I know I’m not alone when I say I’ve clocked years of social awkwardness in the vaults of online journals. In middle school, I frequented a site called GreatestJournal, a LiveJournal clone that would later delete my account because I was not yet 13 and eventually wipe clean its entire server in 2009 (for which I am eternally grateful). Uprooted from affirming Internet communities, I reluctantly re-integrated myself into the social circus of going through puberty in Montclair, NJ. During my teen years I switched to using MySpace and then Facebook. Neither facilitated community as tight knit as online journaling.
Put simply, I’d never had the chance to attend an Internet meet-up before this past November. #BinderCon, short for Out of the Binders Conference, was my very first girl swarm. The entire project of #Binders started when Anna Fitzpatrick was sitting on a couch in Toronto, wishing she had a better way to network with women writers. “What if I called it Binders Full of Women?” It had been two years since Mitt Romney’s notorious off-hand comment. Her friend, unfazed, grunted, “Whatever.”
Girls/women/ladies and gender non-conforming folks all dedicated to having each other’s voices heard, read and seen in media and creative writing, flocked to the Facebook group. Some boldly introduced themselves, while others posted writing and job opportunities. I was lucky enough to get invited in early on. Soon after the alerts congested my Facebook into a gridlock of notifications.
#Binders would later catch the attention of Vogue, to the chagrin of many of the users hoping to keep it on the DL. After scheduled meet-ups in major U.S. cities, an official conference was organized by volunteer group members. The first ever Out of the Binders Symposium on Women Writers took place in NYC from October 11-12, 2014 on college campuses in the East Village.
Hundreds of what appeared to be an overwhelmingly white crowd of mostly (but not all) femme-presenting people shuttled into the big city from all over the tri-state area. They all hugged and shook hands emphatically. After all, they’d been practically friend-dating each other all summer on the Internet.
Initially, after checking in at the registration table, I felt extremely out of place—a college-aged girl, fingers tightly gripped to the press pass around my neck, surrounded by people with established careers and what seemed like eons of experience beyond my years. My anxiety lifted when Leigh Stein, #Bindercon co-chair, took to the stage and started giving shout-outs to her friends from LiveJournal who were attending the conference. LJ is much like childhood sleep-away camp in this manner, these relationships, which are separate from the day-to-day, are often more meaningful than you’d expect.
The weekend consisted of an impressive list of speakers, various panel topics, and workshops about the varying aspects of writing, the industry, and personal fulfillment. Adrenaline and affirmation surged through the room and into a larger Twitter feed on the current (and future) state of feminist media.
As the conference progressed, our overall positionality to the ‘binder’ wasn’t always clear, “Make sure you are in that binder!” one woman would cheer. Another would command, “Come on! Get out of the binder!” “Move on, start your own binder!” advised a panelist. However, it seems to me that the metaphorical ‘binder’ wasn’t all too relevant to the conference’s mission. The position of this ‘binder’ and how we relate to it, seems far from the point.
The true value of the conference was within the recognition and validation of the need for support and skill-sharing amongst women writers. This enormous community of women and gender non-conforming writers has adopted tactics and strategies to confront structural roadblocks that seek to silence their voices. Who’s more qualified to give advice to women and gender non-conforming writers than the community of writers themselves?
This is not to say that I plan to embody, or even agree with, all of the advice I received. Problematic frameworks were evident throughout the conference. Some speakers spoke in shades of Sheryl Sandberg, reinforcing gender binaries by urging women to “act more like men.” And even more pervasive was the reinforcement of telling women how to “get ahead” by elbowing the masses by any means necessary. Narratives of “racing to the top” leave a bad taste in my mouth. Is there no room for femininity in the workplace?
Now that the conference is over, anyone can check out the archived posts on the website and at the #BinderCon hashtag. Here are a few gems that I gleaned from the weekend:
1. Know what you’re worth, and ask for it. Leslie Jamison (author of The Empathy Exams) emphasized gendered notions of credibility. We all know the trope of the boy who cried wolf, but forget the story of Cassandra, the woman who always speaks the truth but is never believed.
2. It’s possible to be a professional feminist, a punk rock drummer, a badass manicurist, a poet, and a photographer if you want to be. It just requires discipline and scheduling. (For inspiration, check out Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Claire Beaudreault, Emily Rems, and Lux Alptraum.)
3. Lifelong career chameleon, Adaora Udoji, reminds us to stay flexible — ready to weave skills together as institutional silos crumble.
4. Anna Holmes, recovered social media addict and founder of Jezebel, reminds us to modulate levels of outrage in our new “Outrage Economy.” If we are always yelling at the same amplitude for causes that do not deserve the same level of outrage, how can anyone discern what is most important to us?
6. Align yourself with what you care about most.
7. Always know enough to be dangerous.