Return of the Gender Line

Why the Wing, a women-only social club in New York and D.C., is getting away with violating human rights law.

Guests are seen during the Wing D.C. opening celebration in Georgetown on Tuesday in Washington.
Guests are seen during the Wing D.C. opening celebration in Georgetown on Tuesday in Washington. Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for The Wing

Are you a woman in D.C. with at least $2,350 in annual disposable income? If so, you’re in luck: On Thursday, the Wing—a social club that explicitly excludes men from membership—opens its D.C. location, a lush space featuring a cafe, gym, art gallery, and library. Applications are open now. Founded by Audrey Gelman, the Wing already has three locations in New York City and a reported 8,000-member waiting list. (Access to multiple Wings costs an extra $350 a year.) The company describes itself as “a network of co-working and community spaces designed for women” to promote their “professional, civic, social, and economic advancement.”

Gelman describes the Wing as an effort to revive the fading tradition of women’s clubs, arguing that women-only spaces are especially important in the #MeToo era. That may be a noble goal, but Gelman has gone about it in a rather strange way—by flagrantly violating human rights laws in both New York and D.C. Perhaps no one (apart from men’s rights activist trolls) much cares about the Wing’s unlawful sex discrimination. But the club does provide a revealing glimpse into a strand of contemporary feminism, one that has strayed far from the legal foundations that undergird feminist law.

The Wing might not have legal troubles if it had set up shop in cities with relatively lax nondiscrimination laws. But it operates in two cities that happen to have the most robust civil rights regimes in the country. New York City’s Human Rights Law prohibits sex discrimination in public accommodations, which encompasses most social clubs, even if they call themselves private. Clubs can apply for an exemption based on “bona fide considerations of public policy,” but the city has clarified that “requests rooted in discomfort, intolerance, or perpetuating prejudice or division” do not count. In interviews, Gelman has explained that she barred men from applying because some women are more comfortable in social situations when no men are present. That’s surely true—but it’s also the exact kind of “discomfort” with one sex that cannot justify sex discrimination under New York law.

In D.C., the Wing’s illegality is equally clear-cut. Like New York, the District’s Human Rights Act forbids sex discrimination in social clubs, with a few exceptions for small nonprofit associations that do not apply to the Wing. There is, alas, no provision that permits gender-based membership rules when it’s women doing the discriminating. Gelman seems to believe the Wing is exempt from the District’s law because “we are a private membership club.” That, however, is not actually how this works. If the Wing were a true private association of like-minded people coming together to express their beliefs, it would have a First Amendment right to ban men. But it is not. Rather, it’s a for-profit company that provides members goods and services in exchange for money—more like a country club than the Boy Scouts. This profit motive subjects the Wing to New York and D.C.’s public accommodations laws, which clearly proscribe sex-based exclusions.

In April, the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the Wing’s membership policy in a thoughtful post asserting that true gender neutrality is a more effective means of promoting equality. The ACLU also noted a second way the club is likely running afoul of human rights laws: By screening out applicants on the basis of their sex, the Wing will almost inevitably run afoul of provisions of both cities’ laws that protect residents across the gender spectrum. The club says it will accept members who are “living as a woman” and will review applicants’ social media to determine whether they fit the bill. Yet both New York and D.C. prohibit discrimination on the basis of “gender identity” and “gender expression.” Can nonbinary and gender-fluid people join the Wing? Surely not, as these individuals are not “living as a woman.” And by barring them from membership, the Wing is infringing upon their rights under local law.

By excluding men (and gender minorities who don’t identify as women), the Wing is departing from the feminist ideas that led to the passage of New York’s and D.C.’s nondiscrimination protections. These ideas also underlie the constitutional guarantee of gender equality. The club is fond of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—she’s featured on its wallpaper in Brooklyn, and a cocktail named after her is served at the cafe in its D.C. location. But Ginsburg spent much of her career fighting for the proposition that men and women should be treated equally in the eyes of the law, with no perks for either. As a litigator with the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, Ginsburg’s genius was to challenge laws that burdened men by relying upon stereotypes about gender roles. This way, Ginsburg persuaded the court to lay down neutral principles against sex discrimination that benefited men and women equally.

Ginsburg has also long asserted that men and women should work together to advance social progress, contradicting the Wing’s claim that women may be more effective when they work by themselves. Just last week, the justice reiterated this belief during a talk at Georgetown Law. Explaining why she joined the ACLU, she noted that the organization employed both men and women to litigate women’s rights. “It was important to me to show that this is not just women’s business,” Ginsburg said. “It should be high on any human rights agenda. And that meant that men had to care about it. I think that the people who wanted to keep things the way they were would’ve been happy if the women had gathered in their own groups with no men.”

Luckily for the Wing, the agencies responsible for enforcing New York and D.C.’s nondiscrimination laws appear poised to give the club a free pass. After Jezebel reported that the New York Human Rights Commission was investigating the Wing, several of its celebrity members protested, and the commission seems to be backing off. (New York Mayor Bill de Blasio cautiously defended both the club and the commission.) Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser attended the Wing’s opening party in D.C., and Stephanie Franklin, director of policy and communications for the D.C. Office of Human Rights, voiced no concerns about the club. “D.C. is a place where people can start innovative projects and businesses that might be ahead of the curve,” she told WAMU. “I think that it’s all a learning curve, and we’ll see how this pans out.”

There is a case to be made that these agencies should not spend their limited resources investigating a club that no resident has yet complained about. But at some point, a male applicant will probably file a grievance alleging that he was denied membership on the basis of his sex. When that happens, the Wing will have to stop flouting local nondiscrimination measures and, presumably, alter its rules to comply with the law. Would a mixed-gender Wing be less valuable to its members? It’s impossible to say, but it’s worth noting that the club can still exclude members who reject its mission, feminism, and core values, as well as those who demean women in any way. A legally compliant Wing might turn out to be largely the same, helping its members pursue social justice in the company of friends and colleagues of any gender.