This post is part of a CityLab series on open secrets—stories about what’s hiding in plain sight.
The Sulgrave Club is an elite women’s organization that has occupied its location—a tan brick mansion in the tony Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Dupont Circle—since 1932. That year, the widow of a millionaire gentleman farmer from upstate New York, who earlier in the century had used the house as her winter residence, sold it to a group of similarly privileged D.C. women for their new club.
Inside, all is tastefully upholstered in pale greens, yellows, and subdued floral patterns. Large spaces, including a ballroom, and smaller chambers with couches and chairs arranged for conversation, serve, as the website notes, as “the perfect backdrop for important social occasions.” The club also hosts talks on gardening and architecture, and members and their guests—female or male—can stay overnight in well-appointed rooms.
Women’s clubs first arose in the mid-19th century, when women were looking for outlets to gain influence. “They didn’t have anywhere else to go to obtain a sense of power and connectivity,” says Diana Kendall, a professor of sociology at Baylor University and author of Members Only: Elite Clubs and the Process of Exclusion.
White women of the leisure class formed clubs such as Sorosis and the New England Women’s Club. These organizations aimed to better women through the study of such subjects as history and literature, but they also sought to advance society. Members worked, for instance, to establish libraries and parks, improve housing, and secure immigrants’ rights. Upper-middle-class black women formed their own clubs in the late 19th century with similar goals, as well as the mission to help black women who were less fortunate.
The Sulgrave and its sister clubs throughout the United States—such as the Colony Club in New York City, the Chilton Club in Boston, and the Francisca Club in San Francisco—were generally founded a little later, in the early 20th century. Though they had and continue to have such programming as lectures and concerts, they are more recreational and social than educational and public-spirited—think urban country clubs. Some feature athletic facilities: the Colony Club, for example, houses an indoor swimming pool, squash court, and spa.
These establishments form a network of “reciprocal” clubs, through which members and their guests can enjoy meals and stay overnight in similar spaces in other cities. Like the Sulgrave, they occupy prime real estate. The Colony Club consumes a large chunk of a Park Avenue block on the Upper East Side, the Chilton Club is located on a block of Commonwealth Avenue in Back Bay, and the Francisca Club sits in a corner lot in Lower Nob Hill.
Some of these clubs have shuttered in recent years, such as the Sulgrave’s main D.C. competitor, the Washington Club,which closed in 2014 due to financial troubles and declining membership. In 2015, Washingtonian magazine published an article chronicling how the city’s stuffy clubs were lowering their standards with relaxed dress codes, fitness rooms, and even half-price hamburgers to attract new members, particularly the younger set.
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Yet Kendall believes these establishments aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Club membership, she says, often passes from one generation to the next. (Though friends can also bring a person into the fold, the process is laborious. “Family legacy carries more weight,” she says.) The Sulgrave and similar clubs thus continue to help facilitate the social reproduction of the white upper class.
For younger women in particular, Kendall says, being a member “is about learning how to behave in that milieu—how to go to parties, be a debutante, or make useful social connections.” Those connections, she adds, “can help members’ children, for instance, get into certain schools. This will likely spur them to stay involved.” (The Sulgrave Club did not respond to requests for an interview.)
This milieu, though, is a pretty small one. And new clubs marketed specifically to Millennials have come on the scene, billing themselves as exclusive, but not as bastions for upper class WASPs. Rather, they aim to attract members who are professional, creative, and “diverse.”
Magnises, for instance, is a virtual club that, through an app, provides exclusive access to happy hours, Beyoncé concerts, and the like in New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Others, such as Select and Founders Card, offer similar services through credit-card-style membership cards. Bloomberg notes that these clubs aim to “recruit diverse members at the top of their respective fields.” And Audrey Gelman, the co-founder of New York’s women’s-only social club and co-working space The Wing, toldThe Cut that she recruits “by racial and cultural diversity [and] career diversity.” The Wing is opening three new locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and D.C.
Time will tell whether privileged Millennial women will go for these new types of more inclusive—yet still selective—clubs, or if they’ll stick with (or aspire to) old-school exclusivity. The fate of the Sulgrave and its sister organizations likely depend on it.