts of earnest, open looks on their faces that you don’t see much of in New York.

A few days later, I spoke to the founders of New Women Space, Sandra Hong and Melissa Wong, who first opened its doors last September. NWS offers co-working, but the main focus is on programming — in addition to putting together their own events, like zinefests and motherhood workshops, they also rent out the space, and they offer residencies that operate off a profit-sharing model to existing groups that don’t have a place of their own. The current roster includes groups like Bitchcraft, “a monthly crafts community for woke crafty betches,” and Well-Read Black Girl, a book club that discusses works by black women writers. “We get to be an intersection of these groups by virtue of having this space,” Wong told me.

Part of Hong and Wong’s mission was accessibility, an object that’s reflected both in both its pricing (most events run in the $10 to $25 range, and NWS also offers a membership option, for $125 annually, that includes entrance to all events) and the space itself — when NWS held an election-watching party, they had passersby coming in off the street after voting. But they’re still figuring out the best way to maintain that ethos while keeping the project financially sustainable. Last month, NWS received fiscal sponsorship from the nonprofit arts-support organization Fractured Atlas, which means NWS will be eligible for grants and receive tax-deductible donations. “This whole year has been very much about experimenting and figuring this out,” said Hong.

Accessibility also comes with a certain degree of risk beyond the financial. Earlier this year, someone painted the word “CUNTS” on the door of New Women Space. In April, around the same time, Hong took a picture and posted it to Instagram. “Folks, we are diligently working hard to keep the space safe for our community and we recognize not everyone will be supportive or understanding of the space’s purpose or mission,” she wrote. “That said, we really do get high and by with a little help from our friends and thank our neighbors for watching out for us, sending us encouragement or offers to help when the unexpected arises. To the person who writes this on our window — we love you anyway! Come in and meet us.”

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