Skip to content

Podcast #233: Creating a Safe Space for ‘Problematic’ Women

Quillette podcast host Jonathan Kay speaks with Meghan Daum about The Unspeakeasy, a ‘community for free-thinking women who crave honest conversations’

· 28 min read
Podcast #233: Creating a Safe Space for ‘Problematic’ Women

As many regular listeners will know from her previous appearance on the Quillette podcast, Meghan Daum is a New York-based book author, writing coach, social-media maven, and, more recently, the woman behind a new set of events, known as The Unspeakeasywhere “intellectually curious women from everywhere on the political spectrum can talk honestly about complex issues and ask meaningful questions to which there are no easy answers.” Meghan joined us to talk about The Unspeakeasy and a dozen other thing besides. — Host, Jonathan Kay


Jonathan Kay, host: Podcasting is a weird business—because a lot of the most popular shows consist of podcasters interviewing each other. Which is strange when you think about it, because, technically I suppose, we’re all in competition against one another.

And so why do we spend so much time just doing one big collective on-air schmooze? I’ve never really been able to answer that question, which is why I generally avoid interviewing other podcasters. But I do make exceptions, and one of them is today's guest, fellow heterodox liberal Meghan Daum.

As many of you will know from her previous appearance on the Quillette podcast, Meghan is a New York-based book author, writing coach, social media maven, and, more recently, the woman behind a new set of events, The Unspeakeasy, where—and here I’m going to quote from her promotional materials—“intellectually curious” (AKA problematic) “women from everywhere on the political spectrum can talk honestly about complex issues and ask meaningful questions to which there are no easy answers.”

PODCAST 63: Meghan Daum on Zillennials, #MeToo, and the Culture Wars
Sydney. London. Toronto.

Recently, Meghan joined me to speak about these events and a dozen other things besides.

Meghan, thanks for being on the podcast. So I’m looking at some of the information here about The Unspeakeasy—is that how you pronounce it? 

Meghan Daum: The Unspeakeasy, yes. 

Jon Kay: And so you’ve got very sophisticated graphics. It connotes a kind of, as the name suggests, Prohibition-era secret meetup club—images of women in flappers dresses and stuff like that.

Jon Kay: People don’t have to actually dress like that when they show up, right?

Meghan Daum: We’re working toward that.

Jon Kay: It’s not like a 1920s cosplay, is it? 

Meghan Daum: No, so The Unspeakeasy, it’s named after my podcast, The Unspeakable, and that podcast was named after a book I wrote called The Unspeakable.

Meghan Daum: So it’s just all under the “Unspeakable” imprimatur. 

Jon Kay: Your podcast, it’s about some very serious subjects, and this is an issue we faced at Quillette, where when you invite people to an event, and there’s a social aspect to it, people want to have a good time. And you see this with book clubs here in Toronto, where I’m sure it happens in book clubs everywhere, where you pick a really high-concept book, and then people show up at your book club and they spend like an hour just bitching about their kids…because when people are at a party, they want to unwind. Now, you’ve already done sort of a bunch of proto-events like this before formalizing this event brand. Is there a tension between—people come, they want to have a good time, it’s a social event, but at the same time, you’re trying to keep them on-message, like, “hey we’re here to discuss serious ideas”?

Meghan Daum: It's funny that you say “book club,” because a lot of the women that come to The Unspeakeasy or that express interest in it have had a book-club incident. Something has gone wrong in their book club. 

Jon Kay: BCI, as it’s known in the literature.

Meghan Daum: Or a FBM, which would be a Facebook meltdown. Those are the two categories. So I should clarify what The Unspeakeasy is. It's a community. So it has a couple of different iterations. It’s a membership-based online community where we have different discussions. We have a book club within the community, and we talk about all sorts of things, but the signature offerings are these retreats that I run and it’s, well, I wouldn’t call it a party.

These are usually two or three days. People apply to come. This is a women’s free speech, free thought, heterodox community. Sometimes I call it a women’s shelter for the politically homeless. This is something that people come to very deliberately because they want to talk about particular things, and they want to talk about them with a lot of nuance and curiosity.

This is a women’s free speech, free thought, heterodox community. Sometimes I call it a women’s shelter for the politically homeless.

And I screen them. They have to apply and they need to tell me why they want to come and what they’re interested in. And then I curate a series of discussions based on what they’re interested in, and I bring in guest speakers and it’s that kind of thing. We certainly have a good time, but it’s much more than a party, although we do have parties sometimes.

Jon Kay: One of the goals, and you make this clear, is that people want to be in an environment where they can actually say what they mean, and mean what they say, and relax to some extent. One of the reasons they’re coming to you is because they feel tense and agitated when they’re with, maybe former friends or perhaps even people who are still their friends, but the range of topics they’re allowed to discuss with these people is low.

But let me ask you about curating these things, because the movement against cancel culture has been around for a couple of years now. And what I’ve noticed, either in real life or online, is that you get a lot of very well-intentioned people, smart people like yourself, who want to curate forums where people can talk freely.

The problem is that you get 20 people, you get 50 people, you get a hundred people in a room who are all devoted to that free-speech concept. Statistically, it starts to become likely that you’re going to get at least one or two people in there who just start talking about legitimately crazy things. And then no one in the room wants to say anything about but because, you know, this is supposed to be a “free speech” club.

And so I guess if this person wants to go on about the moon landing or vaccines, or they have weird views about geopolitics, you have to indulge that. And then you get into the idea that you can cure that by screening attendees, but doesn’t screening itself connote a kind of “gatekeeping” function? There’s a tension there, right?

You've got a velvet rope to let in people who are to some extent complaining about velvet ropes, right?

There’s a tension there, right? You’ve got a (metaphorical) velvet rope to control which people come into your club—a club of people who hate velvet ropes.

Meghan Daum: Yes, that’s true. And that’s actually something that we talk about a lot inside the velvet rope. I think the best way to get into this—because you raise a good point, and it's something I think about a lot—is to talk about [the origins].

This enterprise really came about as an extension of writing workshops that I teach. I’m an author and a teacher. I’ve taught at Columbia University. Now I teach private writing workshops, generally in the memoir [genre]. I also teach [group] workshops. I used to do them in my apartment in New York, these weekend-long seminars.

And now I do a lot of private workshops on Zoom, with people from all over the place. And by the way, those workshops aren’t ideological at all. This is like standard memoir, personal-essay [material]. And they’re not just women—there’s women and men—but a lot of women in particular were taking these things.

I started noticing that sometimes they didn’t even want to have their pages workshopped. They just wanted to have a place to talk. They were fans of my podcast. They’d read my books, and it was clear to me that they were craving a space to have these conversations with people who they knew—and that I knew—could also have those conversations.

And I started to think, gosh, like, why are we having a writing class here? Like, why don’t we just have a space to have these discussions? And, I’m the last person in the world to start a “women’s community.” So it's actually pretty hilarious. A lot of what I’ve written that has gotten me in trouble has to do with criticizing the feminization of culture, [and] the overreach of #MeToo—all that kind of stuff.

But I noticed something about the way that women were responding to the culture wars, which is that they were much less likely to speak out and share their opinions because they feared the social penalties that come from other women.

And I also noticed in the “heterodox space,” the space that we're in, there are some women in it for sure, some very prominent women, but it’s pretty male-dominated. And so that’s where I got the idea for The Unspeakeasy. 

Jon Kay: You have this statistic that I saw in some of the materials that you were sharing with me: 84 percent of Americans say that being afraid to exercise their freedom of speech is a serious problem. And then when they were polled about their personal behavior, of those who held their tongues, 61 percent were women. And, look, I’m trying to stay in my lane here, because I’m a man, and I don’t want to speculate too much on why that’s the case, but we’ve had people on the show who are women, who say specifically that in feminist spaces, they felt they were expected to maintain a kind of solidarity with other women; and solidarity becomes a kind of consensus; and consensus becomes dogma; and then dogma becomes fear.

And so it starts out with, “We’re a sisterhood, all for one, one for all,” but then, depending upon the ideological atmosphere, that can become a kind of cult-think. 

In feminist spaces, ‘solidarity’ with other women becomes a kind of consensus; and consensus becomes dogma; and then dogma becomes fear.

Meghan Daum: Yeah, and I think that there's something about the way women interact with one another that—there's like a lot of “bat signals” going on. I’m not the first to say this.

When men argue or fight, it’s often physical. And so women, for obvious reasons, have adapted so that their modes of competition and of aggression are very much done through social exclusion.

Jon Kay: We’re basically talking about schoolyard-type stuff, right?

Meghan Daum: Yeah. I actually think that mean-girl, in-group/out-group dynamics have mapped themselves on to the culture wars in a way so that people are really afraid to talk about [things] for a variety of reasons. The result is that women just aren’t talking. There aren’t as many women podcasters talking about this stuff. There are some, but they’re not as many as there are men. And, worse to me, is that on the ground, you’ve just got a lot of people—and a lot of women—who hate this stuff, whether it’s DEI or gender stuff or arts and culture censorship, dictating what they can read, what’s being taught in the universities, what’s happening in their kids’ schools. Most people are pretty reasonable about it, but they’re not saying the things that sound reasonable. They’re going along, they’re nodding along with the most unreasonable people because they’re afraid of being tarred as being on the “wrong” side.

It’s like the emperor has no clothes. And so it became clear to me that I could carve out a space—and we need more spaces for people to just have reasonable discussions and share opinions. We do not agree on everything. Our retreats, we have 15 women, they’re small. And so there’s about 15 different opinions on everything we talk about.

Jon Kay: So I have three daughters, and I’m thinking a little bit about how they navigate this stuff. Even from the time they were in elementary school, certainly by middle school, they knew what they were supposed to say, they knew what they were supposed to think, at least for public consumption. And then maybe with their trusted friends, they’re more unguarded. And their social media tends to be heavily curated—I can’t put this picture on my social because so-and-so wasn’t invited to the party and they’ll be pissed off… that type of stuff; and they’re incredibly sophisticated as publicists and networkers and diplomats even by the time they’re 13 or 14 years old. Would you say that your audience is maybe women who remember a time when they didn’t have to do that—at least when it came to politics? 

Meghan Daum: So I’m a Gen Xer, as are you, I believe. We definitely skew in that direction, but we have members from their early twenties into their eighties. This is not like some kind of girl-boss cabal. We have small-town librarians and business executives and college professors, and women who work in the trades, electricians and plumbers.

And it’s quite remarkable: one of the things that’s key is that it’s totally off the record. There’s no phones, nobody’s doing Instagram, nothing is recorded. And we’re on the honor system. If anybody were to violate that, they certainly would not be asked back, and they wouldn’t be in our online community anymore.

Jon Kay: And that opens you to the charge of hypocrisy, right? There is this sort of idealized “anti-cancel culture” ethos that says nobody should be canceled for saying anything to anybody.

Meghan Daum: But that’s not the world we live in. That’s not realistic. Also, we certainly don’t talk about culture war issues all the time.

We’ve had discussions about abortion, say, that were just fascinating. One of our earlier retreats, this was in upstate New York. We had, I think, 15 or 16 women at this one. And there was this conversation about abortion and it went on for about an hour, maybe two hours. And it was one of the most sort of magical, riveting conversational experiences I’ve ever had. It ranged from, “I don't think abortion should be allowed under any circumstances, maybe with a few exceptions,” to abortion on demand, and everything in between. And they were sharing their personal experiences, but also talking from a place of real knowledge, and an understanding of the legislative issues.

And I just sat back. I didn’t really say very much. I facilitate these things, but then I let them talk. And that kind of thing goes on with all kinds of topics. And the women come back. I’ve had many repeat customers at these retreats, and no retreat is the same. Everyone has a different approach, a different set of conversations. 

Jon Kay: Looking at some of the information about who attends these events, it sounds like there are a lot of people who might be called disaffected liberals. There seem to be very few committed hardcore Republicans or Trump types who come to these events.

Is it the case that when people like us talk about “ideological diversity” and “let a thousand flowers bloom” and “let everybody say what they want,” what we really mean is “Let a thousand flowers bloom…among people who are recognizably liberal, as that term would have been understood ten years ago.”

In this kind of space, you tend to get a diversity that ranges from like classical liberalism all the way to social-justice leftists. But you’re—maybe not intentionally—you’re not really including born-again Evangelicals. You don’t have anti-vaxxers. You don’t really have hardcore libertarians. Is it the case that the kind of space you’re talking about, yes, it’s ideologically diverse, but maybe not in a way that a real Red State conservative would recognize?

Meghan Daum: I can tell you that we have anti-vaxxers in the Unspeakeasy online community. The COVID conversations are the most difficult conversations that we have.

Apply to Join The Unspeakeasy
How do you ensure privacy in The Unspeakeasy? Apply to join now.

Jon Kay: Even more than Gaza?

Meghan Daum: We’ve been having the COVID conversations for the last year and a half. So there’s been more of it—it has more of a track record.

I can say that they have consistently been difficult. Look, they’re coming because they are listeners to my podcast and they read my work and what you just described is disaffected, liberal, centrists, and…I don’t even know. Are you center-left, center-right? I don’t even know what these things mean anymore. That’s what I am.

And yeah, naturally the people who relate to the way I think and what I say are going to be drawn to this sort of thing. But I can tell you that we do have people In the community who have voted for Trump. Actually, we have people who speak about having not voted for him the first time and being repelled by him, but also being so frustrated with what’s going on that they would consider voting for him next time.

And it’s certainly surprising to me. I disagree with that strongly. And so do a lot of other people, but those voices are in there. We have little spats in the community on the threads, but I have to say for the most part, they are just talking about the issues; and there’s a degree of respect with people being willing to interact and meet people where they are.

And they’re even forming their own communities. We have people all over the world and they’re meeting up in real life. They’re organizing their own meetups in their own cities. You’ve got people who are to the left of Bernie Sanders and probably people who have voted for Trump all meeting for drinks.

Jon Kay: In the last months, the Gaza thing has broken up…not just friend groups, but you have law firms where people don’t talk to each other here in Toronto over this issue, volunteer groups, Jewish organizations. There was a front-page article in The New York Times about a prominent legal defense fund based in Brooklyn where this happened.

It sounds like you’re effectively the webmaster of this social-media space. Are you telling me that things haven’t been pushed to the breaking point in some cases over the Gaza issue?

Meghan Daum: We’ve had some hard moments. I keep my eye on it. Right after October 7, there was an incredible amount of pain. We actually had a retreat a few weeks after in Pennsylvania, at the end of October; there were several women who are Jewish who came, and there were one or two who were worried about having to think about anything other than Gaza. Although a few also said, “I would like to think about anything other than this.” We really just focused on the effects of the polarization around the issue. I’m not equipped to facilitate conversations about the Israel-Palestine conflict. I’m not going to presume to do that, but I think we were able to talk about just the emotional and psychological effects of the divisions.

Jon Kay: A couple of weeks ago here in Toronto, I was asked to moderate a…well, this is a pretentious word, but I’m going to say it…a salon for people who answer to the description of your clientele. These tend to be smart people who were disaffected. To be honest, my role at these events is mostly comedy relief because this stuff can get heavy.

The Q& A at these things is always interesting because, first of all, by the time the Q&A happens, there's been an intermission and people have had a few drinks and so they get to the point pretty quickly about how they arrived in that space. And what I found is that it tends to be the gender issue, in particular—this movement that says biological sex doesn’t exist and if I say I’m a woman, then I’m a woman. That issue has broken people, and they said “I’m here because I was a leftist and then I just couldn’t stomach this nonsense anymore.” And of course, to be honest, I have sympathy with that position—by which I mean the position that it’s nonsense, not the position that I could be a woman if I told you I’m a woman.

And the other thing [people seemed obsessed with] was vaccine stuff. And a lot of people said stuff I was uncomfortable with—stuff about Fauci and stuff about big pharma companies and their allegedly malevolent intentions.

Do you find it sometimes the case that people come to these events saying, “oh, I’m here for discourse, I’m here for conversations, open minds, new relationships…but then like, when you scratch the surface, they want to drill down on one particular issue? 

Meghan Daum: Yeah, I think everybody has their kind of on-ramp into this, right? And we certainly get a lot of women who have come into this because they’ve got kids who are caught up with the gender stuff. They’ve got gender dysphoric teenagers. And a lot of them are involved in parent groups coming up around this stuff.

And, that’s a subject that I've covered a lot on my podcast. And like I said before, I feel really strongly about covering that in a particular way. There are guests that I will not have on to talk about it. And there are guests that I will have on, gladly and repeatedly, because I really like the way they approach the subject. But in our online community, we have maybe 10 or 12 different discussion forums. So it’s climate and science, public health and medicine and arts and culture and gender and feminism. These are all categories and certain people are more active in certain categories than others. So I think the dynamic that you describe, it probably plays out more in the online community, and it’s fine because people talk about what they want to talk about in there.

But, in terms of our in-person retreats, I design a schedule ahead of time—we’re going to spend this 90-minute block talking about what's happening in books and in films, with censorship and “sensitivity readers.” And we’re going to take a break. And then we’re going to spend another 90 minutes talking about something else.

Jon Kay: Sounds like you get rid of a lot of the eye-rolling rituals that lately have come to attend some of these events. Like you say there's no land acknowledgement. There are no “breakout groups”…

Meghan Daum: There are talking sticks.

Jon Kay: What the hell is a “talking stick”?

Meghan Daum: This is a thing. I think it’s big in Silicon Valley when they have their retreats. I think the talking stick is…if you’re sitting in a circle and people are having a discussion, there’s a stick and you pass it around and you can only speak while you’re holding the stick.

Jon Kay: Okay. So…the stick itself doesn’t actually talk. 

Meghan Daum: No, though that would be great if it did. And, now that I’m saying this, I wonder if it, the stick, is like an Indigenous or Native-American ritual.

Jon Kay: I know a lot of the stuff that’s claimed to be “Indigenous” these days is basically Indigenous-by-way-of-Brandeis.

Meghan Daum: Yes, exactly. So no, we don’t have anything like that. Though, at one of our earlier retreats, we were using a retreat facility where we all ate together. We had our meals together. We were in this larger dining hall and there were a couple of other groups, and they did a land acknowledgement before the meal—like, on behalf of the retreat center itself. But, the way they did it, it was this poor dining-hall worker who was managing the place, and she just had to get up in front of everybody and read the statement robotically.

Jon Kay: You have here [in your materials] that what happens at an Unspeakeasy retreat, including names of participants, stays at the retreat, which kind of sounds like Las Vegas. Or Fight Club. It’s the kind of thing you say when people are doing a swingers cruise, or AA meetings, or a gay nightclub where you’re not allowed to take pictures because some people aren’t out.

On the one hand, you’re telling people there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not the crazy one. It’s okay to have heterodox opinions. But then, on the other hand, you’re saying, “But don't tell anybody I was here.” 

Meghan Daum: I think these are just the norms around private conversation. So much of the problem now is that every single idea and every single thought is just immediately made public. It’s like somebody has a random thought and instead of hashing it out with their friend, they just go tweet it. Nothing ever gets cooked. We’re just swimming in half-baked ideas all the time.

Meghan Daum: So I think it’s really important that our retreats are off the record. And it’s not because we’re sitting around saying horrible, terrible, racist things. I wouldn’t let that happen. I can’t imagine that happening because I know who’s coming and I know who they are. And, in the beginning, I was actually having private Zoom meetings with every single applicant—so they understood what it was and I could get a sense of where they were coming from.

But the fact is, we’re still in a moment where a lot of people are not safe to talk about these things. I have people come to retreats, women in the community who are professors, who have academic jobs, they have all kinds of professional situations where they would be stigmatized and potentially penalized if it were known that they’d come to [this] retreat. It’s mind blowing that something like this would be considered potentially a cause for being terminated from your job, at least problematized. But that’s where we are.

Jon Kay: We had somebody who wrote something for us on Quillette, on the gender issue. This is maybe a year ago. And I said to this person, hey, you should really come on the podcast. And they said, “look, I’d love to come on the podcast and talk about how biological sex is real. However, I have this niece who just came out as ‘non-binary,’ and the holidays are coming up and I'm trying to lay low on all this stuff because I want to get through the holidays without some fight.” It sounds like some of those people are doing their own sanity check under your auspices at your events. That’s maybe one of the few places they really can do it. 

Meghan Daum: Yeah, and some of the people who do their sanity checks with us are some of those [highly progressive nieces]. We had a woman, she was very young. She’s in her twenties. She had gone to a very liberal arts school. She was gay. I think I can say that she was very involved in queer community activism and social-justice circles as a college student, and then she just got her head whipped around by all the gender stuff, but she felt absolutely unable to be honest with her peer group. It was really affecting her life. She felt totally alienated. She felt that she could not be herself among her friends.

And so she came to us. It was great. She was on a scholarship, by the way. I’m starting a fund, so we can have women come to us who might not necessarily be able to afford the tuition. So this woman was on a scholarship and she by far the youngest person there.

It was valuable for her to interact with older women. It was really valuable for us to hear about her experiences. We don’t understand a lot of this, even if we think we do. We listen to all the podcasts, but we don’t know what goes on in a dorm room.

By the way, one of the groups that is the most worried about being known to be associated with The Unspeakeasy are therapists. We have a lot of women who are therapists. The sort of social-justice activism piece of the psychotherapy world now is so dominant that they're afraid of being known as the therapist in the community who might not be “gender-affirming” or who might have dissonant views on this. Those women are usually by far the most afraid. There are a lot of Canadians, too… 

Jon Kay: So we had Julie Bindel on this podcast, a good old-fashioned feminist rooted in working-class British feminism…though I don’t know which “wave” she is… 

Meghan Daum: She’s a solid second-waver, I would say.

Jon Kay: I'll take your word for it. I always get my waves confused. Anyway, she called Canada, “Tranada,” as she had come here from England to do research for a book, specifically on the question of what happens to a Western country—such as Canada—when its public institutions are taken over by people, like Justin Trudeau, who, on this issue, are glassy-eyed doctrinaire true believers in the idea that two plus two equals five when it comes to defining what a woman is and protecting women’s spaces. So Canadian prisons, female prisons, are full of men. So it doesn't surprise me that your meetups have a lot of refugees from “Tranada.”

Feminism v. Gender Ideology: An Interview with Julie Bindel
During a visit to the county she calls ‘Tranada,’ the veteran activist and author tells Quillette that ‘intersectional’ feminism often resembles a rainbow-branded offshoot of the men’s-rights movement.

Meghan Daum: Yeah. And it’s not just the gender stuff in Canada. Tara Henley, who I’m sure is a friend of yours, formerly of the CBC—she has a wonderful podcast, Lean Out. I think she’s a brilliant interviewer and I love her podcast. I love her writing. She joined us on a retreat.

‎Lean Out with Tara Henley on Apple Podcasts
‎Society & Culture · 2024

Meghan Daum: She’s spoken publicly about [being at the retreat]. So I’m allowed to say that. And she talked a lot about these things, and she gave a wonderful presentation about her own thinking. Not about the gender stuff per se, but about the socioeconomics of the mating crisis. And one of the things we do, too, is that our participants often give informal presentations.

They’re based around their own work or their own experience. And we’ve just had some extraordinary discussions around these things. We had a woman who had been in a mass shooting maybe 20 years ago and pretty seriously injured. And nonetheless, she has pretty libertarian ideas about guns and gun control.

She gave a long talk about that. And Katie Herzog was actually a guest speaker at that retreat. Katie came and spent the night with us. And Katie was able to sit in on that conversation. And she has said herself, it was unlike anything she’d ever heard. And I actually disagreed with this woman about gun laws. I was really surprised to hear what she was saying. And I certainly didn’t agree with all of it, but it was an extraordinary discussion. Nobody had ever heard anything like this. And it just opened the door for so many lines of inquiry.

We had another participant in Minneapolis, where we did a retreat, who was a cop. She had been in law enforcement for maybe 20 years. And she talked about what it was like to be in law enforcement in the summer of 2020, during the [George Floyd crisis]. And she talked about policing and what we understand about it, what we don’t understand about it.

Jon Kay: One of my theories about creating dialogue between people is that the very act of sitting down at a table or in a room and saying, “Okay, we’re going to have a dialogue”…that inhibits dialogue because it’s just way too self conscious.

My best conversations with my kids, with my friends, often take place when we’re doing something we both love. So we’re playing sports together or we’re watching sports together or we’re having a great meal or we’re cooking. Over COVID, I got into this weird sport called disc golf, and I meet all kinds of people playing it.

Meghan Daum: What? Is this a form of golf? Disco golf? I like that idea. 

Jon Kay: I have a story about “disco golf,” which maybe I'll tell you after I let the credits roll. I’m going to tell you the disco-golf story.

So anyway, do you have any kind of ideas or plans for doing activities at these retreats? I mean, it’s great to sit around the room and have a bowl of candy and comfy chairs, but wouldn’t it be cool if you had this conversation while you were all…maybe baking is too stereotypical because you’re women, and disc golf is too obscure, but maybe if we were like building a snowman…

Meghan Daum: It’s funny because I asked a couple of men if they thought that there could be an equivalent kind of men’s retreat…

Jon Kay: Like to me, it sounds boring.

Meghan Daum: That’s right. The reason it sounds boring to you—and I think I’m going to be very gender-essentialist here—I think that many men feel the need to be solving something or building something or moving toward some sort of goal.

Jon Kay: It’s more basic than that for some men. I just get physically restless. I had a doctor’s appointment earlier this week, and we were talking about whether I should get some tests or not, and the guy spent 10 minutes talking, and I was like, “When is he going to shut up?” I hated being trapped in that office.

Meghan Daum: Really? You should be so happy your doctor's sitting with you for more than 10 minutes.

Jon Kay: I know this is like a total rich-person complaint, but I have problems watching movies because it’s like oh great, for the next 90 minutes I have to sit in this chair. So for me, it’s something more basic than the phenomenon you’re describing. It's just a physical restlessness. And when I’m playing sports or something, I feel calm because I’m exerting myself, and then I become more receptive to other people’s ideas. And also, maybe more importantly, I’m bonding with them. It’s like, “Oh, you like this sport? I like this sport, too! We have something in common.”

Whereas some of these concepts—where you’re exchanging ideas while sitting around a room…like you know those mortifying things at, like, Smith College, where they had “Talk to a Black Person Day” or something like that, where white people and black people go into a room and say, hey let’s talk about race! I can’t imagine anything more cringe-worthy…

Meghan Daum: Would it be better if you were playing disc golf with a black person? Is that what you're saying? 

Jon Kay: …The presumption going into that conversation is we are going to do nothing except stare into each other's eyes all the time and talk about the color of our skin. Is there any thought to combining The Unspeakeasy with, I dunno, bowling, or something like that?

Meghan Daum: No, we just love to talk!

Jon Kay: Then I’m not coming.

Meghan Daum: You could come as a guest speaker. We have men come as guest speakers.

Jon Kay: Would I have to sit down?

Meghan Daum: No, you can stand up. You can pace. You can do your TED talk thing. You can have your pointer. That’s fine. But women love to talk. Okay, I love to talk. I love ideas. I have two podcasts. I talk all day. [At my retreats], I can’t get them to take a break. We talk for about 90 minutes and then we take 10 or 15 minute breaks. And I can’t get them to stop talking. I have to be like, okay, we’re stopping now. We go to dinner and then we talk over dinner and then they go and have drinks at the bar and they don’t stop talking…

Jon Kay: I don’t get women.

Meghan Daum: But that’s what women do. And you have to remember that it’s not just about having a three-day bitch session. The idea is to have these discussions and then have some sense that you’re not crazy, that you’re not alone, and that it’s possible to have these conversations and then take those tools back into your real life and apply them and be able to maybe speak up, maybe be able to go to Thanksgiving with your social-justicey niece and be like, Hey, these are my feelings about this without feeling like you’re a bad person to say that, or that you’re crazy or that you’re wrong.

We've had so many women talk about how they’ve been able to be more open and authentic in their workplace. And in their book club, if they’re still in a book club. I’ve called it a free-speech vacation. I’ve called it a sanity spa. I’ve called it a talking vacation.

Jon Kay: If people want to go on a talking vacation, where should they direct their browsers?

Meghan Daum: They can go to and there's all the information there about applying for the online community, and the retreats that we have planned. Right now, we have four retreats for next year—in Austin, Louisville [KY], Los Angeles, and Woodstock [NY]. I’m about to go add some more. I’m working on our guest speakers. Our guest speakers in Louisville are Corinna Cohn and Nina Paley from the Heterodorx podcast.

Jon Kay: Oh, they're so funny. Corinna is a trans woman who has been on the podcast. Both came to our Quillette Social in New Orleans in January [2023]. Then they both came back to the Quillette compound. We rented a place in New Orleans where the Quillette team stayed, and we played board games till the wee hours, and it was super fun. It was the best part of the weekend.

Meghan Daum: I’m not going to play board games, but if people want to play board games with me.

Sometimes our retreats are just daytime-only on the weekend. This one is a three-night retreat at a hotel. You can stay in that hotel if you want, or you can stay someplace else if you want. Nina and Corinna will be joining us for one night and talking about whatever they want to talk about, but we”re going to talk about all kinds of things. 

Jon Kay: Meghan Daum, thank you so much for being on the podcast.

[Credits roll].

Jon Kay: Okay, so now that we’ve lost most of our listeners, I can just tell you the story…about the two people in my life who’ve mistaken disc golf for “disco golf.”

A month ago, I was in London, England. I was actually at a Quillette event in the city, and I was staying at my friend Adam Farlow’s house. He’s a lawyer who lives in the West Hampstead section of London, and he’s from Mississippi. I’m from Canada, so both of us speak in an accent that’s very different from his neighbours. And it was eight in the morning on [the weekend], and I was taking him out to Wembley, to London’s only disc golf course, because I was going to introduce him to this incredible rising star of a sport called disc golf, but disc golf apparently is even more obscure in England than it is in other parts of the world.

And his neighbor, a kindly woman from Scotland was just coming out of her house, and she saw the two of us, and I had this big bag of discs. So if you look behind me [on our video Zoom call], you see all these discs, those are disc-golf discs…

Meghan Daum: You had a “big bag of discs.” That doesn't sound good! 

Jon Kay: They all have different flight characteristics. I won't get into it, but it’s like the way a golfer has lots of clubs. I have a bag with lots of discs. It’s a thing.

How Many Discs Do You Need to Play Disc Golf? |
There’s a common argument in disc golf that I hear all the time. It’s an argument that will span the test of time on which…

Anyway, she said—and I’m not going to try and do the Scottish accent because it’ll sound ridiculous—she said, “Oh, where are you two gents off to?”

And we said, “Oh, we’re going to go play disc golf.” And she said, “So…when you sink the shot, do you dance around.” And she kind of waggled her hips a little, and she actually thought these two middle-aged dudes at eight in the morning on a Saturday were going out to Wembley to play golf, and then after we sank a ball, we’d turn on a ghetto blaster and dance…

How insane is that? We’re throwing frisbees into baskets—like real athletes!


Free Thought Lives

Meghan Daum

Meghan Daum is an American writer, author of "The Unspeakable" and "Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House", noted for her essays on cultural and personal themes.e.

On Instagram @quillette