What BinderCon Means for Women, Power, and Media — From Jill Abramson’s Divisive Keynote to the Push for Diversity

In my early 20s, I attended my very first women’s media conference completely solo. I imagined that as a sharer-of-the-ideology, I’d be befriended by strangers. We were all feminists, after all. Sisterhood is powerful.

Instead, of course, I spent the weekend sitting alone at panels. People were there to network and get a career foothold, to mob speakers after their keynotes, to catch up with colleagues. They were not there to hold hands and sway. I learned a lesson that seems obvious in retrospect: being only human beings, feminists have the personal ambitions, tendencies towards insularity, and insecurities that come with that territory. In fact, they may inadvertently replicate the cliquish and preference-ridden structures of “the man.”

Yet even now, after almost a decade of attending such events with my kumbaya illusions kept in check, I crave that intangible sense of solidarity and possibility when women writers gather. This was particularly the case with BinderCon, short for “Out of the Binders,” a conference in New York this past weekend for “women and gender non-comforming writers.” The conference was hyped as more of a convening, spontaneously organized through a hierarchy of enthusiasm, not prestige. And the organizers even landed Jill Abramson, the former Executive Editor of the New York Times whose ouster galvanized female journalists to join together in speaking up about newsroom sexism, as the guest of honor.

Billed as a “symposium on women writers today,” BinderCon’s moniker refers to Mitt Romney’s infamous “binders full of women” gaffe during a 2012 presidential debate, his ill-advised implication that smart women were somehow relegated to their own box, to be plucked for the purposes of filling quotas. Out of the Binders, then, aptly stands for a transition from being “women writers” to simply being writers, who are women, celebrating this fact.

It feels like a ripe time for such a celebration. Women who have advanced in the media are notably hiring other women at places like Fusion, The Toast, and beyond. Feminist bloggers who toiled on TypePad and Blogger in the early 21st century opine from major platforms, while their ideas have permeated all but the stuffiest publications. And on Twitter, ironic jokes about misandry are only part of a never-ending consciousness raising. It certainly feels like “we” — if BinderCon can be seen as encapsulating a movement — have arrived. Even if full equality remains far off, certain types of power are now within reach, or ours.

The BinderCon organizers’ enthusiasm for publicity (#BinderCon trended on Twitter, twice) was matched by an attention to inclusivity, at least on the surface — the addition of “gender-nonconforming” in the conference materials; a concise, no-nonsense “code of conduct” for attendees; notably diverse panels; and the addition of sessions aimed at trans women and women of color. At the Sunday sessions I attended, we learned about dealing with male-heavy newsrooms, online harassers, and editors who demand too many features about makeup — as well as seeking out smaller, nurturing communities to give us confidence. The day was rife with comments on the unbearable whiteness of mainstream media, exhortations to think more like a man might, to be less focused on caretaking and more on our own ambitions, while we also heard praise for female bosses who “got it” on work-life balance and constructive feedback. The conference felt marginally more egalitarian than others I’ve been to, with newbie writers and seasoned pros alike lapping up the knowledge and the community.

Jill Abramson

Yet Abramson, who advanced further than almost any other female journalist in history, provided the most teachable moment on what women writers have gained and what we have yet to achieve. In a witty, uncensored, and mostly delightful chat with the British journalist Emily Bell, Abramson was candid about being fired (allegedly for being “pushy”), about her passion for good reporting and hard work, and about the attention that came from her being unceremoniously deposed from her position. Applause lines were frequent, almost palpable adulation filled the air. This was our rock star.

But then, towards the end of the session, Abramson veered off course, and began to chastise the crowd for the criticism recently heaped on Times critic, and her longtime pal, Alessandra Stanley’s clueless-at-best piece about Shonda Rhimes, race, and television. “You were in fucking diapers,” she told the assembled crowd — which was young, but not universally so — while Stanley was at Harvard, learning Russian in order to be to be a foreign correspondent. Abramson continued in this vein, noting that Maureen Dowd covered the Anita Hill hearings quite well as a news writer, so we should give her a break for her output today (frequently awful, gender-policing columns). Putting aside the fact neither knowing Russian nor going to Harvard absolves Stanley of being tone-deaf on race, Abramson’s words reminded me exactly of what a man might say when a longtime colleague is accused of sexism. “But we were at Harvard together. He’s a good dude, so accomplished, and he speaks Russian!”

Here we were, a room of adoring writers who had probably to a one defended Abramson for being labeled something as gendered as “pushy.” Yet judging from the awkward silence that met her words, very few of us were comfortable with her impromptu dressing-down. We felt, perhaps, a little, well, pushed. And when Fusion’s Anna Holmes gently prodded Abramson about whether a more diverse editorial staff at the Times might have helped guide Stanley’s ideas away from racefail, Abramson offered little more than platitudes.

Loyalty, which was the quality Abramson touted in her defense of Stanley, is understandably important for women and minorities in a hostile workplace. Abramson and her cohort are likely fiercely loyal to each other after decades of working in a field and institution that Abramson acknowledged in her talk as deeply sexist.

Yet as the many BinderCon attendees and the broader community advance in our careers, surely our version of loyalty has to look more like solidarity, something deeper than recreating the boys’ clubs of yore with one’s own intractable girls’ network. The loose Binders collective, and the feminist Internet writ large, will have to get creative. We are proving already that we can climb ladders, hire each other, and change the larger conversation. But real solidarity goes beyond that, towards doing what BinderCon at least attempted to do: creating new models of workplace feminism that are genuinely inclusive.

Imagine if the Binder attendees began to brainstorm how to use our energy beyond teaching and schmoozing. I’m hardly advocating the holding hands and swaying I expected at my first feminist conference, but maybe we could get a little more collectivist-minded. Imagine a pooled fund for freelance writers who need emergency leave, a shared resource for handling threats and trolls, a transparent guide to salary and negotiation, and a set of standards for race, gender, and identity coverage. Maybe writers who need it could even form some sort of fledgling union, or collective bargaining arrangement, to protect against harassment, late payments, and more.

BinderCon’s organizers, Leigh Stein and Lux Alptraum, ended the day with the announcement that there would be a West Coast iteration in the spring, and a brand-new nonprofit formed. The enthusiasm and energy around the conference was beyond evident. But it will only be really revolutionary if that energy accomplishes something beyond women hiring their buddies, forming new power cliques, and deflecting fair-minded criticism that comes from marginalized groups. If the idea of “Binders” represents being tokenized, the goal of this moment can’t to shove others into the binders on our way out. The goal is to eliminate the existence of binders altogether.