Women’s clubs have long existed, and in various forms – from organisations that maintained networks of abortion providers in the USA, or founded schools and libraries for their pioneer communities; to the University Club for Ladies, which opened in London in the late 1800s, when having attended higher education was still a subversive move for women. But over the course of the 20th Century, women’s clubs fell out of favour, as a lot of the old fashioned groups focussed increasingly on social events and hobby-craft. The revolutionary work was achieved increasingly through unions and protest groups, and it’s only more recently that the club tradition has been reignited as a space to do and discuss work. Here, we profile some of the leading lights in the contemporary working women’s club tradition, who vary in form and style but share the mutual goal of world takeover.
Having worked with Photo London and Frieze, Joanna Payne realised she had a wealth of talented friends working either in galleries and museums or on their own art practice, and decided to bring them together. “It started in my living room, just me getting all my friends together for some wine and crisps. I was surprised by how many people came, but it was lovely and I wanted to make it a rolling thing.”
A friend of Payne’s was due to host the next event in her living room, but had to pull out at the last minute: “I phoned around for a venue and Cafe Royale very kindly offered to host us,” she recalls. “It was a Monday night and there was no talk or programme for the evening, which had been fine at my house, but it didn’t have a particular warmth or energy to it. So after that, we started hosting events at artist’s studios, which is what I’d been doing with Frieze and Photo London – organising special, engaging experiences.”
“If you create an environment where people are engaged in something compelling and intimate, that’s when they really start talking to each other” Joanna Payne
And it is this which formed the basis for the events programme of Marguerite, as the former ‘wine and crisps’ hang-out was duly christened in January 2016. “We still didn’t realise what it would become. It had taken its own direction, and I could see the benefits arising from bringing these women together – the projects that came out of it, and the friendships that were forming.”
A turning point came about when Payne met Assemble’s Joe Halligan at a party. “He very kindly agreed to host a studio visit, and the RSVPs for that rolled in and gathered so much attention. So many people, who weren’t necessarily my friends, but friends of friends of friends came; and it was then that I thought ‘oh, we could do this properly’. If you create an environment where people are engaged in something compelling and intimate, that’s when they really start talking to each other.”
Since then Payne has organised talks with and visits to hear the likes of Julia Peyton-Jones, Gregor Muir, Rankin and Valeria Napoleone; all events focused on achieving an equal weighting between being informative and fun. “Our events always a have a formal element to them. They’re not something to fly by; we want our members to want to stay and build relationships – genuine friendships that allow you to call that person up late at night in a panic because you need help with a deadline. It’s about being part of a community that you make a contribution to.”
Marguerite was formally launched in November 2016, and its membership has grown to include an age range from 20-something to 50-something, and professions from assistant to director. Payne’s next move is to diversify the programme: “We want to include design, architecture, fashion and performance as well as more traditional fine art practice. They all have a common thread and we want our members to meet people they wouldn’t necessarily come across in their day-to-day. It makes the range of events more exciting, and it’ll facilitate learning.”
The new year will also see the launch of Guggenheim Jeune, a group Payne has named after Peggy Guggenheim’s first gallery – as well as ‘jeune’ meaning ‘young’. “It’s not necessarily aimed at young women, but women who are new to the arts,” she says. “It’s difficult if you’ve just moved to London on a starting salary, or you don’t have a ‘model’ for creative careers. We’ll have Marguerite members hosting events for Jeune too, so it’ll be an opportunity to build relationships both within and across each group. Marguerite is about establishing a positive environment where women can float above bitchiness and competition and help each other out. It’s so much more productive.”
Otegha Uwagba established Women Who in July 2016 as a platform for creative working women, inspired by her own experiences. “It was really a combination of factors, of things that I’m inspired by and passionate about: women, work and creativity,” she explains. “And people say really nice things about Women Who, but it’s actually a selfish endeavour; it’s exactly what I want to be doing.”
Uwagba had the idea of establishing a community for women working in the creative industries a year or so before, but work got in the way. “At the end of 2015 I left to go freelance, to allow myself more flexibility and to pursue new projects. It was then that I properly started thinking about Women Who, and around February of this year I hunkered down, did loads of planning and writing, and then launched it in July.”
The community launched with a panel discussion on creativity and commerce, and the Little Black Book, written and published by Uwagba. “The response to the book has been insane. I hadn’t expected it at all, but the initial print run of 250 sold out in two days. It’s all stuff I’ve got right and things I fucked up – from negotiating payrises and overcoming creative block, to public speaking and effective networking. I had lots of other women contributing ideas too, it was great to put together.”
“Women Who is essentially replicating what I’ve always done with my friends,” says Uwagba. “We’d talk about problems at work, how to deal with them and then it just became clear we should be doing that on a bigger scale. It’s all I think about, it’s all I talk about, so why not?” Since the launch, Uwagba has hosted events including forums on demystifying money and making your own job, as well as establishing an online ‘Toolkit’ – with interviews, guides on to maximise productivity or sleep better, places to work and how to beat the mid-afternoon slump.
“Working as a freelancer can be lonely, and there’s no hierarchy, so how do you develop your career? How do you get promotions?” Otegha Uwagba
She hopes to demystify working life through Women Who. “Working as a freelancer can be lonely, and there’s no hierarchy, so how do you develop your career? How do you get promotions? How do you decide when to increase your rates? Unfortunately the working world isn’t a meritocracy, and you need to find ways to make yourself stand out and make it happen.”
Another myth Uwagba doesn’t buy into is that women don’t work well together: “It’s the opposite of my experience, and Women Who is proof of that. Buying into that myth is self sabotage –there isn’t just one seat at the table.”
Jo Duncombe and Saskia Roddick set up The Quarter Club in response to a shared frustration with the myriad struggles of freelance life. “You have no fixed roots, no HR department, no network for support – all whilst having to spin multiple plates at a time,” they explain. “This came to a head for us at the tail-end of 2014, and we were struck by the fact that there wasn’t an obvious place to turn to for support – particularly somewhere that married a focus on personal and professional development.”
Meanwhile, the internet was spouting a predominately negative dialogue surrounding the notion of the ‘quarter-life crisis’. “Numerous articles were focusing on the shortcomings of our generation, diagnosing the problems as opposed to offering any solutions. And the potential solutions that were available either spoke in a corporate voice that jarred with our own, or were completely unaffordable. So we turned to eachother for support, and then to the women around us who were working in similar environments, and who we discovered were experiencing the same anxieties as us. It was incredibly empowering, both to work together to resolve our anxieties and to realise that we were surrounded by brilliant women doing brilliant things. So we set up The Quarter Club as a space to enable women to get together to share stories, inspire and collaborate, with a focus on creating an environment that was also conducive to having a bloody good time.”
“There has to be a focus on sisterhood and collectivism. We want to explore the importance of community as a force for empowerment and positive social change” Jo Duncombe and Saskia Roddick
They launched with a series of supper clubs at their shared flat, “we’d get a group of women who didn’t know each other round the table, and each night connections would spark, numbers were swapped and partnerships took shape.” Since then Duncombe and Roddick have moulded The Quarter Club around the format of the salon. “Each quarter we work with a different theme, inspired by the ideas and needs of our network. Having a focus encourages conversation; it’s never restrictive but acts as an ice-breaker. We launched with ‘Courage’, which felt pretty apt as we’d taken the leap from the safe space of our dinner table to committing to booking a space and running an event, which we had no idea would work or that people would attend. But every event so far has sold out, which proves that there is an appetite for creative women to find a community that balances the need for professional and personal support.” The group’s salons have been pinned to ideas surrounding the themes of ‘Balance’, ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘Decision’, and in January 2017 the next quarter will launch with a salon on ‘Power’. “It definitely feels like now more than ever – in the current political climate and harsh Trump reality – there has to be a focus on sisterhood and collectivism. We want to explore the importance of community as a force for empowerment and positive social change.”
Founded by Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan in October 2016, The Wing is a home base for women on their way – “a place that helps prepare women to do battle in the outside world,” its founders explain. Located on New York’s ‘Ladies Mile’, their members include counter-terrorism analysts, foreign policy advisors and violinists from the Metropolitan Opera, as well as writers, actors and activists. Gelman describes the starting goal as “fitting as many amenities as possible under one roof, with the spatial constraints of 3500 square feet”.
“We wanted plenty of flexible workspace, but also room for the conveniences that are of particular importance to women,” she explains. “We so often have to pretend like getting out the door looking decent is an effortless process. I hate the word effortless! It often takes a lot of effort to get me to do something as simple as take a shower. So we wanted to create infrastructure to make it easier to simultaneously be leading a conference call or finishing a presentation while making sure your hair looks the way you want it to.”
The Wing is a hive of productivity. “It’s so easy to get distracted in the office or as a freelancer at home and the pre-Happy Hour vibe at The Wing is defined by dozens of women peacefully and systematically making a dent in their to-do lists.” But that hasn’t meant missing out on building relationships: “One of the most fulfilling parts of starting The Wing is seeing new friendships form around common values and interests,” says Gelman. “It’s extraordinarily hard, even with the hyper-connectedness of the internet, to make adult friends. Three quarters of our members say they are using the space to meet new women. That could mean a potential creative collaborator, a professional contact or just simply a new person to see movies with.”
“In a new reality where there is a growing tolerance and normalisation of misogyny, spaces exclusively for women are more important than ever” Audrey Gelman
Having launched just prior to the US election, The Wing has already proved its mettle as a true home base, opening its doors to the women of New York as the results rolled in. “The original concept of The Wing felt triumphant at a time when we were optimistic about the chance of electing the first woman president. Now, it feels more protective. It doesn’t change our mission but only reinforces it and our conviction to grow. In a new reality where there is a growing tolerance and normalisation of misogyny, spaces exclusively for women are more important than ever.”
The Working Women’s Club was established by London-born and (at the time) Los Angeles-based, Phoebe Lovatt in 2015. A platform and community for women working in the creative industries, The WW Club was originally inspired by her “crew of friends in London – an exceptionally brilliant, ambitious, and inspiring group of women who I was lucky enough to meet in my early 20s.” Now based in New York, when Lovatt moved to LA at the age of 24 she “really felt the loss of this support network, and decided to try to create a space for women to connect in a similar way,” she explains.
“Around the same time, I’d produced The Handbook for Women Who Do Creative Work as a passion project, and The WW Club was in some ways a a launchpad for that. I created a pop-up co-work and event space in Downtown LA in January 2015 to launch and sell the book, and from there the concept took on a life of its own. I now host events in cities around the world, and also create lots of content (newsletters, blog posts, a podcast) for women which I share via the website.”
Lovatt always saw The WW Club as an international concept. “It makes sense to broaden the reach as far as possible, given that the Internet has provided the tools for us to do so. My members and supporters are united by their outlook and sense of ambition; not necessarily their geographical location. My goal is to take the information, contacts, and resources that women in major global cities are lucky enough to have access to, and spread them far and wide. The WW Club is open to anyone who shares a sense of ambition, positivity, and hustle.”
“Women have a much more holistic perception of success – it’s rare that we feel successful if our home lives and health are suffering” Phoebe Lovatt
The WW Club programme ranges from advice on logistics and discussions on the look of LA, to self-care and cocktail hours. “I think women have a much more holistic perception of success – it’s rare that we feel successful if our home lives and health are suffering. As such, I’ve always tried to incorporate a broad range of personal advice alongside the professional and financial stuff. When it comes to events, I want the experiences to be as enjoyable as possible, so it’s important that they take place in aesthetically pleasing environments, and that everything from food and drink to music is well thought-out. I don’t want to go to some depressing talk in a neon-lit conference room, and I’m sure my members don’t either.”