Even though Debbie Wosskow was an Oxford alumna, she wasn’t allowed beyond the front stairs of the Oxford and Cambridge Club, a London club for graduates of both universities, until the late 1990s, when the club went coed. Two decades later, with an OBE and success as a tech entrepreneur under her belt, she decided to start her own answer to the proverbial boys’ club: AllBright, which she co-founded with Anna Jones. The pair raised more than $40 million in capital and opened their flagship in London on International Women’s Day in 2018. “Women needed a better network. That became the mantra for AllBright,” she says.
They weren’t alone. Besides AllBright (which now has locations in London and L.A.), myriad splashy women-only clubs have launched over the past five years: the Wing, the Riveter, and Chief, as well as clubs that are coed but founded by women, like the Swell, Ethel’s Club, and CORE. Membership came with its share of privileges: CORE has a Manhattan clubhouse decked out with art by Damien Hirst and throws Hamptons parties with performances by the likes of Billy Joel; the Wing offers grain bowls and childcare and pulls in speakers including Reese Witherspoon and Hillary Clinton; Chief puts on salon-style talks and professional support sessions for its members, who must be C-suite executives or rising vice presidents of companies to join. It’s not the Junior League.
But then 2020 happened. Since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, many of us have circled our social wagons, giving up on in-person social contact in favor of Zoomtinis or long FaceTime conversations with old friends. “Today I talk to my college roommate just as often as any of my friends from adult life,” says one New York magazine editor. “We remember stories from our misspent youth and gossip about people from another era—there’s a comfort and familiarity to it that I don’t get from checking in with cocktail party acquaintances or professional contacts.” Meanwhile, clubs have shut their physical locations during the era of social distancing and are swiftly moving programming online. In the case of the Wing, the club laid off much of its staff during lockdown. In June, the club had to very publicly reckon with the way racial bias, white privilege, and class issues were baked into the idea of a staffed women’s club, which resulted in CEO and co-founder Audrey Gelman’s resignation.
With clubhouses rendered moot, and some level of uncertainty about when members will feel comfortable congregating in them again, founders have had to contend with what they are selling with their exclusive memberships. At CORE, founder Jennie Enterprise interviewed Abigail Disney over Zoom about the potential for transformation during a crisis. Chief’s online audience has more than tripled, according to co-founder Carolyn Childers. “In our digital community, members can crowdsource different needs, which, in a time like now, is pretty robust, from PPP loans to ‘I need to figure out childcare’ to ‘Does anybody have a place to get out of the city and go rest for a while.’ Our core service is the clubhouse itself, but this has made it clear that our product is the community.”
The zeal for women’s clubs, online or otherwise, is the strongest it has been since their heyday over 100 years ago. They’re that ephemeral third space, the place everyone needs: somewhere to go besides home and the office (at least, pre-pandemic), and they combine networking, politics, social capital, and, for some, a serious price tag that can run in the five figures. They provide what Virginia Woolf called for in A Room of One’s Own: “urbanity, the geniality, the dignity which are the offspring of luxury and privacy and space.” Today it feels somehow necessary for a certain kind of ambitious woman to join a club, to pay $250 a month to be a member of the Wing, for example, not just for access to talks with Tina Brown and a clean place to shower between meetings, but as part of the cost of female friendship.
Not too long ago, a young career woman needed to create her own informal club, through taking friends to drinks, having dinners, building a network in an organic way. It was a more informal arrangement—even becoming a pop culture cliché—on view in everything from Mary McCarthy’s The Group (in which the women were tied together by college) through Sex and the City (tied together by friendship) and Big Little Lies (tied together by a killing), and it likely cost as much as the couple hundred dollars a month many of the newer clubs like the Wing and the Riveter command. As a friend notes, “I have my own small group of five women, and we kick ass for each other.”
“I have noticed that younger millennials have an obsession with convenience,” says Karyn Starr, a fortysomething stylist and member of the Wing, which she uses less for networking opportunities than as an office. “It’s a more optimistic and joiner and rule-follower generation. I wonder what the Wing would have been like in Williamsburg in 2003.”
Women’s clubs come with their own storied history. Even though former president Grover Cleveland said in 1905 that the “best and safest club for a woman to patronize is her home,” by 1906 there were more than 5,000 women’s clubs in existence working toward social goals like women’s suffrage, an end to child labor, and the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, according to historian Alexis Coe. “In general, a club woman tended to be married and a mother, and not employed outside the home,” Coe says. “The clubs offered an outlet for personal growth at a time when women of the middle and upper classes were expected to find fulfillment through and their husbands and children.”
One uptown club that lives on from that era is the Colony Club, which was founded in 1903; the New York Times once called it “that Park Avenue monument to all things ladylike and proper.” New members have to get a recommendation from an existing member, and it was even a plot point in Gossip Girl. Another is the Cosmopolitan Club, which occupies a townhouse on East 66th Street; its mission statement is “to provide fun for serious women, and to offer the widest of intellectual hospitality and congenial companionship in an attractive gathering place.”
Both clubs are somewhat shrouded in mystery, but whispers persist. “You don’t go to the Colony Club to get work done,” one downtown dweller who has friends who are members says with a laugh. “Although I do get the impression they are trying to get younger people joining.” “It’s old-school WASPy, so unmodern,” says one Upper East Sider who has gone to luncheons and birthday parties there (the food, she says, used to be terrible but has improved in recent years). “People get very in your business, in that clubhouse way.” The food writer Helen Rosner, who is a member of the Wing, did a reading at the Cosmopolitan Club and likened it to “a country club without the golf course.”
The very desire to belong is incredibly human. “In our evolutionary prehistory, being alone wasn’t just social death, it was literal physical death. We didn’t have fangs or claws, but we had each other,” says the author and critic Wednesday Martin, who wrote Primates of Park Avenue. “Something like the CORE club is harking back to the idea of the classic New York social club—coming together with a group of like-minded people in a large, impersonal city.” It can’t hurt that there’s nothing more enticing than something money can’t buy, she adds. “You can have hundreds or millions, but you might still not be able to join one of Manhattan's elite clubs without someone there to vouch for you.”
Not everyone can be a convert. “I have signed up for women’s clubs. I never use them,” says Lacey Tisch, who is starting a wellness space called Sage & Sound on the Upper East Side. Her co-founder, Lauren Zucker, adds that, “Women’s clubs have curated great events, but so many of these exclusive clubs are just geared toward one certain area.”
Clubs, like any space dominated by women, can have a utopian feel about them, all promises of sisterhood and mutual support, but they can foster cliques or make members feel like outsiders. “I love millennial pink as much as the next person, but the second wave feminist in me was like, ‘The club has a makeup room,’” one writer says of her first impression of the Wing. A novelist notes that “Sadly, women’s groups haven’t changed much since the 1970s; they splinter and tend to eat their young.”
Worse yet, it is said that some hallowed clubs are overly exclusionary, or that they treat certain members like tokens. “Many clubs are still overtly racist or anti-Semitic,” one uptown mom says. “Somebody called me about a club and said, ‘We have our first black gay member, and everyone acts like we killed two birds with one stone.’”
Which is part of the reason why Naj Austin founded Ethel’s Club as a place for people of color: “to really think about a community that was often overlooked,” she says. Even though having a physical Brooklyn location (“curated with people-of-color everything,” she says) was important to her, in March the club pivoted purely into a digital membership, with programming around mental health and wellness in the POC community done via Zoom.
Still, the idea of a status destination for women of a certain stripe doesn’t look likely to go the way of the handshake. Despite their faults, the alluring combination of cultural cachet, networking, a place to meet, and a built-in sisterhood will persist. “I predict clubs will be more relevant than ever, a real flourishing once we get over our fears of infection,” says Wednesday Martin. “Seeing people on a screen is not the same as seeing them in real life. People will want to go to their favorite restaurant, coffee shop, or the social club they belong to.”
Until that day comes, we have all reactivated parts of our personal networks with Zoom cocktail parties and FaceTime chats with old friends who are long-distance and picnics with ones who are nearby. When Jill Kargman isn’t filming mask-wearing PSAs on Instagram, she’s spending time with her immediate family and her chosen family: women she’s known for years. “Literally my five bridesmaids are still my five best friends. That’s my version of a club.”
In these most uncertain of times, the consistency and reliability of close friends is some of the only reassurance we have. Perhaps it’s the networks we’ve built, not the ones we’ve paid for, that have the most staying power.
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