Neoliberal Feminism Has a New Private Club

The Wing, London’s new private members’ club founded by a former Hillary Clinton aide, is just more of capitalism covering itself in the veneer of women’s empowerment.

The Wing cofounder Audrey Gelman and actress Jennifer Lawrence speak during an event at the club's SoHo location on February 23, 2018 in New York City. (Monica Schipper / Getty Images)

Last month, one of the US pioneers of a women-only coworking space launched its new branch in London. The Wing — so-named because it’s a home away from home, presumably for those whose homes already have several wings — offers millennial pink furnishings, tasteful chintz, color-coded bookshelves, and telephone rooms named after Harry Potter characters. For £1,836 a year, women will have access to this, along with a program of “inspirational events,” mentoring, and a room with beauty products: a feminist’s utopia.

The Wing has lofty ambitions. Audrey Gelman, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, childhood friend of Lena Dunham, and The Wing cofounder claims, “The Wing is a space that was designed with women’s interests in mind. Our goal and our mission is really the advancement of women in our society, in their individual lives and careers. And we believe that women deserve a space like this.”

Aside from glossy lifestyle features about its founders and press-release-as-news stories, The Wing has its fair share of detractors. The main line of attack on The Wing is that it is exclusive. Their membership fees price out working-class women. The Wing does offer a scholarship, but it’s based not on need but on how much a given woman has done to help other women. It’s true, the benefits of these clubs are not shared in an equitable way, so the argument goes, but improvements to their membership rules and fees would resolve this.

But the problem is not the pricing. The Wing is irredeemable. Boss-bitch feminism is not bad because not all women are bosses. It’s bad because it legitimizes exploitation. It uses the pretense of emancipation to justify oppression and twists the meaning of feminism into something unrecognizable. Feminism is a movement for the coordination of women for their emancipation as women. If feminism is just women doing stuff with other women vaguely involved, this life-saving capacity is lost. Even if The Wing gave out entirely free memberships, it would still be fundamentally bad for women.

There are two defenses proffered of these clubs: those of their zealous supporters and those of their reformist critics. The first of these sounds something like, “you might not like every detail of The Wing, but its founders and the others who believe in it do so for good reasons. They have good intentions.” But The Wing is a business. Its founders do not, even cannot, have good intentions. Audrey Gelman might claim, “[o]ur goal and our mission is really the advancement of women in our society, in their individual lives and careers,” but what is fundamental is its ambition to make profit. An initial $2.4 million in funding has been bolstered by further cash from Airbnb, Sequoia Capital, and the collapsing WeWork. This is not a feminist community center, it’s a for-profit company.

How has The Wing remained buoyant while other coworking companies face uncertain futures? The answer is simple: feminism-lite is profitable. The Wing emerges from a specific moment in the history of capitalism. In previous decades, consumption was directed by the conventional heterosexual family. This household was also the site through which consumer desires were created and mediated. Neoliberalism’s stagnant wages and astronomical rents mean that people put off forming these households: between 1970 and 2017 the median age for marriage rose from 23 for men and 20.8 for women to 29.5 and 27.4, respectively.

By and large, the family has not been replaced by transformative and exciting relationship patterns. It has been postponed as a reality, but remains as a disciplining principle. Capital, however, abhors a vacuum. New units of consumption proliferate in the place of the mid-twentieth-century family. Foremost among these is the “girl gang.” Once a potentially radical collective subjectivity, now a process through which consumer demand is generated and regularized. This is brought to its most extreme formulation in the simultaneous elaboration of sexual desire, selfhood, and friendship all via the commodity in Ariana Grande’s “7 rings”:

Wearing a ring, but ain’t gon’ be no “Mrs.”
Bought matching diamonds for six of my bitches
I’d rather spoil all my friends with my riches

Purchasing decisions are made through these new units of consumption. The Wing and similar spaces create an environment in which companies have a captive, “empowered” audience. The sponsorship deals this women’s club attracts — from Chanel to Sure deodorant — are lucrative for all parties. The project offers a content and segmented market ready and willing to buy, as well as a shot for beauty companies to present themselves as seriously interested in women’s empowerment.

The individual, subjective empowerment that these companies offer is hugely profitable. It’s also a means of a particularly cynical personal advancement. Being an unthreatening feminist, available at any moment to window-dress any company or attract funding for your own, is a profitable endeavor.

The second common defense of The Wing is that it helps some women and doesn’t do any damage to others: while it might exclude certain (poor) women, they’ll say, it does help women more generally. To understand this line of argument, we need to consider what The Wing sees itself as doing. Aside from the networking and business mentoring, there is a consciously political project: commenting on the flurry of women’s organizing since Trump’s election, Audrey Gelman said, “I think what we’re seeing is a kind of women’s renaissance . . . I’d love for The Wing to be the nerve center of that activity.”

Hillary Clinton is central — both as a symbol and as a former employer — to The Wing’s ideological underpinnings. When The Wing was founded in the United States in 2016, one of its first events was a Hillary Clinton phone bank and election results party, to which Audrey Gelman wore a T-shirt saying, “Madame President.” Clinton’s failure radicalized this demographic. Rather than reflecting on the limitations of Clintonite feminism, many of liberal America’s more well-off women jumped into an alternate reality, one in which Clinton only lost because men couldn’t tolerate a powerful woman.

This is a “resistance” without any idea of how power works. It is a resistance that assumes America was fine until 2016. A common idea is that of the online harassment of public women as central to the mechanics of misogyny and male power. This view finds its theoretical elaboration in philosopher Kate Manne’s recent Down Girl. The animosity that a successful, wealthy woman receives is often sexist and troubling, that much is beyond doubt. It often becomes targeted and serious.

However, the idea that men keeping professional women down is the most important or fundamental part of misogyny leaves us without a sense of political understanding. It both overstates the impact of Hillary’s loss on working women — who would likely have benefitted little from her policies — and underestimates the deeper malaise in our politics that produces figures like Trump. There is much more to the mechanics of male power over women than the harassment and disproportionate critique of Powerful Women. This account doesn’t do much to help ordinary women understand the ways in which the odds are stacked against them.

In reality, the rehabilitation of Hillary Clinton as a feminist figure by virtue of little more than her being a woman, and in the face of her complicity in American imperialism and the prison industrial complex, is harmful to the emancipatory possibilities of feminism. The last thing women need is a violent and exploitative status quo being reaffirmed or whitewashed in the name of “girl power.”

The Wing’s feminism is a trickle-down politics of representation. It relies on frankly condescending notions, such as female friendship being a kind of magic: “Wonderful things happen when women are together.” The reality of the long work of feminist organizing is rather different. Friendships between women are often difficult, and those between women who organize politically together are all the more so.

The Wing understands women as pre-politically better than men: they just get things done together, things just work. Of course, there is often something incredibly powerful and generative that comes from women working together for a political goal. But the idea that women are kinder and more loving to each other is neither feminist nor true. It’s a truism that swamps much contemporary feminism, despite the history of feminist thought being full of descriptions of the ways in which socialization and gender norms make women cruel to each other, often in ways intended to be imperceptible to men.

Feminism is not supposed to be easy. It is not well-served by pretending that women always get on with each other and that any differences, political or otherwise, are subsumed in the loving care of another woman complimenting your sassy office attire. The gathering of women together is not necessarily feminist at all, and feminist ideas and practice are not at all served by the assumption that anything a woman does is a possible act of resistance.

The proponents of the kind of feminism we find in The Wing regularly cite Virginia Woolf’s dictum that “a woman must have money and a room of her own.” The AllBright — another women’s coworking space in London — has the quote plastered on its walls. In fact, Kate Manne’s book begins with a passage from Woolf. They suggest that Woolf’s gripe with institutions was their exclusion of women. In fact, Woolf really wanted us to think about the difficulty, even the impossibility, of making existing (male) institutions into feminist ones. The Woolf who wonders whether we should rebuild women’s colleges or burn them down would not recognize herself or her ideas in this politics, which aims to put a new coat of paint on the institutions of the status quo.

The problem of companies like The Wing is not one of exclusion. They are the co-option of feminism to justify oppression, and the loss of feminism as emancipatory vocabulary and movement. The Wing is the theory, Hillary Clinton is the practice.

It is not enough to say that The Wing is only helping some women and this is bad. It is not a remedy to say that we must also focus on other women. We cannot resolve The Wing’s problems by doing better work elsewhere, or encouraging its nice ladies to do the same. This is because the problem with neoliberal feminism is not one of omission. It is that it stabilizes the status quo and justifies exploitation. Women doing their business under pink banners declaring “the future is female” might make someone somewhere a few extra quid. But it should make any serious feminist sick.