The Wing: how an exclusive women’s club sparked a thousand arguments – The Guardian

Posted: October 20, 2019 at 9:14 am


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On a recent weeknight in midtown Manhattan, a trickle of professional women wearing sheath dresses and smart blouses swept into a delicately lit penthouse. The space they entered was filled with women quietly working and chatting, seated on an array of curved pastel furniture, designed to fit the precise ergonomic specifications of the average woman. The womens computers bore stickers reading Im With Her, Hermione 2020, and Cornell. The colour-coded bookshelves behind them included works such as 50 Ways to Comfort a Woman in Labor, Suffragette: My Own Story, and Cunt: A Declaration of Independence.

It was a typical Wednesday night at The Wing, an exclusive club that describes itself as a network of work and community spaces designed for women of all definitions. For between $185 and $250 per month, US Wing members or Winglets, as the company sometimes calls them can use the space to work, eat, socialise, breastfeed, shower, network, exercise, nap, reapply their makeup, meditate or all of the above. In other words, The Wing is a one-stop shop for the performance of contemporary mainstream feminism, a meticulously curated space where women can blow-dry their hair or stage a small coup, depending on the day.

Audrey Gelman, the companys co-founder and CEO, often tells The Wings origin story roughly as follows: she was working as a press secretary, and later as a political consultant, dashing from city to city and from meetings to parties. This lifestyle forced her to change her outfits in Starbucks and Amtrak bathrooms, places she found semi-degrading. She dreamed of having a more dignified place to go, where women like her talented, outgoing, highly ambitious could find like-minded souls, get changed and charge their phones in peace. Thus the idea for The Wing was born.

The company now has eight locations three in New York City, and one each in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Washington DC, with five more scheduled to open imminently. Its first international outpost, on Great Portland Street in London, opens next week. Second locations in London, San Francisco and LA are in the works; there will be 20 Wings by 2020. Over the past two years, The Wing has raised $117.5m in funding, attracting a formidable and diverse array of investors, whose ranks include Serena Williams, President Obamas friend and former senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, and members of the US womens soccer team.

Since the moment it opened its doors three years ago, The Wing has attracted the kind of buzz, funding and controversy usually reserved for projects involving Gwyneth Paltrow or Lena Dunham. (Not totally coincidentally, Dunham is a close friend of Gelmans and a Wing founding member. Gelman had a cameo on Girls, and was famously the basis for the character of Marnie.) The attention The Wing generates is, in large part, because it was founded upon a paradox: its brand is steeped in the feminist language of emancipation, empowerment and equality, while its business is based on one of societys most elitist institutions: the private members club. The result is that the company has become a kind of proxy for national debates over issues of gender, race, inclusivity, intersectionality and the limits and possibilities of neoliberal democratic politics. And yet, the number of people who actually belong to The Wing is still pretty small it aims to have about 15,000 members by the end of the year, slightly less than the monthly circulation figures for The Cricketer magazine, and 16 times less than the total youth membership of the RSPB.

Because The Wing is in part a co-working space, many of its members hail from professions in which office space is a rare commodity the creative class of writers, editors, freelancers, artists and influencers who make up the media. Handily, these are precisely the same kind of people who like to tweet, Instagram and write about the world as it looks from The Wing. This has ensured that even its minutest details, from the coffee to the furniture to the lunch offerings to the customised scented candles in the gift shop, have been deemed worthy of an article of their own. It also means that The Wing has been the subject of seemingly endless criticism accused of being too rich, too white, too cis-gendered, too feminist, not feminist enough, too liberal and not liberal enough. One former employee described it as a super-toxic place, while a British member told me that upon walking into The Wing in New York, she felt that she had found her holy grail.

That Wednesday evening in Manhattan, Wing members sat with their guests, sipping ros and snacking on seasoned popcorn as they waited for the evenings event to begin. It was nominally a talk by the writer Caitlin Moscatello, whose new book tells the stories of first-time female candidates running for office, but it was more like a political strategy meeting for women who were thinking of running themselves. Sitting in the audience felt like being entrusted with trade secrets. Moscatello sat between Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights, an organisation that works to elect black women, and Catalina Cruz, the newly elected assemblywoman for New Yorks 39th district.

After the three speakers finished their discussion, a woman in the audience raised her hand and introduced herself to the group. She was planning a run for local office, but had yet to announce. Please dont repeat this! the woman told the crowd. Cone of silence! exclaimed Peeler-Allen. As Cruz went on to describe the personal and financial strains of campaigning, the woman who had announced her run looked increasingly stricken. Youre scaring me! she said. Youll be fine, girl, said Cruz. Just get yourself ready.

It was just the kind of exchange that The Wing has been designed to generate. One of its press representatives described it to me as an accelerator for the coming revolution, a place where women are preparing to leap year into a more egalitarian future. In the US, it has become an almost compulsory campaign stop for women, trans and non-binary political candidates. Three of the women running for president have visited in the past year, and a Wing spokesperson told me that the other two front-runner Elizabeth Warren and Senator Amy Klobuchar are actively discussing doing so. The companys corporate ranks are stacked with former Democratic political operatives who worked on Hillary Clintons presidential campaigns or in the Obama administration.

To belong to The Wing is to join this in-crowd, a kind of utopian shadow government. Theres a secret smile that you share with the other women in the elevator, said Jess Lee, a partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Sequoia, which led the The Wings latest $75m funding round. And it was true I found myself giving a look of ambiguous fellowship to the women I encountered in The Wing, and felt a slight twinge of embarrassment at the check-in desk as they swiped their membership cards and glided away, while I announced myself as a journalist, there to report on the workings of their private club. At Moscatellos event, I laughed and clapped along with the women in the audience as they shared strategies for their political triumph. In the elevator on the way out, an older woman turned to me and two young women and gave us the secret smile. So, are you all going to run? she asked.

The Wing opened its doors on 10 October 2016, four weeks before the presidential election. One of the very first events it held was an invitation-only very adult sleepover featuring face masks, monogrammed pyjamas and pillow fights. The next one was a public phone bank and debate watch party in partnership with Clintons presidential campaign, which invited women to spend three hours calling members of the public and urging them to vote the first woman into the Oval Office. Gelman and her co-founder Lauren Kassan hoped that their company would flourish alongside a Clinton administration, buoyed by the arrival of feminisms golden age.

On election night, about 175 women gathered in the Wings Flatiron location to watch the results come in. Like just about everyone else in New York, they expected it would be a celebratory event, a coronation. But as the evening drew on, and it became increasingly clear that Clinton was not going to win, the mood shifted. Oh my goodness, you could feel it getting colder, says Nol Duan, a Wing founding member. At one point, Gelman, wearing a backwards baseball cap and a pink Madam President T-shirt, sat down and held Duans hand.

The Wing was heavily aligned with Clinton, yet among the Democratic partys young, progressive voters, Clintons strain of establishment politics was swiftly disavowed. In no time at all, the former secretary of state had become both a feminist martyr and a political liability, a flawed candidate whose defeat everyone felt they should have seen coming.

Almost everyone I spoke to about the company said it would be a different place if Clinton had won. Instead of being just a beautiful space for women to revel beneath a shattered glass ceiling, it became, for its members, a place to take shelter. It was a really sobering moment, Kassan told me. I think there was already the demand and excitement, and I think that we realised just how important it was now.

A few days later, The Wing briefly opened its doors to all women who felt they needed a place to regroup. Gelman and Kassan gave the organisers of the Womens March on Washington access to the space, and in January, they hired buses to take 100 Wing members to Washington to participate. The Wing began to emphasise civic and political programming, ramped up hiring and continued planning to expand. In interviews, Gelman has articulated the mission in overtly political terms: Being a girl is no longer politically neutral. Your identity, whether you like it or not, is now political, she told Elle in 2017.

Clintons loss marked the unravelling of the already tenuous coalition of American feminists. The 2017 Womens March was the largest single-day protest in US history, but it quickly became known more for its controversy and in-fighting than for its transformative politics. The Wing was born into a world in which women were banding together in new and enlivening ways, but often doing so in competing camps. To many, Clintons Sandbergian, Lean In brand of corporate feminism had been fully discredited and a more radical approach was needed, while others felt that the emergency of President Trump in the White House meant that this was a time for progressives to unite, rather than pursue potentially divisive new policies.

The Wing has found itself trying to please all sides, in the process finding itself attacked from all sides, often within its own walls. It is an easy target, and the fact that it is owned and operated by women makes it all the more so. Where its programming and brand have conflicted with the aims of progressive politics, its members have called the company out. Yet anyone who criticises The Wing may expect to be swiftly criticised in turn, on one side for poking holes in an otherwise admirable project, and on the other for paying it any attention at all. All parties involved might expect their exchange to be followed by a polite reminder of the specific actions that The Wing has taken to respond to the initial criticism, and perhaps an invitation to continue their discussion in a panel event. To begin to reckon with The Wings project is to risk entering an ouroboros of doom, as the writer and illustrator Shelby Lorman put it. It feels like such a perfect metaphor, she said, for the many tangled and charged disagreements over what it means to be a modern woman, feminist and political subject.

Before any woman sets foot in The Wing, she will, in all likelihood, already know what it looks like. Every corner of every branch seems to have been designed specifically for Instagram, which is to say that the furniture and art and food and plants and people feel as if they have been carefully chosen to telegraph that they are coveted, consumable goods. The company posts mock-ups of every new space months before it is built, so that women between the ages of 26 to 35 living in major metropolitan areas and possessing roughly $2,000 of annual disposable income can begin to imagine themselves wandering around there. (The companys omnipresence on social media is another reminder that its power derives from not letting everyone in and letting everyone know about it.)

Every outpost contains careful local touches, and each projects an air of strained yet somewhat soothing whimsy. In the Soho premises in New York, I walked up a set of stairs that read Its not a reach when we climb together, before settling in to enjoy a fork the patriarchy grain bowl on a blue pastel desk. In its Washington DC outpost, located above a spa in Georgetown, one of the toniest corners of the city, there is a conference room named K Street, after the citys main lobbying thoroughfare, and a phone booth named after Anita Hill, legal eagle. The Wing London, a five-storey penthouse in Fitzrovia, will offer a tearoom, terrace, fitness room and floral patterned tile floors, as well as a portrait gallery featuring the likenesses of Diane Abbott, Mary Beard and Amal Clooney, among others. It is the first members club in London that has signed on to the mayors living-wage pact, and proceeds from its cafe and its programming will benefit local charities. There will be trellises, black-and-white tiles and chandeliers. I was very inspired by the British countryside, Laetitia Gorra, the companys director of interiors, told me.

Walking through one of the Wings premises can sometimes feel like exploring what would happen if Oliver Bonas were to design a luxury corporate office: lots of pastel and very few sharp edges. The walls, cushions and seating offer an array of muted pink, mustard and rose-gold hues, a colour scheme chosen in part for its calming effect. The air conditioning is usually set at 22C (72F), to accommodate womens slightly lower skin temperatures. Chiara de Rege, who helped design the first few locations, said that the goal was to make them feminine, but not girly girl or precious. Hilary Koyfman, who collaborated with De Rege on the early design, has described the overall aesthetic as kind of like Mad Men without the men.

There is certainly something beautiful and powerful, even alchemic, about being in a women-only space. For some women, it is a place to find support, friendship and inspiration, where they do not have to apologise for anything or worry about their things being stolen or their drinks being spiked. Two locations currently offer childcare services, while every location features a private nursing room for new mothers. Each Wing also offers a luxurious beauty room with a wide array of hair and makeup products. These beauty rooms, staff told me, are a key part of the companys storytelling. They are designed to make life easier, as Gelman once said, for the kind of woman for whom part of being successful is not only making sure that you know everything thats going on in the news and that youve responded to every single email in your inbox, and that nothing is on fire in your house, but also looking good because it is whats expected of you and can make you feel more confident.

Yet, for its critics, this point of articulation is where the alchemy dissolves: instead of being a place that seeks to lift all women up, it becomes a place where one must constantly consider how well one is performing both feminism and femininity. And with any performance, this can be exhausting, and always carries the risk of failure. Spending time at The Wing, I was reminded of the kind of ideal woman that the writer Jia Tolentino described in a recent essay: she has expensive hair and expensive skin, she is successful and svelte. Todays ideal woman is of a type that coexists easily with feminism in its current market-friendly and mainstream form, she writes. This sort of feminism has organised itself around being as visible and appealing to as many people as possible; it has greatly over-valorised womens individual success.

Some of the tensions within this brand of feminism can be glimpsed, not too surprisingly, at The Wings in-house shops, where it sells T-shirts, bags and hats with slogans like casual business woman and annihilate the patriarchy on them. There are workout clothes and $17.50 keychains. When I visited the Soho location in early August, the shop was selling a range of colourful award ribbons, printed with lines such as Wow, youre not sexist, Best ally, and Youre my Wingman of the year. As Jezebel has reported, some of the merchandise resembles that of other feminist artists. The ribbons, for example, seem to be emulating the work of Shelby Lorman, whose book Awards for Good Boys satirises the low standards to which men are held. Lorman first spotted The Wings version of the ribbons on Instagram. I thought it was amazing and hilarious, because they are awards for men, for sale for $6, but theyre stripped of humour, so its literal, she told me. I truly dont think that anything could be funnier because if they did borrow my work, they have totally missed the point. And they are monetising the missed point, which is kind of genius. Its so sinister and so evil that I kind of love it.

Ever since it first opened its doors, The Wing has struggled to define who exactly it is for. Its representatives, describing its membership policy, use the words exclusive and inclusive in the same breath. No one gets rejected, they told me. Applicants are merely placed on the waiting list 35,000 people have applied so far when their preferred space is at capacity. Yet, in a 2018 presentation to the New York City Commission on Human Rights, The Wings attorneys stated that it is highly selective and that only around 40% of applicants are admitted. Aspiring members must explain how they have promoted or supported The Wings mission of advancing women, and also describe the dinner party of their dreams.

The commission was investigating the company for discriminating on the basis of gender. (New York law requires it to investigate any complaint it receives. The investigation closed in March 2019.) At first, the club refused to allow men into its spaces, even as guests. A former employee told me that one of the first things they were taught was how to keep men out: Block them with your body, push them to the elevator, push the elevator button. But outward appearance does not always correlate with gender identity; the employee witnessed instances where individuals who presented themselves to the check-in desk at The Wing were misgendered by staff. In August 2018, a serially litigious 53-year-old man sued The Wing for up to $12m for rejecting his application, claiming that he had been denied entry because of his gender. After the lawsuit was filed, and as a result of conversations with its trans and nonbinary staff and members, The Wing adopted a formal membership policy that would evaluate applicants based on their commitment to The Wings mission, regardless of their perceived gender or gender identity. In a letter to members announcing the new policy, Kassan and Gelman wrote that they would be working to actively incorporate the perspective of trans and non-binary members into our offerings. The language of guest emails was changed from shes landed to theyve landed. The policy also meant that men could enter the space as guests and apply for membership, if they really wanted to.

The companys success is partly due to the fact that, over the past five years, the identity-based members club has emerged as a powerful trend. In the US, The Wing already has too many competitors and imitators to list, which have names such as The Lola (Atlanta), The Broad (Richmond), The Assembly (San Francisco), The Riveter (Seattle) and The Hivery (Mill Valley). In London, womens clubs such as The AllBright and The Trouble Club already occupy part of The Wings target audience. In November, Ethels Club, the first private social and wellness club designed with people of colour in mind, will open its doors in Brooklyn. The Wing was created for a certain type of woman, which, from my point of view, is not for me, Ethels Club founder, Najla Austin, told me. Im looking for my people. Its not unlike religion. If you write down the similarities of Catholicism and a social club, theyre not that different.

Akilah Cadet, who runs a diversity and inclusion consulting firm in Oakland, had a similar first impression of The Wing, and decided that it probably was not for her. But then Yari Blanco, at the time The Wings senior manager of culture and diversity, reached out to her about her work, and Cadet decided to join the club. Being a member, she rightly predicted, would bring in business. Honestly, my objective was like, get this money, so thats what I did, she told me. She said her application to the San Francisco location was fast-tracked, and soon she found herself at an event thrown specifically for black women. At one point, a white woman stood up on the couch and announced that they would be giving away T-shirts reading phenomenally black. Cadet raised her concerns about the event to Blanco and her team, criticising what she perceived to be a lack of serious thought about the way the event was organised. Two days later, she found herself on a panel at The Wing sponsored by Secret deodorant, where she got a new client.

The company has made similar missteps along the way, and has almost always made concerted efforts to correct them wherever they arise. Nol Duan, the founding member from New York, who is Chinese American, told me that when The Wing held an event for Asian women, they posted an Instagram story intended to celebrate the clubs women from Asia. Duan did not attend, but some of her friends did. They were like: were not women from Asia, were American, she said. What I really love about Wing members is that they are willing to speak out, including against the company, Duan added, noting that the company had changed in response to criticism. I can see from personal experience that it has come a long way since they first launched, she said.

Cadet took it upon herself to point out instances where The Wing could be more attentive to diversity and difference. Eventually, she was doing so much work for The Wing that she said they offered her a complimentary membership, and she frequently used the space to hold meetings in San Francisco. Like many of its critics, Cadet tries to view the company with generosity.

Lately, however, maintaining this nuanced view has come to require a more intricate set of mental gymnastics. At the end of May, a racial confrontation occurred at the West Hollywood branch. According to reporting by the online magazine Zora, Wing member Asha Grant, the director of The Free Black Womens Library Los Angeles, and her guest were harassed in the parking lot by an unaccompanied white woman guest who began yelling at them after Grant took what she felt was her parking space. The harassment and racist threats continued inside, where the white woman gave the middle finger to Grant, her guest, and another black club member, Stephanie Kimou. In an attempt to ease the situation, staff offered Kimou, Grant and her guest a free meal, but the white woman was not asked to leave the premises.

News of the incident spread quickly. In mid-August, Kimou and Grant posted on Instagram announcing that they were cancelling their memberships. After the initial allure of their perfectly designed co-working spaces, beauty rooms stocked full of Glossier and Goop, the lattes and their commitment to diversity, the facade started to crack and what was underneath all that pink felt oppressive and debilitating, Kimou wrote in her post.

Other black members began quitting The Wing. They didnt think it was going to get to this level, Cadet told me. On 5 September, Gelman and Kassan sent an email to all Wing members that finally acknowledged what had occurred: Our handling of it left everyone feeling disappointed, and the black member felt especially unprotected and let down, they wrote. In the following weeks, they would hold gatherings in every city with the goal of improving community understanding and mutual trust, which the executive team would attend. Eleven days later, members received another email from Kassan and Gelman in which they apologised for the ways weve fallen short, and made commitments to pay more attention to racial inclusion, including reworking the clubs code of conduct and changing member orientation to address issues of race and racial empathy. Two days after that, on 18 September, Gelman appeared on the cover of Inc. magazine in a long-sleeve black knit dress, her hands resting on her pregnant torso. She became the first visibly pregnant CEO to grace the cover of a business magazine.

On 6 September, the day after the first email from Gelman and Kassan went out, I visited the companys new headquarters in the East Village in New York. Zara Rahim, senior director of strategic communications, gave me a tour around the four-storey office, which is located in what was once a hospital for German immigrants and later expanded to include a dedicated womens wing. In the basement, the only place in the building where I spotted several men, the tech team was hard at work. Upstairs, we popped our heads into a mint-green conference room, where a planning meeting for the London launch was underway.

Rahim and I settled into a couch in Kassans office, where Kassan greeted us wearing a yellow plaid jacquard blazer and a logo necklace bearing The Wings hero W, which looks something like the Wonder Woman logo, but softer, rounder, cuter. While Gelman, as CEO, is the public face of the company, Kassan, as COO, tends to handle operations behind the scenes. Before this venture, Kassan was the first employee at the fitness chain SLT, which specialises in high-intensity reformer pilates (motto: better sore than sorry), and then moved on to Classpass, a fitness class app. She rarely gives interviews, but by the time we spoke, Gelman was busy preparing to go on maternity leave and Kassan was taking over some of her duties.

Kassan was excited for the London launch, which she told me had been years in the making. She would be bringing her whole family over to celebrate the opening. I asked her about the recent email to members and about the common criticisms of the company. Diversity had been a part of who we are and what weve cared about since the beginning, she explained. That shows up through our programming and through our products. When things happen, we want to be transparent and clear about that because there are things that happen outside in the world that we cant control. And we want to create a space to be able to have these honest and hard conversations.

Kassan had less time for the criticism that membership is too expensive. I think the price point is just she lowered her voice to a whisper bullshit. The Wing is, indeed, more affordable than the vast majority of its competitors. As women, we undervalue what were providing and serving, Kassan said. We get criticised about that, and we feel proud of what were doing. In London, membership will cost 170 per month for access to a single location, and 240 for access to all locations. Approximately 7% of Wing members are awarded scholarships, which last for two years and cover the full cost of membership, and the company is planning tiered membership rates to expand access in the future.

The more time I spent speaking to the companys critics and supporters, the clearer it became that the controversy it generates has far more to do with what it claims to be rather than what it actually is. Last month, for instance, it debuted a members-only job marketplace that allows members to post listings and hire one another. From a business perspective, this is a savvy move giving ambitious women yet another reason to want to join, while connecting bosses who are members with a pool of promising candidates. But this is a very narrow vision of feminism. Of course, many talented people will gain new opportunities through this service but, equally obviously, its exclusivity threatens to exacerbate the same kinds of inequality that The Wing claims to want to combat.

Feminism, for me, is fundamentally about collective struggle, not individuals, says Sarah Banet-Weiser, a scholar of communication and gender studies at the London School of Economics. The Wings strain of feminism, she argued, is something else: Theyre empowering women to be better economic subjects within capitalism, empowering women to network, to get a raise, to address the pay gap. Those are real things, but they are really tied to capitalist logic. As a former employee put it, The Wings feminism is less about making the world more equitable as it is about making sure women are given equal opportunities to make money: Its like, you only make $1m? Well, this man makes $2m! You could make $2m if only it werent for misogyny. (One recent post from The Wings Instagram feed read: Mood: CE0,000,000.)

Progressives often talk about The Wing in the same way they talk about the Democratic party: its not great but maybe things will get better, maybe the politicians will figure it out, maybe the world The Wings founders imagined they would serve will one day emerge. One vocal supporter of The Wing is, somewhat surprisingly, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Gelman hosted a fundraiser for Ocasio-Cortez at her home in Brooklyn last summer and, a few months later, the politician told Glamour: The Wing isnt just a functional space, its a real symbol of whats happening in our country. She called the company one of the most potent forces that weve seen emerge in politics this year.

Many of the people I spoke to for this piece were disappointed in The Wing for a variety of reasons, but hesitant to publicly criticise it. They had made good friends there, and saw all the work that staff were putting in to make it a better place. They had low expectations for corporate behaviour, and saw The Wing doing a better job than most companies when it comes to addressing its failures. They understood the paradox of a company whose profitability rests upon both expanding its tent and guarding the entrances. I really wonder what the plan is to grow while staying true to their values, one San Francisco-based member told me. Maybe they have something up their sleeve, they have a ton of really smart women working for that company, but I dont see it. Cadet also felt burned out by her experience. I want this to go well. I want this to be a good thing, she said. I dont know, maybe Ive done all that I can do. (And when you write that, say that I was gazing off into the distance, she joked.)

The opening of the London branch comes as The Wing seems to be reckoning with its first few years. Last week, The Wing unveiled a mural advertisement on a street corner in Shoreditch in east London. In a bright coral hue, it introduces The Wing as the first place in London to solve the dual epidemic of mansplaining and manspreading. After it went up, Rahim texted me a photo of a handful of men and women pausing in front of it, presumably wondering what a thing called The Wing could be and what it might become.

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The Wing: how an exclusive women's club sparked a thousand arguments - The Guardian

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October 20th, 2019 at 9:14 am