The More We Get Together: The Wing and Other Clubs

18 min read
Published on Sun Aug 16 2020
Written by Bria Hunter

I’ve been skeptical of women’s coworking-spaces-slash-social-clubs since I got my current Good Job™️. I’ve had this document somewhere in the cloud, in one form or another, since 2018. That’s two years of feeling a sense of generalized saltiness toward these places and not quite being able to articulate it. Two years of growing, changing — becoming both more and less similar to the objects of my salt.

The first woman-focused space that caught my attention was, unsurprisingly, The Wing. With its Instagrammable pastels and trendy monstera leaves, it looked the part and had the targeted advertising budget to back it up. It was the perfect pre-packaged combination of femininity and boldness, down to the engraved keychains that read “girls doing whatever the fuck they want”. I was simultaneously drawn to it and repelled by the idea of not fitting in. The moment I read “whatever the fuck they want”, I started looking for the asterisk — whether it had to do with money, a certain look, the requisite amount of clout.

Photo credit: The Wing on Facebook

The club had an ostensibly exclusive application process — one that I started and abandoned over and over again — in which you had to detail how you were empowering women in your community. At the time, I just assumed they sent out dozens of rejections a month to women who had the money to pay and the credentials, but had missed some extraordinarily high bar. It didn’t occur to me that perhaps the application process mostly just added to the mystique.

A lot of The Wing’s appeal felt familiar — it reminded me of what drew me in about FIDM (the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising), a for-profit college I packed up and went to at the age of 17. Their marketing was impeccable, their ambassadors tenacious and targeted, their brand palette and visuals enticing. You had to complete a portfolio project to get in (mine was done with Crayola colored pencils on printer paper. I got in without a hitch). It wasn’t a women’s only college — but the demographics told the story. For $27,000 in tuition a year, I could buy my way into the popular girl’s crowd, and have the branded tote bag, the water bottle, and the overpriced associate’s degree to prove it. The two-year degree in fashion design or visual communications wouldn’t actually be enough to get the suburban young girls the school attracted into the dream jobs we envisioned as creative directors of fashion houses, but it was a taste of the dream (for the ones who finished — I dropped out). And more importantly, it was a chance to rub shoulders with someone we thought might make it, or someone who already had. And that was enough to get us to sign on the dotted line (or beg our parents to).

It’s an overstatement to say that FIDM and The Wing are two sides of the same coin, but their appeal was quite similar — it’s hard to separate the real benefits you’re getting out of being there from the intangible sense of belonging in an exclusive, aspirational group. If I were to join The Wing, I’d relish the swag bag, the pins and totes. I’d probably spend half a month’s membership fees on additional t-shirts and a mug to post on my stories. I’d walk in the door and open my rose gold laptop while sitting at a mid-century modern table and enjoy the idea that I’d made it, that I was around the ambitious women I’d always dreamed I could be more like, and that I was becoming one of them by just being there. That’s how I felt at fashion school, with my tote bag and my student handbook and my folder full of textile assignments. Success by osmosis, a cushion of aspiration and positivity surrounding me to dull the noise of my own anxious voice about whether I was accomplished or capable enough.

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In late 2018 I wrote: “I’m simultaneously jealous of the person I might have become and disdainful of her. I’m bothered by the fact that the version of myself whose friends and coworkers all joined a space like this would (and could) just shift some stuff around in her budget to make room for a membership at one of these places. The version of me that lived in San Francisco would probably join. The single version of me who had no one to talk to after a long day at work or needed a break from my roommates might be there.”

Always perpetually one to two variables away from the kind of person whose genuine desire for a place like The Wing overlapped with an ability to pay for a Wing membership. And in the time between beginning to write this and publishing it, I got three raises. The ability to pay was no longer a question — so what was stopping me from applying?

The Wing wasn’t the only club either — there was also The Ruby: artsier, unique to San Francisco, small and suited for the truly creative. The indie counterpart to the Boss Babe with an $80 embossed spiral bound planner that The Wing seemed to call out to. There was The Assembly — also unique to San Francisco, housed in a former church, an unfamiliar but intriguing space sitting at the crossroads of wellness hub, fitness studio, event venue, and coworking space. I pictured myself as some sort of San Francisco chameleon, noticed how much my associations with each place were deeply linked to physical appearance. Perhaps I could straighten my coily hair, wear my platform heels, and bring my Mansur Gavriel bag to The Wing. Leave my legs unshaved, go without mascara, and write poetry at The Ruby. Wear my hair in a natural puff, splurge on Lululemon leggings, and try to fit in at The Assembly.

But wouldn’t it all be varying degrees of artifice? If I wasn’t Banana Republic, I wasn’t Outdoor Voices, and I wasn’t the girl in a handmade circle skirt made of sustainable printed fabric, who was I?

I also tend to apply a level of snark to things that feel just barely unattainable. That makes me wonder if some of my surface-level hesitation around these spaces has to do with my own uncomfortable realization process. Detailing in my head the imaginary traumatic scenario in which I’m mockingly excluded, latching onto that scenario as an inevitable fact, slowly coming to terms with the position I actually do occupy — understanding that I may be part of the in-group in some ways after all. Take sororities — I won’t presume to say that any of the majority-white sororities on my college campus in 2013 would have felt like home. A little skepticism about sororities in general isn’t an unhealthy thing, I don’t think. But I often find myself biting back my snark toward the sorority where I likely would have fit in fairly well, or at least better than others — Alpha Kappa Alpha. I hold this stereotype in my head of AKA’s as light-skinned Black girls who grew up comfy in the suburbs with their own bedrooms, model vacation Bible school students who went to the same college as their parents and grandparents. That’s not an exact description of me. But I’m not incredibly far off, and I do check quite a few of those boxes. It’s fun to make fun of a group that you’re decidedly not in. But there’s a weird, almost vindictive thrill in throwing a little derision toward a group you feel like you’re provisionally accepted in — it feels like it takes some of the sting out of feeling like you’re right on the cusp of belonging.

It’s that barely-belonging, those moments that may come up where you need to double down on signaling that you belong, that strike fear in me. Take this example from the application form for The Ruby in 2018. To a secure person, it might read innocuous, but to me, it felt like it weeded out people without the established cultural capital that the club itself was probably going to provide — people like me.

“What chefs, florists, artists, winemakers, furniture/textile makers (and so on) should we feature” is a required application question. God forbid you have to Google some.

My impostor syndrome reared its ugly head: was I too early in my career, to uncertain, not cultured enough, not accomplished enough?

Was I so intimated by these “successful women” because I thought I was not one of them — or because I knew that I was one of them and I felt guilty about it?

“Your friends are my friends and my friends are your friends”

One thing I’ve realized as I sat on this essay in some form for two years is that I don’t think I was ever actually mad at these spaces existing as much as I was annoyed by the limitations on who they’re actually built for. If I felt so insecure about applying with all my privilege as a well-paid, tech-giant-employed, designer-adjacent type with creative inclinations, who did look at these ads and think “that’s my new home?” without a second thought?

I’m less annoyed at the problem they claim to solve than I am frustrated at my idea of who they aim to solve it for. They offer themselves as an answer to isolation, a genuine community. But some of those hit hardest by that isolation are working class women of color who can’t afford any type of pay-to-play community, and have seen the communities that used to exist organically in their neighborhoods disperse because of gentrification. I bristle on principle at the thought of a young woman whose friends and loved ones have been pushed out by gentrification daydreaming about one day having the money to pay for ersatz-friendship and community on the same block where she used to get the real thing for free.

I’ll admit there is a large part of me that tends to roll my eyes at the things I can’t have. In some ways, maybe I was jealous that others could pay for the feeling of isolation and impostor syndrome and untethernedness to go away. When I look back on my two years of frustration, in some moments I wonder if it was sour grapes. And in other moments, I feel I was justified all along. Is there a mean-spirited part of me that wants to say to the women walking into The Wing “this isolation is the price you pay for gentrifying Brooklyn or San Francisco or LA”? Is there a vindictive part of me that wants to say “You moved here from Suburban Nowhere Hills, you got your tech job that pays you $148,000 a year plus stocks, you have your little following on LinkedIn. And now you’re whining and looking for ‘creative solutions’ because you feel isolated, and it’s not enough like Iowa. This is what you signed up for. This is what you get. You can’t have it all.”

And maybe that’s the crux of my resentment — “you can’t have it all.” Maybe I’m just talking to myself.

“The happier we’ll be”

My gratitude for opportunities for human connection with people I have a lot in common with professionally coexists with my fear: what does it mean when the majority of the connections in your life are tied to your livelihood and your ability to keep producing? Even if that’s not the reality, what does it mean when you perceive it that way? When you’re afraid that to change industries or to get a suboptimal performance review or to get laid off would cut you off from the majority of the adult relationships in your life? I feel like we’re taught to stockpile relationships because in theory we can take them with us as we mature professionally, expand our horizons, and weather the ups and downs of the market.

In the grand scheme of things, it would seem logical to spend a portion of what seems like an excessive amount of money on professional relationship insurance, if you will — memberships in clubs and societies that ensure we can build and retain some level of connection to our industries, people who can vouch for our skills or hook us up with a new job should shit hit the fan. If you’re making $100,000 a year, why not spend $2500 of it on the relationships that could help you turn that into $125,000 a year from now (or bring you from $0 back to $100,000 should you get laid off or see your company fall apart)? I think of another women’s digital membership platform — ironically, staffed on the design side by my former FIDM roommate, that provides bi-weekly group meetings for like-minded women to offer “guidance” and “accountability”…for $150 a month. And as much I feel like you could get that shit for free, maybe those relationships are currency.

But not everybody has that option. For the people who clean the toilets at The Wing, a membership fee could be a sizable chunk of their monthly income.

Even satisfied women speak of return on investment with their memberships, and in reality, The Wing is a business. They should get a return on their investment. But there’s something unsettling about the promise of more than that. Maybe I personally am easily peeved by for-profit solutions being our go-to response to needs and desires that I perceive as beyond the scope of the free market. In Arlie Russel Hochschild’s The Outsourced Self, the author muses on what it means to be able to hire out once-intimate parts of human life. In my eyes, some of her examples are just part and parcel of life today (paying for something like Match.com hardly seems like a big deal to me, a girl who met her partner swiping through Tinder). But others reinforce the idea that the hand of the free market is reaching itself uncomfortably deep into areas that feel off-limits. For example, a consulting company that observes family dynamics and scores fathers, much like a corporate performance review, on their ability to “create memories” and demonstrate active listening skills to their children.

People have a fundamental need to connect with others, I know that has to be true. Women have a need to feel represented and heard and respected and politically empowered — but should the market be the primary way that need is filled? What happens to the people who can’t pay the price the market demands?

A Glassdoor job description (at the time of originally writing this) for a position as a Wing staff member requires “flexible hours” from the employees of the establishment, “warm” customer service, and willingness to “help maintain the vibes of the Space” (capitalization their own). I think about the difference in what the phrase “flexible hours” means here. For “us”, flexible hours are a benefit from our fancy tech jobs that allow us to work when and where we want, including a $250/month coworking space. For the people who work the floors, who clean and maintain facilities, flexible hours mean working nights, weekends, and maybe holidays to provide that comfort — and for wages that would not afford them a membership at a similar coworking space.

“Make new friends, but keep the old — one is silver and the other’s gold”

I find myself thinking of the little rhymes and songs I was taught as a Brownie Girl Scout. “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other’s gold.” As an 8 year old, I couldn’t figure out which was supposed to be silver and which was gold. Which relationships took first place and which took second — and why was there even a hierarchy? Were your old friends inherently worth less than your new ones — or was it the other way around? Are friends you paid money to meet — $2 in Girl Scout troop dues or $45,000 in tuition — better than the friends you made for free?

I think of how different each woman’s experience must be with the last space, club, or society they were a part of that was centered around women. Was it Girl Scouts? Junior League? A women’s college, a sorority, a debutante ball? Or something informal?

And where are those spaces going?

When I started writing this, we weren’t in a pandemic. But every time I’ve sat down to revisit it again since I got stuck in my house indefinitely, I’ve felt a guilty pang. Was I being an asshole for even writing about my skepticism toward these women-centered spaces in a world where all of “us” seemed to be craving connection, dreaming of just physically being near like-minded people instead of isolated in our urban apartments? Was it so bad to yearn for a place like The Wing — to be able to get together with other grown-ass successful women and not be stuck in the house with kids and housework and existential dread about mortality? And then I saw these spaces and their leaders start laying off employees, trying to keep up some semblance of online community, and even closing permanently in the case of The Assembly in August. Maybe I had been too harsh on these women all along — they and their members weren’t perfect, and sure, I probably would have been annoyed by a number of the Audreys and Mollys and aspiring Audreys and Mollys — but how different was I from them?

I mean, I guess I’m Black, and I’m a woman. So I’m doubly frustrated that building community with marginalized people feels like an extracurricular activity that takes investment when for others, it’s built into their regular work hours, socializing with their immediate coworkers. Do you know how far a white male engineer has to travel, how many hours he has to devote, or how much money he has to invest, to have at least one meaningful conversation with another white male engineer every week? For me, it takes coordinating, organizing, sticking to a schedule, and the higher up you move, the more you need to drive out to meetup events or devote hours outside of the office or check (or create) Facebook groups.

And maybe it’s telling that the one big famous social club I haven’t criticized in this piece is Ethel’s Club — the one that unapologetically and explicitly states that it’s for people of color. The one that has a big, conspicuous photo of the founder, Naj Austin, as a child with her grandmother on their About page.

In bold, giant typeface: “Our story starts with two Black women”. Photo from Ethel’s Club

There’s something incredibly familiar about this — I keep a framed photo of myself at age 5 on my own grandmother’s lap on my desk. I look at it every day as I work at my designer-type big tech job, I ground myself in what makes me both royalty and regular. It’s comforting. And maybe it has something to do with why I find myself openly rooting for Ethel’s Club, based 3,000 miles away in Brooklyn, to succeed and grow, while I look on at The Wing, less than a 10 minute walk from my job, with a cocktail of curiosity, guilty longing, and (feigned) indifference about their future.

Me and my own grandma.

When writing this piece, it didn’t even occur to me that at the time I began writing it, I had already dipped my toes into a formalized space for women — Exhale Collective, a Black women-led group I stumbled upon at a conference at my alma mater. A group I had only positive things to say about. Being explicitly for and by Black women helped. Being hyperlocal helped — no need to go to San Francisco, which I associated with tech and work and code-switching — instead, they were here doing events in Oakland and Berkeley, my cultural center. Being open and small, with no membership fees or application processes was another plus — and even their events were free or cost just enough to cover food or supplies. Maybe more than anything, it was that where other groups asked you to prove you belonged, Exhale explicitly invited you to come as you were. Exhale wasn’t a club or a guild. It wasn’t a coworking space or an office away from the office, it wasn’t a networking group. It was a collective, and that was all I felt I needed. I was free to be creative there, to make collages and write poetry and be surrounded by art, but the objective wasn’t to optimize or synergize or workshop. It was enough to just breathe.