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The Return Of Women-Only Clubs – And What They Could Mean For You

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Photo: Via @the.wing.
When Phoebe Lovatt moved from London to L.A. in 2012 to build her freelance journalism career, she quickly started to feel isolated. “I realised I’d had a supportive network in London, and I was really missing that,” she told me over a crackly FaceTime Audio call. Lovatt, who is now based in New York, decided to solve the problem herself. She wrote a guide to self-employment called The Handbook For Women Who Do Creative Work – and to launch it, she built a new space, in the basement of a downtown hotel, where women could work, take a yoga class, go to a panel discussion, and meet for cocktails. With tongue firmly in cheek, Lovatt called it the Working Women’s Club.

The Working Women’s Club was drawing on the tradition of working men’s clubs, which have a long and storied history in England, as places where working men, often manual labourers, would socialise, hear educational talks, and organise charitable works. But Lovatt’s club was also, albeit unwittingly, part of the tradition of women’s social clubs – a tradition which dates back to the 1800s.
In the late 20th century, on both sides of the Atlantic, women decided to establish social clubs in direct response to being excluded from men’s clubs. In 1868, the New York Press Club turned the newspaper columnist Fanny Fern away from a dinner held in honour of Charles Dickens, saying the audience was restricted to men only. Fern “was invited to listen to the speeches through the crack of a door.” wrote the women’s historian Alexis Coe, in a recent essay on the women’s club movement. A year later, Fern cofounded Sorosis, America’s first professional women’s club.

Two decades later, in London, the University Club for Ladies opened on New Bond Street at the instigation of Gertrude Jackson, from Girton College, Cambridge: London’s gentlemen’s clubs had been reinforcing the old boys’ networks for years, and maintained strict single-sex policies (policies that, in the case of certain clubs such as The Garrick Club, whose members include Jeremy Paxman and Michael Gove, are still rigidly enforced).

Clubs for women became increasingly popular as the suffragette movement took hold of the public imagination. By 1906, there were over 5,000 women’s clubs in the United States. In London, the University Women’s Club found a permanent home in 1921, in a handsome, redbrick building in Mayfair.

“Women’s clubs were pursuing really important civic works,” Coe told me. “Women’s clubs built 75-80% of libraries across America. In some communities, they provided pre-school and health services. The work wasn’t trite, the output wasn’t reduced – in the way that we see things reduced now – to ‘women’s work’.”

But as the 20th century progressed, the more old-fashioned type of women’s club, which had begun to focus heavily on social events, fell out of favour with young women. The objective of all-female collectives turned to social justice issues, as Jessica Bennett detailed in her excellent recent book, Feminist Fight Club. Her list of women’s clubs through history included Cell 16, a group of Boston women, established in the 1960s, who patrolled the city in places where women had been raped; the Jane Collective, who helped women to procure safe and illegal abortions in the 60s and early 70s; and the World Organization of Workers (W.O.W.) who fought to end employment discrimination. W.O.W., Bennett wrote, memorably published a leaflet in 1979 that stated: “The happiest day of my life was when I discovered my clitoris.”
In the UK, a union of 850 female workers at the Ford factory in Dagenham went on strike in 1968 over unequal pay, and eventually won a landmark decision to classify their work at the same level as men’s; publishing collectives Spare Rib, the Red Rag Collective, and Virago Press were all set up to focus on issues including rape, abortion, discrimination and women’s safety; and the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) held marches and conferences across the country – the first ever domestic violence shelter, which grew into today’s Refuge charity, was set up by a member of the WLM.

In recent years, women’s clubs have become, in keeping with general social trends, more focused on work. In 2010, Lynne Franks set up B-Hive, which had three women-only workspaces in London, Bristol and Manchester. “There’s huge demand from women wanting to start their own businesses, but there’s also a huge confidence issue,” Franks said. “For many years, women were treated patronisingly by banks and business advisors. There wasn’t a space where they could be themselves.” The B-Hive clubs closed down after three years when the Covent Garden property was reclaimed by the landlord, but Franks said she would open the clubs again tomorrow if she could.

Journalists Katie Glass and Joy Lo Dico set up the Other Club in London at the end of 2014 – it functioned as a co-working space and hosted speakers on topics from ancient Rome to freelancing strategies. Men were technically allowed, but Sarah Sternberg, who went to several events there, recalled there were perhaps 20 women to every man. She noted that the atmosphere at the talks felt markedly different from co-ed events. “The audience question-and-answer sessions felt more discursive somehow, and less showboat-y,” she said. “Men tend to dominate Q&As.” The Other Club became the Trouble Club, but has been on hiatus since summer 2015.

The Working Women’s Club, meanwhile, has moved from an IRL space to an online platform, with a newly-launched membership scheme, complimented by events around the globe. Lovatt has organised panels and talks in London, Paris, New York, LA and Taipei, all focused on practical advice and helping people work better. From its first days, her club has been focused on creating a realistic picture of freelance creative work, and tackling the gap between how people present their careers on social media and what they actually do behind the scenes. “We’re not just asking people what inspires you,” Lovatt said. “It’s more like, how did you find investment? How did you hire your first employee?”
In Manhattan, women looking for a workspace-slash-bar-slash-changing room will now be able to join The Wing, founded by glossy New Yorkers Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan. Membership costs $1950 a year, and applicants are asked to answer questions like “What’s your side hustle?” and “What fictional TV character is your spirit animal?” alongside the more mundane requirements. The club offers members a library, space to work, screenings, and beauty services including make-up and blow-dries, and the website is dominated by “millennial pink” – the same shade as the decidedly covetable Working Women’s Club membership cards. Coe, who consulted on the launch, said she was excited to set foot in the Wing. “I think it may be a very important addition to the world that young women of New York inhabit,” she said, and added that she hopes it will galvanise a renaissance of women’s clubs across the country.

“I think there are so many overt and subtle ways in which being in female-dominated spaces encourages women to express themselves, to relax, to form networks, to shut out just for a moment societal expectations of gendered norms,” Coe said. “I think there are simply more opportunities to flourish.”

Her sentiments were echoed by Marilyn Bellock, who, in her 60s and facing an empty nest, founded the Manhattan Women’s Club. Although Bellock’s club focuses solely on social outings, she saw the same benefits in spending time in women-only spaces. “To carve out time for myself and to be exposed to women who share my interests has given me a great sense of happiness,” she said. “It gives me satisfaction and power to know how great women are. If you can tap into that, it’s a great thing.”
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