Feminist Ambivalences at Exclusive Women’s Social Club

The critical theorist Nancy Fraser has argued for decades that feminism has lost its way. Once a social movement that fought for equality in its broadest sense, its most vocal ambassadors in the Global North since the ’70s have focused on “cracking glass ceilings” and “leaning in.” These powerful metaphors reflect the concerns of a specific group of women — the professional and upper classes — rather than serve the larger goal, as Fraser and others see it, of creating an egalitarian society.

I found myself thinking of Fraser’s ideas frequently during my short-lived membership at the much talked-about, exclusive women’s social club The Wing, whose DUMBO location I worked from three times a week from March to June 2018. (The club has branches in New York and Washington, DC, and has plans to open at least six more branches.) There, a feminist language is deployed for branding purposes, and the tiring imperatives to “lean in” or “crack the glass ceiling” are championed inadvertently. As Fraser has pointed out time and again, these imperatives may mark a certain kind of gender balance as their objective, but they focus too heavily on questions of representation, prompting everyone to count the number of women in powerful institutions while presupposing, for no good reason, that any woman would defend the rights and interests of all women.

When I joined The Wing, I had hoped to find out that women indeed shared foundational political, social, economic, and cultural goals. Three months later when I left the club, I felt ashamed I had not known better. Fraser had been right all along: too many feminists have developed a disturbing attachment to neoliberal ideas. In the months that passed since I quit the club, I’ve come to see The Wing as an allegory of sorts, a symbol of the individual and collective feminist attempts to reconcile disparate visions of gender parity. The Wing markets itself as “a coven” whose mission is “the professional, civic, social, and economic advancement of women through community.” It is a co-working (and networking) space for people who live and identify as women. Yet above all, it is the manifestation and breeding ground of what Fraser has called “feminist ambivalences.”

“Feminist ambivalences” relates to the vacillation feminist activists have between advocating for the social protection of women and pushing for their full incorporation into the capitalist workforce. The battle for social protection is premised on the notion that unwaged activities, such as care work and home making, should not only be appreciated but also financially endorsed and shared by men and women alike. By contrast, the fight for the full incorporation of women into the capitalist workforce assumes that there is nothing wrong with the neoliberal order in which we live. Instead of marking systemic change as its objective, the latter battle gears itself towards “breaking into” male-dominated institutions, such as big banks, boardrooms, and politics.

Whether or not these conflicting feminist fights can be reconciled is the question many feminists in the Global North have been asking for decades. It is the kind of question that often translates into the language of practical and intimate dilemmas: How to raise one’s children with both parents in the workforce? How to change the culture inside specific workplaces? Could workplaces today be infused with a sense of social responsibility, and should they? On the surface, The Wing offered a space and a community to discuss these dilemmas. But as soon as I joined the club, my feminist ambivalences only deepened.

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I heard about The Wing from a friend who described it as a gorgeous workspace that creates opportunities to socialize with smart, interesting women. This friend had often heard me complain about the poor office conditions for adjunct lecturers at the public university where I teach. I scoured The Wing’s brightly-designed website, popular feminist slogans abound, shortly after that conversation. A text by the club’s “in-house historian” recounted the story of the journalist Fanny Fern who, in the 1860s, founded a women’s social club in New York after being banned from a lecture about Charles Dickens in a men’s social club. I imagined a place to write that was not the windowless office at the university; new relationships with contemporary Fanny Ferns; an opportunity to explore feminist questions in the company of “smart, interesting women.”

As I began filling out the membership application on The Wing’s website, I realized that there was a good chance the club would reject me. While the application was not complex, it stressed online presence, asking for my Twitter and Instagram handles and prompting me to type into a special tab the URL of my personal website. With none of these things at hand, I assumed that I was not the kind of person The Wing would accept as a member. When an invitation to set-up my membership landed in my inbox, I was both surprised and flattered. Unlike Groucho Marx, as I discovered, I wanted to belong to a club that has accepted me as a member.

I could afford a membership at The Wing thanks to my husband’s salary and his conviction that I would not be an adjunct lecturer forever. Investing in my networking opportunities struck both of us as a good idea. In retrospect, I suppressed the feeling that the club’s vision of feminism matched the emphasis of its member application: make yourself present, gather followers, lean in. The questions that immediately arose for me, when I started spending days in the hallowed pink halls of The Wing’s DUMBO branch, were ones I could have predicted: Did all the women in the club come from affluent background? Was wealth and status the unapologetic aspiration of most of them? Was I too, eternally and unavoidably, a neoliberal feminist?

The women behind The Wing have managed to fend off any critique of their thriving business since it began gaining momentum. (It did face an investigation by the New York Commission of Human Rights because of its “no men” policy, but The Wing’s spokespeople have defined this investigation as “collaborative,” clarifying that no lawsuit has been filed.) In a 2017 interview with the New York Times, the club’s co-founder Audrey Gelman was asked whether the club catered exclusively to women of the urban financial elite. She responded: “It was never my goal to go into business to begin with and certainly not to go into business to create a product for the uber-wealthy, and I don’t think it is.” Yet a membership at The Wing costs around $2,500 a year and a salad at the club’s café costs around $12. Outside food is not allowed and the use of one of the private conference rooms comes at an extra fee. In the same interview, Gelman eventually displayed some degree of awareness of the limits set by these prices, and the club launched a scholarship program in 2018 for “self-identifying women and non-binary individuals whose work supports the advancement of marginalized women and girls.” It also cited The Wing’s “commitment to building an economically diverse and inclusive community of members.”

Whatever Gelman’s original intentions might have been, The Wing operates as a business. It has raised money from investors such as WeWork, the company that more or less invented the idea of trendily designed, shared office spaces. Unlike WeWork, however, The Wing capitalizes on its association with feminist ideas. What the club sells, in addition to its luxurious décor and amenities, is the fantasy that the different battles of feminism are compatible.

The basic components of The Wing’s vision reveal the club’s principal affiliation with neoliberal feminism. The Wing celebrates productivity and entrepreneurship, serving chiefly professional women. That most women in the world, or even in the large metropolitan areas where the club’s branches are situated, cannot afford a membership at The Wing is a fact that does not necessarily disqualify the club from considering itself a feminist initiative. Still, The Wing configures the fight for gender equality as an obligation to support talented women in their attempts to manage their career, family, and social life. The club’s detailed directory of members suggests that its founders believe in some version of the liberal principle of “top down” feminism. According to this principle, the larger the number of female entrepreneurs and women in key positions is, the better all women are. The former can hire, push and support the latter, and together they can promote a different culture in the workplace while advancing women-friendly policies.

The Wing itself makes sure to meet not just the professional, but also the personal needs of its members. Inside the branch that I frequented, there was a designated room for nursing or pumping (equipped with a small refrigerator and a sharpie to mark bottles or bags); showers; a beauty salon (with a changing supply of creams, cleansers, perfumes, hair brushes, hair dryers, hair ties or pins, and cotton swabs); and a small yoga and relaxation studio. The menu at the café, which offers a signature dish named “fork the patriarchy,” was highly adjustable. It allowed patrons to substitute ingredients indefinitely to make their food gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, or vegan.

With its amenities, The Wing enables its members to cultivate the supposedly outdated fantasy of “having it all.” What women want, according to The Wing, is to work, pump, and shower in one place. Gelman has revealed that she had conceived of the club when she recognized how much schlepping around the city she had been doing, moving between meetings and social commitments. She had dreamt of a place where she could powder her nose, rest and hang out with other women who faced similar pressures to be constantly on the move, but also look presentable. Every day I spent at The Wing I wondered why Gelman had interpreted her dream in feminist terms. It was as if she viewed the existence of an exclusive women’s social club in 2016 as some kind of a basic right. What she really created, however, was another product that wealthy women could now buy. That this product was marketed as a place that advanced social justice and gender parity suddenly seemed ludicrous to me. That this marketing strategy worked, in my case, made me feel both embarrassed and complicit.

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My embarrassment notwithstanding, the exclusive presence of women in one large space had an intoxicating effect on me. A friend who came to meet me for lunch at The Wing (members are allowed up to two guests for periods of four hours, as long as the guests identify and live as women) sensed the same. At a moment of involuntary memory, she was transported back to her days at an all-girls school. As we were chewing quinoa, she reminisced about the feminine energy that had filled her life then. It was an energy produced by the gaze of women at women; a gaze that was often full of admiration, but also characterized by a particular type of competition. I felt that, too — I wanted to know what the women around me were doing for a living, what they thought, and whether they, too, had some reservations about the club’s interpretation of womanhood. I looked at them as they used their laptops, drank coffee with oat milk, applied makeup at the beauty salon. Every morning, they secured their seats using piles of colorful, fashionable stuff — scarves and jackets, large and small bags, headphones, chargers, notebooks, pens, lotions, and books.

The books could come from members’ homes, but, more often than not, they were taken down from one of the many bookshelves at the club. Every branch of The Wing has its own library of titles by female authors. The libraries are organized by color (keeping up appearances), and have no accessible catalog. I once asked to borrow Rachel Cusk’s Transit. The concierge had trouble figuring out the library circulation system, and after apologizing repeatedly for keeping me there, she ended up scribbling something on a pink post-it, which she then stuck to her keyboard. I returned Cusk’s novel a month later to a different concierge, and took the opportunity to ask if a library catalog was in the works. The concierge did not know. She pointed out, however, that there were notes at the entrance to the workspace on which one could convey her “feels” about The Wing. These notes were a lighter shade of pink than the post-its at the front desk. I separated three from the stack and used different handwritings to write on each one: “library catalog.”

I noticed, one day, another woman reading academic articles, and started to talk to her. She told me that she had recently begun studying for a Masters degree in organizational psychology. She already owned a small “personal coaching” business, which focused on women. She pitched it to me automatically: “In a society that promotes individualism, it is sometimes hard to find your true self.” I asked her what it was like to start one’s own business. She had saved money, as I learned, from her previous job as a salesperson in a well-known cycling company. She also taught yoga privately, which provided her with the means to take the “leap of faith” required to set in motion one’s own business. As she was talking, the woman at the table next to us turned her chair to face us. Addressing the personal coach directly, she inquired about the specific cycling company where the latter used to work. Incidentally, both worked for the same company. The woman from the table next to us was now eager to compare experiences, carefully shutting her laptop screen. When the conversation about the cycling company died down, I asked her, too, what she did for a living. She had seemed immersed in what looked like a personal blog before turning her chair in our direction. It was her online platform of lifestyle recommendations. It began as a hobby, but was now her main gig. At the moment, she was busy editing an interview with a woman who curates snacks for theaters across the city. Apparently, she had this woman recommend the best snacks available out there, as well as the theaters that sell them.

A couple of days after that exchange, I saw the lifestyle blogger again at The Wing. She told me that a prominent, local newspaper had reached out to her with a proposal. They wanted her to write a weekly column of “things to do around the city” for their local edition. The compensation was meager, but the prestige could be huge. I congratulated her and promised to look for her name in the paper. I could not help but wonder whether she was actually making a living out of her “platform.” Was this kind of work sustainable? Could only rich women do it?

I thought of the friend who introduced me to The Wing. She worked such long hours at the legal firm that employed her, that she barely took advantage of her membership at the club. When I met her for dinner, she chided herself for wasting money on The Wing. She has grown resentful of the “no men” policy at the club because she often needed to have lunch with men and could potentially use her membership then. The problem is, she said, that this club creates a dangerous illusion that the world is pink and safe. “I’ve got news for those women who curate snacks,” she stated, “the world is neither pink nor safe.”

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The concept of “a safe space” indeed played a central role in shaping The Wing’s brand. During my time as a member, I attended multiple events that set out to examine aspects of this concept alongside other feminist issues: a panel about the #MeToo movement; a conversation with female politicians; a screening of a film made by female creators. There were clear limitations, however, to each of these events. During a panel about a non-profit organization whose goal is to educate women and girls about finance, the focus remained on the stories of individuals, rather than the effects and implications of a global financial structure. An ex-investment banker told attendees about her current job at a private equity firm. An MBA graduate revealed that, “unlike most girls,” she has always had an interest in economic structures. The panelists shunned questions about class, or an explicit debate around the ties between venture capital and the distribution of wealth across the world.

A few days after I had left the club, I discovered that an event about freezing one’s eggs was scheduled for June. On some level, I regretted missing the opportunity to attend such an event. My mother has been nagging me about freezing my eggs for years, and my in-laws have recently joined her. I knew, however, that if a direct conversation about the interrelations between social and economic pressures had not transpired at past events at The Wing, it would not transpire this time either.

The only event I enjoyed was a clothes swap that, apart from providing me the opportunity to add a new silk shirt and denim shorts to my wardrobe, manifested the modules of feminine socialization lucidly. As the clothes were being hung on racks, or neatly folded on tables by employees of The Wing, members looked around and began eying items they desired. Yet when a manager announced that we may begin, we all made visible efforts to be kind. We treaded slowly towards the racks, checking constantly that we were not the first to snatch anything. I recognized some of the women who were presently trying things on; perhaps from the social media accounts of the club, whose managers took it upon themselves to educate people about women who changed the course of history.

On Twitter, The Wing posted stories of women who were pioneers in their fields, deploying the hashtag “#KnowHerName.” I read the stories, but often found that they, too, corroborated a neo-liberal logic by encouraging women to “rise to the top.” The same could be said about the monthly emails highlighting members’ achievements with the subject line: “Wing Women at Work.”

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In May, when my spouse received a job offer in Europe and we decided to relocate, I emailed the billing department of The Wing. I requested their permission to cancel the rest of my annual membership and received a quick response that cordially demanded proof of my relocation. As soon as I sent evidence, I was granted the right to quit the club. The emails from the billing department were always signed “All our best, The Wing Women.”

I felt relieved when I left The Wing for good. My feminist ambivalences did not go anywhere, but I was back to thinking about them without letting the fantasy of having it all take hold of me. The week of my relocation, I began reading Sheila Heti’s most recent book Motherhood and the discussions it prompted. The book has been deemed apolitical by some critics, to which Heti has responded in an interview: “I think there’s this thing in feminism, where you don’t want people to do it differently from you because we have to be united. Can’t we be united in being sincere to ourselves?”

Sincerity is an elusive goal, but, as a feminist imperative, it strikes me as more liberating than the imperative to lean in. Perhaps it is an absence of sincerity that turns feminist initiatives such as The Wing, where female success is both narrowly defined and thoroughly commercialized, into loci of repressed rather than straightforward ambivalences. One feminist truism is that for centuries, men shaped, defined, and disseminated ideas about women. Now that most women in the Global North get to speak for themselves, we cannot afford ignoring the need to openly and sincerely talk about the conflict between disparate feminist battles. The tension between neoliberal and social feminism is probably here to stay. I had to stop pretending that I did not have to choose.

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