When it comes to brand identity, it doesn’t get much stronger than the female-only co-working space The Wing. Founded in New York City in 2016, the club is known for millennial pink, sun-dappled interiors, witchy Instagram memes, and a high-profile membership list. It’s the type of place you might expect to run into a former cast member from Girls, get a blowout, and attend a talk delivered by a female senator all in the same day.
For a feminist utopia like this, the phrase “human-rights investigation” doesn’t seem exactly on brand. But as Jezebel reported this week, the women’s club is now the subject of an investigation by the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR), which wants to ensure the club is in compliance with anti-discrimination laws.
Jezebel’s piece explores the unanswered questions around whether or not a female-only space is lawful in New York state; businesses considered “public accommodation” are forbidden from discriminating based on gender without applying for exemptions, which are only granted in rare cases. It also considers the legal precedents that may exist for treating such a space differently than male-only clubs. (Women, one could feasibly argue in a post-Weinstein world, need a safe space more than men.)
But what the article doesn’t explicitly state—and what the commission would not confirm when asked by Quartz, due to a policy of not commenting on an open investigation—is whether the inquiry is about The Wing’s no-men-allowed policy, or some other aspect of their membership criteria. The Wing, for its part, disputes an investigation is happening at all, and told Quartz the two parties have merely “mutually agreed to have a conversation.”
Regardless of whether the NYCCHR’s investigation is about gender, there is a less discussed narrative sitting below the surface—one that has scarcely been mentioned in the many words written about The Wing and its feminist bona fides.
While The Wing can tout diversity in many forms, gaining admittance to the club requires a degree of privilege—one that could preclude some socioeconomic minorities. Indeed, the club’s policies, expensive fees, and membership criteria potentially deny the vast majority of women who most need the safe space it provides. While Jezebel’s reporting points out that there is a “deep well of case law to support its right to exclude men from membership privileges,” the dynamics of social privilege are harder to parse.
Despite the fact that The Wing holds feminist inclusivity as a core tenet of its values—not to mention its sophisticated content strategy—there are ways in which it’s not all that different from the private gentlemen’s clubs of yore. The Wing may be a space that caters to a racially diverse, feminist group of people who identify as women, but it also provides networking opportunities and de-facto career advancement to members of society who are already inherently privileged. In this way, it’s not unlike other elite, members-only clubs—it just appears more woke.
In response to the investigation, an impassioned echelon of women have stepped up to defend the safe space that The Wing provides. After the news of the commission’s active probe broke, the club’s members launched a defiant counter-argument online, spawning the hashtag #IStandWithTheWing. Many took to Twitter and tagged the NYCCHR and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio directly, noting how the private members’ space was a necessary antidote to the #MeToo era. (The Wing’s co-founder and CEO Audrey Gelman told Quartz that they have “been assured that the de Blasio Administration fully supports the mission of The Wing and will work with us to see it prosper.”)
As a fellow urban woman, I don’t doubt that it’s nice to have a respite from the high-alert state that traversing the streets of a major city as a female can often require. But I’m also quite sure that I couldn’t afford it: It costs up to $3,000 a year to hot-desk, and for creatives already struggling to make ends meet in expensive city, that’s hardly pocket change.
Though its exact membership criteria is not made clear on its website—a kind of barrier in and of itself—an article in The Cut about The Wing’s expansion noted that its criteria is based on “racial and cultural diversity, career diversity, and diversity in the utilization of the space.” The Wing told Quartz that diversity is important to them, and they seek to “ensure the women of The Wing have varied passions and experiences so they can collaborate, learn from each other, and help one another grow and achieve success.”
Once accepted, Wing members pay $215 per month to use one space or $250 if they want to utilize all its locations, which currently include two in Manhattan, one in Brooklyn, and one in D.C. (There is a slightly reduced rate for a one-time annual payment.) Membership requires a one-year commitment and includes a slew of perks including events, beauty rooms, free coffee, showers, and a library. Members are allowed to bring female guests—one during the day, two for programming and events—but they are not permitted to bring outside food and drink.
The yearly membership fee may be the most obvious barrier to entry, but applicants’ existing cultural and social capital may matter a great deal, too. If your online presence is not envy-inducing, you’re not digitally connected to the right people, or your official job title is not yet impressive—in other words, if you’re one of the thousands of service-industry folk living on the East Coast with a fledgling creative side hustle—it’s hard to see how you would make an impression with The Wing’s scant application form. It asks not much more than your profession, your age, how you plan to use the space, and for at least one online profile or social media account.
The Wing says it takes applicants’ socioeconomic status into account to ensure income diversity, though a spokesperson didn’t go into detail about how the club monitors this. The spokesperson also said that the size of an applicant’s social media following or online clout is not a factor in its decision-making process, despite requiring social media profiles as part of the application process.
While it’s clear The Wing commendably seeks to actively court a racially diverse (and non-binary) membership and hosts events that promote intersectionality, that attitude doesn’t visibly extend to socioeconomics—at least not yet. The Wing says it looks forward to rolling out scholarship opportunities and new membership options in the coming months, though no details have been made available.
When contacted by Quartz, the NYCCHR noted that the investigation was opened partly in response to wide media coverage of The Wing and its policies. That media coverage has almost categorically been favorable (including from Quartz), which is indicative of the way that cultural capital works writ large.
The New York Times alone has written about or featured The Wing four times since its launch 18 months ago, and its co-founder Gelman was profiled by the Times in 2013. While that coverage was warranted in some respects—The Wing’s concept is undeniably zeitgeisty and aesthetically well-executed—it’s also reasonable to assume that the club’s inherent ties to the New York media world would have helped enormously. Powerful women networking with powerful women may lead to splashy and favorable media coverage, but it doesn’t necessarily help lesser-privileged women on the outside of the club.
Should a private members’ club for women who are part of the urban elite exist? If a convincing case can be made for its legality—and experts in Jezebel’s piece appear to think it can—then why not. But when it comes to touting a hand-selected cohort of privileged women as a bastion of feminist inclusivity, I’m not buying it.
Disclosure: Quartz held an event at The Wing in February.