Growing up as a young woman means that you are constantly on display. Everywhere you go — at school, at the grocery store, at volleyball practice, at church, at the pool, even at home — you are always open to critique, comments or questioning related to your body.
If it’s not, “Smile honey,” it’s, “Those pants are NOT flattering” or “Your bra strap is showing” or “Why do you have a ‘lesbian’ haircut?” And especially after the transition to young adulthood — though some girls experience this even before puberty — people view you through the lens of attractiveness. Whether it’s the creepy guy scanning you up and down at the gas station or the “I bet boys are all over you” comment at large family gatherings, your existence is always in proximity to the male gaze.
It’s not just men who do this to women, though. One of the biggest scams of the patriarchy is the system in which women are punished for breaking gender norms. Some women feel it is their duty to police other women according to those patriarchal norms. For many young women, it is often older (and more conservative, by way of their age) women who push notions of what is and is not “acceptable” in public. This creates an environment where women — young women especially — experience criticism from all angles, doubly so if you are a woman of color, LGBTQIA+, differently abled, etc.
It can be maddening, heartbreaking and downright rage-inducing to constantly field gendered and often sexist ridicule. Of course, the real solution to sexism is to dismantle the white supremacist heteropatriarchy, but what about right now?
In Fall 2016, The Wing, a community and co-working space designated for women, opened in New York City. Founder of The Wing, Audrey Gelman, developed the idea for a space just for women after spending her birthday at a girls-only party, realizing the importance of “ladies’ nights” for women.
Eventually, Gelman partnered with Lauren Kassan to open The Wing after finding that other co-working spaces couldn’t offer what they were looking for. Though they take inspiration from early women’s clubs in the 19th and 20th centuries, Gelman and Kassen make inclusivity a priority by encouraging trans and non-binary folks, people of color and low-income women to apply for membership, even offering a scholarship to ensure it is accessible for everyone.
Partly for socializing and partly for working, The Wing offers much more than a typical work space, including events with speakers like politician Hillary Clinton or actress Kerry Washington, blowouts, showers, lactation rooms, a cafe and a daycare for women with children. Since the success of the first space in Soho, New York, the company has expanded to six other locations, including Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, and plans to open in five other cities including Chicago, London and Toronto, making a total of eleven Wings.
More than the amenities and chic decor, the Wing offers a space for women to exist outside all the ways in which women are marginalized. It’s not just about making a safe space for women, though. It’s about making a space where women are celebrated and can celebrate each other. A space for women allows women to create community through socializing with and supporting one another.
Gelman told business magazine Fast Company, “The air feels different when it’s only women. The atmosphere is incredibly warm, there’s an absence of competition or snark or cattiness. Everyone is just really excited to be here and to meet new people.”
I know the feeling, especially at the University of Michigan. I am a double major in Political Science and Women’s Studies, and I’m sure you can guess which classes are mostly women and which are not. In contrast to my male-dominated political science classes, my women’s studies classes are not just different in content but different in atmosphere. There is less tension in the air. People are friendly, understanding and supportive. No one interrupts you or mansplains to you. No one invades your personal space while pretending to be clueless about the whole thing. Everyone is considerate and professional. It is less a matter of social bonding and more a matter of just being treated like a human being.
It is difficult to articulate in words, like really any feeling is, but I feel a sense of comfort, a sense of ease in my bones when I am learning surrounded by women. I am no longer on display. I am no longer expected to perform — or risk punishment for breaking — social norms that cater to men. I can relax — opening myself up to new possibilities for learning, understanding and engaging.
There are also concrete learning benefits for women in all-female spaces. Nilanjana Dasgupta, a Psychological and Brain Sciences professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, found that first-year women engineering students, “participate more actively” and “feel less anxious” when they are in mostly female or gender-equal groups.
An all-female work space would not be disrupting the many benefits of a co-ed university, such as a wider range of perspectives and the opportunity to learn to work in teams with other genders. An all-female work space at the University, inclusive of any female-identifying person, would simply, but notably, allow female students in a work environment free from gendered pressures and expectations, a place they can be re-energized in their academic pursuits by other women. Specifically, this space might take inspiration from The Wing by holding events centered around celebrating women and their achievements through hosting speakers or educational and social events, which would elevate the space from just being a refuge to being a space for empowerment.
College life outside of academic pursuits can be a soup of young people riddled with freedom, hormones and alcohol who are looking for hookups. A place for young female students to escape, to live even for just a few hours outside of the world that constantly undermines and undervalues their existence, would be transformative.
Marisa Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.