Recoveries and Reconsiderations: Feminist Coworking Spaces as New Sites for Feminist Rhetorical Inquiry

Recoveries and Reconsiderations: Feminist Coworking Spaces as New Sites for Feminist Rhetorical Inquiry

Peitho Volume 24, Issue 24 Fall

Author(s): Jaclyn Fiscus-Cannaday

Jaclyn Fiscus-Cannaday is an Assistant Professor of English at Florida State University. She earned her PhD from the University of Washington—Seattle, and specializes in feminist, antiracist, and multimodal composition theory and pedagogy. Her work has appeared in Composition Forum and Composition Studies.  

Abstract: In this Recoveries and Reconsiderations article, I present feminist coworking spaces as a new area of inquiry for feminist rhetoricians, mapping the topoi of why these feminist coworking spaces exist—community, inclusivity, and empowerment—to provide insight into future feminist research related to each topos. I conclude with lingering questions about the extent to which these spaces might give insight into how to use classrooms and other university settings to create equitable, inclusive work environments for undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty.

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I walked into The Riveter, a coworking space “built by women for everyone,” and took a deep, calming breath as natural light poured in from the floor to ceiling windows that made up one wall of the two-story, loft-like space. I felt a sense of relief as I took the tour of their flagship location, realizing that the combination of a supportive community and inclusive-oriented space could be the jumpstart I needed for my dissertation. Though I had finished data collection a month before, a combination of anxiety, depression, and imposter syndrome had paralyzed my writing progress; I needed a change of pace. The Riveter, my tour guide explained, approaches coworking spaces differently, re-imagining the working body as a woman. She pointed out things that are purposefully designed to empower working women: artwork of women by women, conference rooms named after feminists, bathrooms with free menstrual products, showers with cruelty free products and blow-dryers, a yoga studio available for personal use and classes, healthy snacks and sparkling water, a meditation room, etc. As we walked from the main floor—an open concept kitchen, community tables, call rooms, and conference spaces—to the lower level—individual and small group offices, community couches, a kitchenette, meditation room, a yoga room—I realized that this was the first workspace where I felt like I belong, like the space was designed with my needs in mind. In the next three months of dissertation writing, fueled by engaging conversations with members, inspiring self-care classes, and energizing meditation and yoga breaks, I became enamored with a space that felt so completely made for me—and interested in how I could replicate its strengths when I returned to the university setting. But, now, as I sit writing this article, considering how coworking spaces like The Riveter might be a new site for feminist rhetorical inquiry, I wonder: would I have felt that deep sense of belonging at the Riveter if I was a woman of color, of a different socioeconomic background, or inhabiting a differently abled body?[1]   

My experience at The Riveter led me investigate what I have identified as “feminist coworking spaces,” or the growing collection of coworking spaces that are designed to support the needs of working women and their allies. I identify them as feminist, which I interpret as the “movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (hooks 1). I conducted this preliminary research in the hopes that I might better understand how to change my pedagogy to be more inclusive—and to advocate for the thoughtful design of spaces on our college campus. Though the coworking spaces I identify in this project often invoke feminist rhetorics of women empowerment, equity, and access, the vast majority do not self-identify as explicitly “feminist.” Therefore, I adopt Royster and Kirsch’s methodology of “critical imagination,” looking for feminist activity “in places at which we have not looked seriously or methodically before” (72) by considering how some niche coworking spaces function as incubators for feminist activity.   

Rhetoricians have studied coworking spaces (Spinuzzi, “Working Alone Together”; Spinuzzi et al) and workplaces more broadly (Spinuzzi, “All Edge”), along with the rhetorical practices of working women (Applegarth; Enoch; Gold; Jack; Skinner; Wells) and work-related rhetorics more broadly (Hallenbeck and Smith)—but none to date have considered the rhetorics of spaces that I identify as “feminist coworking spaces,” or coworking spaces that name and practice values of bell hooks’ interpretation of feminism in their conceptualization and design[2]. These coworking spaces are important sites of inquiry for rhetorical feminists because they can give more insight into the way feminism can imbue the rhetorics of a workplace while providing models that can inspire the design of our classroom and university workplace settings. Rhetorical feminists have done the important work of acknowledging how “work, workspaces, and work training are extremely important dimensions of the rhetorical life of women” (Hallenbeck and Smith 206), but work-related rhetorics remain an under-represented area of inquiry in feminist rhetorics and coworking spaces have yet to be studied by feminist rhetoricians. In this Recoveries and Reconsiderations article, I present feminist coworking spaces as a new area of inquiry for feminist rhetorics, mapping the topoi of why these feminist coworking spaces exist— community, inclusivity, and empowerment—while giving insight into future research related to each topos. I conclude with lingering questions about the extent to which these spaces might give insight into how to use classrooms and other university settings to create equitable work environments for undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty.  

Feminist Coworking Spaces: A New Site of Inquiry  

Because of the increasing need for office space that caters to remote employees, start-up companies with limited employees, and freelancers, coworking spaces are the newest iteration of office space (Davis, Sundararajan); they are “shared working environments in which independent knowledge workers gather to create knowledge and benefit from it” (Spinuzzi et al. 113), or put more simply, a place where people gather to “work alone together” (Spinuzzi 229). Coworking spaces first emerged in 2005, beginning with a space in San Francisco that Brad Neuberg created as a way for independent workers to gather in a community to work (Jones et al.). The number of coworking spaces has grown rapidly since 2005 with 15,500 coworking sites reported in 2017  (2018 Coworking Forecast) and a projected growth to 40,000 coworking spaces worldwide by 2024 (Global Coworking Growth Study 2020).[3] Though there are no demographic statistics available of who makes up the population of coworkers, the general coworking population is typically thought of as white and male; though, the “overall population of freelance workers is growing…with black workers making up just under four percent of that population of both incorporated and unincorporated self-employed workers” (Dorsey). In 2020, only 14% of U.S.-based coworking spaces were black-owned, but “black women, for example, are currently the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in America—so are spaces for them” (Garrett). Though coworking owners are predominantly white, black-owned coworking spaces are a growing group of coworking spaces, and they tend to be located in diverse neighborhoods and designed to support people of color’s needs and interests (Wingard).  

As coworking spaces have become more popular, some owners have chosen to design and cater to a specific interest or demographic like women, working parents, the LGBTQ community, or artists—creating an influx of niche coworking spaces that “some feel are the future of coworking because of the other services they offer” (Coworking Resources). In 2011, Herahub emerged as the first international women-only coworking space, and other coworking spaces quickly emerged. One such U.S.-based women-only coworking space, The Wing, has gotten so popular that its members are well-known in their industries, its social media following attracts the likes of modern feminist icons, and its community events attract presidential candidates (Riley); journalists have gone so far to suggest The Wing, and other coworking spaces like it, function like a modern-day version of women’s clubs (North and Lieber). Feminist rhetoricians are uniquely poised to consider historical archives alongside artifacts of these coworking spaces to consider the validity of these claims—and I encourage future researchers to consider that noteworthy project. This Recoveries and Reconsiderations project serves as a mere conversation starter to this topic of feminist coworking spaces: I introduce feminist rhetoricians to coworking spaces as a site of inquiry while illuminating the topoi for why feminist coworking spaces exist so that we might emulate their successes in our own feminist pedagogies.   

To do this research, I began by investigating U.S.-based coworking spaces that limit membership to women allies[4]. Though all of the coworking spaces I have selected for this study name and practice values of feminism, it is important to recognize that not all of these coworking spaces are indeed successful at their goals at embodying intersectional feminism[5]. The Wing, for example, has functioned as a safe haven for many working women worldwide and has diversity and inclusion initiatives—and yet is often critiqued as elitist and overwhelmingly white, with racist behavior reported from members of colors (Reghay). LC Johnson, founder of Zora’s House (a black-owned, women-owned feminist coworking space in Central Ohio) whose website proclaims it helps women of color and their allies “to live their best lives and do their best work” argues that coworking spaces can function as what she calls “fourth places” or “a community gathering space that centers the ideas and identities of a particularly marginalized group” (Johnson). In her TED Talk, Johnson discusses how she hopes that Zora’s House and spaces like it will help alleviate what she calls the “brain drain,” or the mental energy subconsciously used from POC who are the only (or the few) in the room—mental energy that could be used innovating. Therefore this article specifically includes research on the budding group of U.S.-located, black-owned feminist coworking spaces found through researching each of The Plug’s List of Black Co-Working Spaces to find the women-owned coworking spaces (Blackbird, Browngirl Project, Camp Workspace, Ethel’s Club, and Zora’s House), along with sampling twelve U.S.-located feminist leaning coworking spaces found through researching women-owned and women-only coworking spaces (AllBright, Circle+Moon, EvolveHer, HeraHub, Sesh, The Assembly, The Coven, The Hivery, The Perlene, The Riveter, The Treasury, and The Wing). Upon selecting these 17 sites, I modeled my methodology after work-related rhetoricians Sarah Hallenbeck and Michelle Smith, who used topoi to trace reasonings for why people work, and developed new topoi to describe the lines of argument for why these feminist coworking spaces emerged, using the homepages and “about us” sections on the seventeen coworking websites. Preliminary findings suggest that feminist coworking spaces use the following topoi: community, inclusivity, and empowerment. To better situate my findings with the lived experiences of people designing and working within those spaces, I then surveyed leaders and/or members of the different feminist coworking spaces from the list above. The next section details my findings, while suggesting lingering questions that feminist rhetoricians might take up in future research.  

Tracing Rhetorical Topoi and Considering Implications

Research shows that community in coworking spaces are “driven by the logic of the market” (Spinuzzi et al, 133), and coworking spaces are built as places for solo-workers to gather “with an explicit purpose of social belonging” (Garrett et al. 822). At feminist coworking spaces, community seems to be for more than “social belonging” but for empowerment. Preliminary analysis suggests that what sets feminist coworking spaces apart is how they define community (as inclusive)—and what they hope that community will help folks do (empower women). The Treasury, for example, markets themselves as “a community of women who believe we are successful when we support each other,” which indicates that the community is for networking and sharing expertise so the community as a whole can succeed. The Coven explains, “We hold space for the magic women, non-binary and trans folks create when they come together as their whole-selves” (The Coven). In their mission, we see a commitment to an inclusive community— in the hopes that the collaboration between members will lead to “magic,” or the betterment of themselves (and perhaps others).   

Black-owned coworking spaces, in particular, “[center] access and cultural consciousness” (Martinez), and initial findings indicate that feminism imbues black-owned, women-owned coworking spaces. The New Women’s Space announces, “We envision a world where all people—regardless of their color, culture, gender identity, expression or presentation— are affirmed with dignity, respect and are given abundant access to the resources and opportunities they need to prosper and thrive”and Brown Girl Project’s about us section explains, “For Black women, community is often paramount as we navigate life in predominantly white, and inherently anti-Black, spaces” (Brown Girl Project). For these coworking spaces, community empowers women in the coworking space but also works to uplift the broader neighborhood or the WOC community more generally. Given that feminist coworking spaces have not been studied by rhetoricians yet, I posit more research into these topoi of community, inclusivity, and empowerment at feminist coworking spaces could complicate findings about the purpose of community and collaboration in coworking spaces. Feminist rhetoricians could gain insight into how the rhetorics of feminism shape the rhetorics of community and collaboration in a workplace.  

Feminist coworking spaces support community-building by organizing collaborative activities like mentorship events, self-help workshops, or online message boards that are central to the coworking space (Shaver et al.). In interviews, many members suggested that feminist practitioners should employ similar tactics in their classrooms by “fostering inspiration through collaboration” and creating “event-based activities” where students could learn from each other and/or invited community members. This suggestion to make collaboration central to pedagogy makes sense; fifteen of the seventeen feminist coworking spaces that I researched offer a membership for people who do not need the coworking space, but still want access to the in person and/or virtual community. Though feminist rhetoricians have already suggested “horizontal mentoring” as useful for professionalization in university settings (VanHaitsma and Ceraso), perhaps more research into the success of feminist coworking spaces’ mentoring could give even more insight into how to better institute formalized community mentoring.   

The kind of community that feminist coworking sites strive to curate are inclusive, leading me to locate the second topos as “inclusivity.” Though feminist coworking spaces intend to be inclusive, I am not trying to suggest that they always succeed in that goal. Feminist rhetoricians can and should do more research into the membership of these feminist coworking spaces when investigating this topos further: we should research the demographic diversity of these self-proclaimed inclusive coworking spaces’ membership and compare to other coworking spaces without an inclusivity commitment and/or to companies of similar size. As another leadership interviewee explained, she was a member of a women-only coworking space and “quickly learned that [she] was not their target audience,” so she decided to open her coworking space because “women, especially women of color need to feel empowered, seen, supported, and safe.”  Feminist coworking spaces clearly indicate their goal of inclusivity; for example, Ethel’s Club’s promises of “no ‘-ists,’ ‘-isms,’ or ‘-phobias,” and The Riveter’s proclamations that “equity of opportunity should be a reality, not a promise” (The Riveter). Though this move towards inclusivity is a purposeful choice, only one of the seventeen spaces listed accessibility specifications for differently abled folks. It seems, instead, like the main focus is on diversity as it pertains to race, culture, sexuality, and gender-expression. As one leadership interviewee explained, “coworking spaces generally, much like academic spaces, have been critiqued as white-washed spaces—and with their kegs and ping pong tables, it was just another boys club.  

We’re hoping to do something different; something where folks who are underrepresented and othered in the workforce—like people of color or LGBT or gender non-conforming folks—might find a safe and supportive environment.” Member interviewees valued inclusive workspaces so much that they suggested, we, in our role as teachers, could “[bring] in a diverse set of practitioners to speak to students to foster discussion” and “[create] spaces that are both independent and collaborative [because it] allows for people with different abilities to be comfortable.” Because office space design reflects industry and workplace values (Ashkanasy et al.), we could also consider how the spatial rhetorics of feminist coworking spaces are indeed inclusive of both the needs of their intended membership population and the population that the coworking space actually attracted. For example, efficiency and cost-saving values are present in cubicle set ups while networked-thought is valued in office space with movable furniture (Dennis). A spatial rhetorical analysis of feminist coworking spaces could help illuminate if the projected value of inclusivity was one echoed in the spaces’ design—or if other values seem to be indicated. Though universal design might be outside of our traditional purview as feminist rhetoricians, it raises the question of whether feminist rhetoricians might lobby for more inclusive classroom and university workspace design.  

Feminist coworking spaces often tied their missions to a topos can be broadly defined as empowerment. For example, Blackbird claims that “creating positive change in the world requires a balanced approach to life and work,” and Camp Workspace shares a quote from the founder, stating “The mission is simple: to create a world where people understand their influence, and know that it can be used to sustain their lifestyle and help them accomplish their wildest dreams.” This attention to the relationship between self-actualization and community activism might be an interesting site of inquiry for those interested in shifting topoi of work-related rhetorics. Further research into this topos might help us understand the growing trends of healthy food in workplaces, gym-membership discounts, and onsite child care—and the rhetorics that surround them. Perhaps popularized rhetorics of self-care have become intertwined with work-related rhetorics. It certainly seems to be the case in these coworking spaces, who claim to support both “working and personal lives” (Sesh) with one feminist coworking space going so far as calling itself a “wellness club” (The Assembly) rather than a coworking space. Perhaps feminist rhetoricians could consider the extent to which these spaces attention on self-care and community-activism does indeed contribute to the empowerment of the members and the surrounding community.   

Though these topoi are new contributions to rhetorical feminist scholarship, the seventeen coworking spaces that I investigated for these preliminary findings are not comprehensive of the multitude of feminist coworking spaces that exist, and therefore the topoi presented and research suggestions are merely preliminary findings presented to inspire conversation and future research. I am hopeful feminist rhetoricians will take up the multiple projects I have suggested: archival projects considering the connection between women’s clubs and feminist coworking spaces; case studies that consider the extent to which feminist coworking spaces are the inclusive, empowering workplaces they claim to be; rhetorical analysis of how feminist coworking space’s community events shift national and local conversations about women’s issues, mental health, and politics in work places. Regardless of what kinds of research projects ensue, I project that future research into feminist coworking spaces might have important ramifications for feminist pedagogy, much like how research in makerspaces has influenced composition pedagogy (Kaupf), along with implications for workplace design in our university settings. Research studies on feminist coworking spaces has the potential to be a robust area of scholarship, and I look forward to the ways that research about feminist coworking spaces will contribute to feminist rhetorical scholarship, and in turn our pedagogies and workspaces. 

End notes

[1]I am indebted to a reviewer of this article, whose critical questions about my experience at The Riveter as being so comfortable because of the body I inhabit, helped me consider this question. This reviewer not only shifted my thoughts about why I felt comfortable in this space, but also re-shaped the scope of this project, making the discussion of race and class at the forefront of the analysis in this Recoveries and Reconsiderations article.  

[2]When I use “feminism” in this essay, I draw from bell hooks’ commonly cited interpretation of feminism that I cite earlier: “Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (1).  

[3]Though Covid-19 has affected the coworking industry and caused some to close their doors, many have shifted to lower capacity protocols or digital memberships that incorporate online networking and virtual events to remain in business.  

[4]For the sake of brevity, I narrowed my sites to coworking spaces that had U.S. locations (perhaps in addition to other European locations), but future research can and should be done on feminist coworking spaces with attention to a more representative global sampling. Feminist coworking spaces are a global phenomenon.

[5]Like the feminist movement in general, the feminism that is practiced in coworking spaces can be flawed. Some of the coworking spaces can attract and work best for white, upper-class, able-bodied, neurotypical women. I chose to study them anyway because they do try to function as intersectional feminists: they value diversity and try to support it by having scholarship options for members; invite speakers of color and/or inhabiting queer and differently abled bodies; and work hard to listen to their members to fix their accidental but still not excusable incidents of racism, classism, homophobia, or discrimination.   

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