Perhaps the best thing to come out of Mitt Romney's 2012 run for president was his comment about having “binders full of women” — job applicants — given to him when he was governor of Massachusetts. Women took to the Internet to mock the weird phrasing, but they also began organizing. Invite-only Facebook groups sprang up where female professionals could share job opportunities and encouragement, particularly women in journalism and creative writing.
An already competitive field, writing suffers from the problem of gender disparity. According to the 2014 VIDA count, 29 percent of book reviewers at The New Republic were female (an improvement over 7 percent in 2013). The numbers become more bleak when addressing women of color within the editorial sphere. VIDA distributed a survey via email to women writers and reported 55 percent of female writers at The New Yorker self-identified as white.
Billing itself as a “conference and community for women and gender-nonconforming writers,” BinderCon is a conference that takes the movement offline, where diversity is the focus and where women can help other women find success. Now in its second year, the L.A. conference — taking place March 19 and 20 at UCLA — gathers writers for a weekend of brainstorming, networking and discussion. Keynote speakers for the L.A. conference include Lisa Kudrow, Effie Brown, Jenny Lumet, Robin Schiff, Rebecca Walker and Jillian Lauren.
Co-director Leigh Stein recalls stumbling upon a private Facebook group created by a woman in Toronto for the sole purpose of connecting women writers. The group quickly grew to 30,000 members and Stein realized there was potential for this group to become a powerful force IRL.
With the help of a team of volunteers, Stein organized the first BinderCon in New York in 2015. The group raised more than $50,000 on Kickstarter and hosted over 500 attendees. Now a nonprofit organization as well as a conference, BinderCon hosts events in both New York City and L.A. Stein and her team envision it as a way to “create a home base for freelancers and writers of all genres and fields to come together.”
Attendees can learn how to refine skills — crafting the perfect pitch, applying for residencies, managing the financial side of writing — or tackle new ones, such as writing for animation, shifting to the big screen or taking on corporate assignments. Specialized workshops include “Tense & Sensibility: Ways to Tackle Tragedy in Young-Adult Literature” and “Writing Without Pity: Disability, Illness and Our Bodies.” Since it takes place in L.A., the team also organized talks specifically related to TV and movies. Regional director Jessie Gaskell writes for Conan.
By offering both workshops with a wider appeal and sessions with a very specific focus, Stein and her team hope to reach a diverse group of writers. Most important, they hope to show attendees how much they might have in common — no matter their current profession or focus.
“There’s so much overlap,” Stein says. “There are so many poets who want to write memoirs or editors who want to write novels.”
An already competitive sphere, the field of writing can prove especially difficult for women. But the Binder community has somehow broken through that, encouraging women to help instead of battle one another.
“Once we start talking to each other, we realize we’re not alone,” Stein says. “A lot of experiences with sexism or rejection or impostor syndrome or insecurity can feel so isolating, especially if you’re a freelancer and you’re at home alone.”
Stein recognizes that some writers operate on the idea that there is no space to discuss these topics or build solidarity, that the best solution is to just “try to get ahead.” But BinderCon offers an environment for women to connect while they work on honing their craft. Over the course of the day, writers can bring their ideas to Speed Pitch sessions with editors from publications like Bustle and Los Angeles Magazine, as well as literary agents and TV producers. Writers can attend a happy hour to meet other writers and discuss how the sessions went.
Stein remembers a friend who attended BinderCon and paid close attention to a session on dealing with rejection. The next year, she sold a story to BuzzFeed for “thousands of dollars.”
“At our last conference, an agent at Speed Pitch told me she got better pitches than the last 10 conferences she attended,” Stein says. “We aren’t for hobbyists. If you just want to write a novel in your spare time that your great-grandchildren will reread, we’re not for you. We’re for professional writers who are really good at what they do, who are trying to get to the next level.”
Stein says that during conferences, BinderCon trends on Twitter. This online buzz, along with a free streaming of the conference, open the doors for those who might not be able to attend — and writers who might need a sense of community, even from afar. Stein is releasing her third book soon but didn’t get her MFA, meaning she missed out on the academic community she might otherwise have been a part of through her writing.
“I didn’t go to a writing program, you know?” she says. “How are young writers who don’t have access to higher education — how can they still make a career this way? How can they connect with editors and other writers? Here’s a free way to do it.”
BinderCon also offered a scholarship application for writers who might not be able to attend for financial reasons. At least for one weekend, women writers can feel as if they're not so alone after all.
Full disclosure: Eva Recinos is part of one of the private Facebook groups under the Binder umbrella.
BinderCon will take place at UCLA March 19 and 20. Tickets are available here.