NYC probes a women's club for discrimination

NEW YORK (AP) — New York City is investigating whether The Wing, a private club founded as work space and networking hub exclusively for women, violates the city's anti-discrimination law by barring men.

The city's Commission on Human Rights started its probe into the $215-a-month club and co-working space after receiving a tip from a member of the public, commission spokesman Seth Hoy said Thursday.

The inquiry focuses on whether the club, which has three New York City locations and does not permit men as either members or guests, violates the city's public accommodations law, which bans discrimination on the basis of gender, race and other designated categories.

It's too early to tell whether the probe could lead to trouble for the club, which has been growing fast and getting tons of media attention as the nation undergoes a national reckoning, of sorts, about continuing problems with the treatment of women in the workplace.

Karen Dunn, an attorney representing The Wing, said the club isn't violating city or state laws.

"The New York City and state public accommodations laws were tasked with the express purpose of empowering and creating opportunities for women and minorities," Dunn said. "Our mission is in complete alignment with the purpose for which those statutes were passed."

That's apparently also the view of Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat.

"The mayor is fully supportive of The Wing's mission and we are confident the human rights commission and The Wing can work together to ensure the law is being followed so that The Wing can continue to focus on its important work," de Blasio press secretary Eric Phillips said.

New York still does have a few single-gender clubs that aren't covered by the public accommodations law because of their small size. But The Wing, with more than 2,000 members, may not qualify for that exemption.

Suzanne Goldberg, a Columbia University law professor and an expert on gender and sexuality law, said anti-discrimination laws protect men and well as women.

"Anti-discrimination laws don't only protect groups that have experienced histories of discrimination," Goldberg said. "These laws protect everyone from discrimination based on specified aspects of their identity."

The Wing opened its first location in 2016 and now has two sites in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn, with a Washington, D.C. branch set to open next month and more locations in the works.

The club has had a waiting list since before the first location opened, said co-founder Audrey Gelman.

"What that speaks to is the deep yearning of women for spaces like this," Gelman said. Last year's avalanche of sexual harassment allegations against powerful men shows why a club like The Wing is needed, she added.

"With the year that we've had and many of the issues that women have dealt with for centuries around sexual harassment, workplace discrimination, etc.," she said, "it's vital for women to have a space where they can create their own institutions."

Gelman, 30, worked as press aide for Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign and has appeared in her longtime friend Lena Dunham's TV show "Girls."

She and co-founder Lauren Kassan created The Wing as a modern take on the women's clubs of the 19th and early 20th centuries that provided a forum for organizing for suffrage and other causes.

The Wing describes itself as "a coven" and "a home base for women on their way." Its website displays images of millennial women in airy spaces with pastel-colored furniture.

Amenities include Wi-Fi, conference rooms, showers and libraries featuring books by or about women.

The club's magazine, No Man's Land, started publication last fall. Notables like actress Jennifer Lawrence and journalist Christiane Amanpour have given talks and appeared on panels at The Wing.

The original women's clubs arose at a time when many organizations and public spaces excluded women. Fewer doors are closed to women now, but the question of whether institutions and organizations should bar one gender or the other remains unresolved.

When Harvard University moved to ban single-sex clubs in 2016, traditionalists mourned the loss of all-male clubs while some female students worried that the ban would target "spaces for women."

Gelman and Kassan raised $2.4 million to open the first location and have raised $40 million from investors since then, including $32 million from the shared-workspace company WeWork.

Hoy said he could not provide details of the investigation or say when the commission plans to meet with representatives of The Wing.