Behind the Rise of Women-Only Spaces

Meet, Mingle, Plot Revolution in women-only coworking spaces
Illustration by NatalieAnn Rich

Why Women’s Communities Are Moving off Facebook and into Real Coworking Spaces

In what feels to many like a world gone crazy, women are turning to each other more than ever for support and solidarity. In the digital space, Facebook discussion groups following the model of Pantsuit Nation are proliferating, along with publications like this one, newsletters like Lenny Letter, and private email chains of weekly activism suggestions. That’s not to mention group texts with lady friends which, if memes are to be believed (“Behind every successful woman there’s a group text hypin’ her up”), are also a major part of female solidarity in 2017. But nothing can quite match the energy, inspiration, and connection that sparks when women come together in person—as they’re doing now, in numbers of increasing force.

On a spring evening as the trees were blooming in Brooklyn, New Women Space co-founder Sandra Hong was mixing drinks for an after-work event in the former yoga studio she and Melissa Wong leased and refurbished as an event and hangout space last fall. “Feminist Happy Hour,” the Facebook invitation said. “Meet, mingle, plot revolution.” The host: feminist collective Continuum, a group that organizes get-togethers in group members’ homes when they can’t find somewhere public to meet. Nine guests came and went, among them a software engineer, a waitress who had just quit her job, a gender equity liaison for a government agency, and a blogger. A few lived in the neighborhood and were stopping by for the first time. They talked around tables spread with votive candles and bowls of pita chips, and free stickers with slogans like “Proud Feminist,” and “I solemnly swear this pussy will grab back.” Someone asked whose space it was, and people pointed to Hong behind the front desk. “It’s your space,” she said. “I’m just bartending.”

 
“Why does GQ never come out with a story that says ‘Are you mad?’”
 

New Women Space is one example of a recent rise in female communities both online and—increasingly—in real life, with a particular spike in enthusiasm since the 2016 presidential election. WMN, a wellness center for women in Los Angeles, launched in January. The Wing, a coworking and community space exclusively for women, opened in October 2016 and flourished in the wake of the election. Founder Audrey Gelman announced last month she will open three more locations starting this fall in SoHo, Brooklyn, and Washington D.C. Already established organizations, like Cambridge Women’s Center, founded in 1971, and Women’s Center for Creative Work in Los Angeles, are experiencing an uptick in participation.

New Women Space founders Wong and Hong initially planned one month of diverse programming for women. As they painted and spackled walls in late summer, the election loomed large, but they didn’t think they were battening the hatches. Like many, they assumed they were preparing for a celebration. “This was supposed to be a 30-day pop-up, and then Donald Trump got elected and we were like, we have to keep this shit going,” Hong says.

With the nation’s politics in turmoil, many women might feel like the world or they themselves have lost their minds. Gina Barreca, a professor of English and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut, has written about women in comedy and says women are the only ones sitting around wondering if they’re going crazy. And that’s a big part of why women need each other’s camaraderie. “Why does GQ never come out with a story that says ‘Are you mad?’” she says. “Guys sort of live in this bubble of normalcy,” she says. “Anything that doesn’t resemble them is monstrous, so we’re monsters because we’re not men.” She believes women must be able to ask one another, “Am I crazy? Is it me?”

And as much as we decry echo chambers for reinforcing our most stubborn social and political opinions, being around people who accept you and sympathize with your experience is comforting. “It’s really affirming and so necessary to feel like you’re not crazy or at least a little less crazy,” says Anthonia Akitunde, editor of the online motherhood publication Mater Mea.

 
“In our present-day culture there are less automatic networks for women to get together.”
 

The history of women’s solidarity is much shorter than that of men. According to feminist historian Marilyn Yalom, co-author of the book “The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship” (2015), “For the past 150 years, the stock in women’s friendship has been on the rise.” Friendship was originally thought of as a male experience meant to strengthen civic and military solidarity, she writes. Women’s relationships with each other were largely invisible until the 1500s when Shakespeare’s plays showed them confiding in each other in a way that hadn’t been spoken about before. In the centuries that followed, women’s correspondence with one another leaves a record of their intimacy, as in letters between Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren in which Adams vented her frustrations about trying to get her husband, the second president, to “remember the ladies” while creating the laws of the nation. By the 1800s, middle- and upper-class women began forming clubs based on religious, political, and cultural interests, like doing charity work or forming sewing or quilting circles.

Women would naturally talk as they worked on these tasks and bonded over their shared service to their church or community, says Beverly Gordon, an expert in textiles and former professor of design studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Susan B. Anthony is even rumored to have talked up women’s suffrage at quilting bees. “Textile-making together provided a natural way of becoming close,” she says, noting that women quilting around a frame face each other, inviting conversation. “In our present-day culture there are less automatic networks for women to get together.” That’s where today’s women’s clubs come in.

 
“We want to be a resource for women to be their best selves.”
 

One of the most important aspects of organizations like New Women Space is that they offer modern women a physical space to gather outside the glow of a smartphone screen. Although studies show online communities can offer some of the same psychological benefits of meeting up in real life, and they certainly provide accessibility for women who otherwise couldn’t connect with their peers, socializing digitally can feel emotionally isolating. “In a time where people felt threatened and just energetically wiped, to feel like there was a space for them, we realized how important that felt after the election,” Wong says. “We were all just communicating with our screens and texting, but it’s important for people to see each other in person. It’s a form of transparency. You can’t hide behind a mask.”

Hong and Wong designed their space to accommodate a variety of “IRL” get-togethers: Sofas and tables can be rearranged for workshops and talks on everything from birth and menstruation to getting motivated, entrepreneurship, and a “makeup removal party” addressing beauty standards and insecurities. There are yoga classes and drop-in coworking hours during the week. The large basement area where the founders laid flooring by hand has become the site of a popular monthly women’s comedy event. In addition to submitting proposals for public events, people also rent the space for happy hours, book club meetings, dance rehearsals, even the occasional birthday party. “We want to be a resource for women to be their best selves,” says Wong. “Professionally, personally, in a really well-rounded way.”

One of the first in-person gatherings New Women Space hosted was an election-night viewing party, thinking they’d open their new venture by celebrating the first woman president. After that, they started accepting proposals for events, and they were almost all activism ideas. Hong and Wong had opened their doors just in time to serve a very specific need in the female community. In addition to wanting a place to talk and check in with other women, many wanted to take action. They’ve hosted a gathering where women wrote letters to elected officials and a workshop on being an ally to Muslim women.

 
“It’s easy to forget that until recently, many young women believed feminism was passé, unnecessary, or only for man-haters.”
 

Akitunde, who founded Mater Mea in 2012 to address a gap that has existed for years in how the media portrays black working women and black motherhood, has noticed a greater interest among her readers in live events. It seems online discussion is no longer enough. “For awhile, I think people were going online to see their stories and their voices reflected back at them,” Akitunde says. “Now they want those same experiences in the real world.” She participated in a panel at a Mother’s Day open house at New Women Space, talking about wellness for working moms.

Barreca agrees there is something nourishing about being in a physical space with a community of peers. For one, she says, you get to be an individual instead of a representative of your group. You’re no longer the token woman or person of color on an event line-up, and people can let their guard down. “We get to indulge ourselves and wear flat shoes,” she says, adding that the feelings of competitiveness women may feel toward one another fall away. “We have more in common than what separates us.” You can’t get that on a Facebook thread.

Of course, women uniting against the world is nothing new, particularly for minority women. Mishuana Goeman, a member of the Tonawanda Band of Seneca tribe and vice chair of gender studies at the University of California Los Angeles, says American Indian and indigenous women have long been organizing and fighting together to protect their communities, cultures, and languages, and themselves from sexual violence. Most recently, women have held leading roles in the protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline. “I am glad others are now becoming aware, but Trump is just one more town destroyer (the Haudenosaunee translation of president),” says Goeman.

 
“It’s like we can’t even say ‘woman’ anymore. It’s a dirty word.”
 

Still, Barreca sees this as a new era for the women’s movement. It’s easy to forget that until recently, many young women believed feminism was passé, unnecessary, or only for man-haters. As recently as 2012, megastars like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift were more or less getting away with saying they didn’t identify as feminists. “Women’s studies is now gender studies,” Barreca says of that attitude. “It’s like we can’t even say ‘woman’ anymore. It’s a dirty word.” But now, women are once again questioning the status quo and calling out injustices in workplaces, healthcare, and education. “It’s a resurgence of the feminism that was so enthralling and energetic and captivating in the 70s,” Barreca says. “I’m happy to see my students, both male and female, embracing the idea of feminism. I was happy there were so many men at the [women’s] march.”

She sees the solidarity of female communities as the best way to demand equality and to feel supported along the way. “When you do it in unison it makes a much bigger noise,” she says. “And when you realize you can raise your voice in a chorus, you find your pack and you howl.”

This feature originally appeared in the Madness issue. Read also about Literature’s Most Famous Madwoman or check out more Women in History.

We’re so glad you’re with us. We’re a community of women who are changing women’s media. That’s no small task. But because you’re here, we know that you care, too. For us to keep doing what we do, we need your support. So we can keep printing, posting and furthering our mission. With you.
Get the latest issue in print

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed