Why The Shift From ‘Gentlemen’s Clubs’ To ‘Women’s Clubs’ Feels So Damn Impossible

Why The Shift From ‘Gentlemen’s Clubs’

To ‘Women’s Clubs’ Feels So Damn Impossible

The “boy’s club,” a fraternal order representative of our dominant culture of maleness, has become so deeply ingrained in the makeup of this country it’s almost unnoticeable.

But the anesthesia is slowly starting to wear off.

For centuries, men have enjoyed unfettered access to social and working clubs that offered everything from male-only golfing to gambling and more salacious pursuits. Within these hallowed walls, economies were built or destroyed, presidents made and policies wrought. The origins of these social clubs are as old as this country is young. When the Founding Fathers were coming together in the 1700s to talk shop about ideas that would become the Declaration of Independence, these fireside détentes took place over a bourbon and cigar in these clubs. Set up initially to entertain the upperclassmen of the country, they would ultimately branch out to welcome creatives, mid-tier financiers and brazen socialites.

In today’s society however, there’s demand for similarly positioned spaces for upwardly mobile women, most notably by the The Wing. Influenced, no doubt, by the Women’s Movement, the gender revolution and the emerging wave of females in power, founders, Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan introduced their revolutionary concept pre-election in 2016 to a raucous reception.

We built The Wing based on the tradition of the women’s club movement in the 19th, early 20th century,” Gelman tells SWAAY. “When we launched, we were focused on creating a network of co-working and community spaces that provide women with a positive and safe space they could thrive.”

But, of course, anything groundbreaking coming from women is subject to additional scrutiny. Take last month’s, decidedly ignorant decision made by the New York City Human Rights Commission to investigate the co-working space and social club, The Wing, thus enacting the wrath women across the nation.

Despite having less than 2,000 members, women emerged in droves to support the founders on social media offering testimonies of devotion to The Wing’s mission(which is due to expand past NYC and D.C into Seattle, San Francisco and L.A in the next year). The furor that ensued from the statement was not necessarily unprecedented, but ensured a debate around the pretence of such an inquiry. Why, in 2018, given #metoo and the overwhelming evidence of the shit women have had to endure in their male-dominant work spaces, can they not have a singular female sanctuary to be away from their male counterparts? To be sure, the reasons are copious, but we’ve decided to focus on three, which seek to highlight the discrepancies between the traditions of male and female clubs, and why they’re having such a malignant impact on progress.

“We believe magic happens when women come together and empower one another.. Success happens when they have a forum to network, collaborate and advance their own and each other’s pursuits,”

Audrey Gellman, The Wing Co-Founder

Sabotage

The “tip” sent into the commission to draw attention to The Wing’s female-only gender rules comes at an extremely convenient time. With the rising tide of female movements from #metoo to Time’s Up, and an incumbent female celebrity driving for the New York Governor’s office, this tip stinks of a plot to knock these women (or any woman), off their perch.

Gelman hosts Hillary Clinton at The Wing, Soho. Photo credit: The Cut/Angela Pham

“There are plenty of people who feel threatened by the idea of women having spaces of their own; it challenges the supremacy that men have held for centuries,” says Gelman. And indeed, the practice of sabotaging all-female spaces is not uncommon in the historical trajectory of women’s social clubs. It was only in 2015, when The Garrick Club in London was reviewing its gender policy, many of its members came out in vehement opposition to allowing female membership. The Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman reporting on the review, wrote, “One member said he would not be able to speak freely with people he did not consider ‘equals.'”

When women first became disenfranchized with men spending their free time lounging around in bougie, leather-bound surroundings, cigar and bourbon in hand, it wasn’t long before they took measures to ensure the forming of their own clubs.

During the Progressive Era of the late 1800s, women’s clubs in America started to form in order to facilitate socializing and a gathering of mutual ideas. Many of these organizations would in time come to enter the women’s suffrage movement of the early twentieth century. It would emerge later that some women found to be conspiring within the clubs to further their suffragist agenda were thrown out of their own homes by husbands who preferred the status quo. Could tipsters by the angry husbands of yesteryear, tattling on women who seek to raise their voices in unison to enact change? Seems like it.

Misogyny

Today, when you google “gentlemen’s clubs,” it’s another type of establishment that you’ll find listings for, and you certainly don’t need to be vetted to gain entry. There’s a reason “gentlemen’s clubs” today are strip joints, and here’s a hint, Playboy. 

When these all-male enclaves began to sprout throughout the country, you could be damn sure there were women in there somewhere, but it wasn’t sitting at the table touting the future of the country. Behind the scenes, women were employed to serve the men, dress scantily (read: tight corsets and bunny ears) and ensure their patrons were kept perfectly lubricated and satisfied, no matter the lines crossed.

Behind the scenes, women were employed to serve the men, dress scantily (read: tight corsets and bunny ears) and ensure their patrons were kept perfectly lubricated and satisfied, no matter the lines crossed

Despite the blatant disregard for gender parity, history books, historical fiction, television and movies, often portray these kinds of sleazy affairs as commonplace only help to anesthetize us to the disturbing power dynamic that these organizations represented. 

Things weren’t always so salacious however. In the beginning, these outposts served as  hubs for intelligent conversation. They fostered a community, comradery, and provided a place away from women to talk politics, culture and the future of the country. The men that made up the elite membership were noble change-makers, demanding a place that would cater to their whims, and introduce them to others of estimable standing. Why in the world would women need somewhere similar? The men were making all of the important decisions, and continued to do so. Is it any surprise that they still remain in those highest of highfalutin positions when these clubs were allowed to exist for so long that “boy’s club,” rather than a physical space became a state-of mind, a state-of-business, and ultimately, impenetrable.

And now, those that would refuse to even bother testing the barriers of the proverbial fraternity, instead choosing to start their own club, are threatened. Why? Because misogyny dictates that for men to remain at the top, for the boy’s club to remain intact and untouched, any incumbents into the dynasty of power must remain on the outs. If it wasn’t The Wing, it would have been something else that caused such commotion – a group of female politician friends, or female CEOs. No fraternizing allowed, ladies!

And maybe, just maybe, keeping us away from each other is a way men subliminally keep movements like #metoo in their dark corners. It’s bad for business when your bad behavior emerges from the woodwork, right, Harvey?

The Lotos Club, an all-men's club founded in 1870 started allowing female members in 1976
Money

The purpose of women’s clubs originally was something so banal as getting women out of the house to socialize with other like-minded ladies. Times were simpler. The very, very large majority of women were housewives. Given our renewed role in the modern eco-system of money making, our interests are much broader. Our evolution out of the kitchen and into the working economy necessitates a fuller and more cultured perspective, but for this, we are begrudged. Now, even though we evidently have the money (a Wing membership will cost you a pretty $2700 per year), and we’re a major contributing factor to the global economy (our global spending power is estimated at $20 Trillion), we’re still constrained in our spending power, our ability to express ourselves financially still tethered to that household-tending notion.

It’s thus unsurprising that upon hearing the news of the Commission, so many women came to The Wing’s aid. If we are ever to relieve ourselves of this maniacal and utterly ridiculous patriarchy, it requires not less, but more of this ‘rule-breaking,’ unconventional practice and shameless feminizing.

Amy Corcoran

Head of Content at SWAAY: Amy is an Irish writer, avid foodie and feminist with an insatiable appetite for novels and empowering women's writing. She has enjoyed calling Dublin, Paris and now New York her home.

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