by Anna Hart, The Telegraph, March 19, 2018
Ever since my miserable school years at an all-girl comprehensive in Belfast, I’ve actively avoided anything with a single-sex policy. I’m a feminist who balks at patronising gender stereotypes, I’m a hippy who just wants us all to get along, and I’m a romantic who feels that modern love is mucked up for men and women by repressive gender norms.
But here I am at a women-only week at Golden Door, a Californian wellness institution dating back six decades, and possibly the first health spa to recognise the power of all-female retreats. Founded in 1958 by Deborah Szekely, philanthropist, writer and pioneer of the So-Cal wellness movement, it was soon attracting the likes of Natalie Wood, Elizabeth Taylor and Zsa Zsa Gabor. These days, it has upped its men-only weeks from two a year to five, but stays true to the original single-gender ethos.
“Golden Door’s women weeks are designed for our guests to feel treasured and let go of stress, self-doubt and any baggage,” explains chief operating officer Kathy Van Ness. “There is something magical about women supporting women.”
I arrive wearing my scepticism on my sleeve. In 2018, do we really need women-only spaces? I began my career at men’s magazines, most of my travel companions have been male friends, and I object to the concept of a “girls’ night out” as I have about a 50:50 split of male and female friends.
After just a few hours in this Japanese ryokan-style, 40-room destination spa, however, I realise just how sexist I’ve been. There really is something inspiring about spending a week with 39 other women of all ages and professions, with different stories and advice to share. My life in London might have a good male-female split, but I flunk the diversity test on age and background. Guests attend yoga classes by day, clad in Golden Door-issued tracksuits, and spend evenings in talks and workshops. The standard-issue spa uniform also breaks down boundaries and bonds are forged fast over meals at shared tables.
Guests at Golden Door are a fascinating, eclectic and successful bunch. I meet neuroscientists, interior designers, writers, politicians and entrepreneurs.
The Golden Door tote bag that every guest is issued with amounts to a membership card for a secret society of high-fliers; recent guests have included Tina Brown, Oprah Winfrey, Nicole Kidman, Barbra Streisand and Nigella Lawson.
A recurring theme among women-only spaces in 2018 is the opportunity for networking, personal development and career advancement, a world away from the patronising, outdated notion of girlie weekends and “pampering”.
Kristina Roth, an American businesswoman, has created a women’s networking collective called SuperShe, and bought a Finnish island where members can “focus on themselves, relax and forget about having to put up any walls or having to please anyone else”. Guests can expect activities such as yoga, meditation and workshops. And social media-savvy operations like the London Girls Surf Club, a non-profit group set up by stylist Kylie Griffiths, are disrupting the world of adventure travel. The LGSC’s aim is to make surfing accessible to all by hosting trips to hotspots such as Croyde in Devon and Morocco’s Taghazout.
“There’s something really special about going surfing with a gang of girls,” says Griffiths. “Even though there are loads of incredible women surfers, surfing is still seen as a mainly male sport. This encourages solo travellers or groups of friends to take part or try something new.”
International women-only clubs are also on the rise. This summer the AllBright club, an all-women alternative to gentlemen’s clubs, is opening a clubhouse in Bloomsbury . Founder members include actress Naomie Harris, fashion designer Mary Katrantzou and businesswoman Martha Lane Fox. In the US, The Wing has close to 2,000 female members, and co-working spaces and clubhouses in New York, Washington DC, LA and San Francisco.
Marguerite is a London-based network catering for women in the arts and is branching out to New York this year.
So are women-only spaces really a step in the right direction? Most of the founders are unapologetic on this point. “With all that’s come to light this past 18 months with regard to Trump and the ensuing women’s marches, the #MeToo campaign and, most recently, the sexual harassment allegations in the art world, no one could deny that there is so much to be gained from women coming together to share in their experiences,” says Marguerite founder Joanna Payne.
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need women-only spaces. But to create that ideal world, perhaps we do.
Healing Holidays (020 7843 3597; healingholidays.co.uk) offers seven nights at Golden Door ( goldendoor.com) from £6,599 per person full-board, including flights, transfers, daily massage and training sessions.