Out of the Binders and Into History

Last week I was in New York for 3 glorious days. Two of those were spent at BinderCon, the first Out of the Binders conference for women writers. (The name is inspired by Mitt Romney’s clueless comments about binders full of women in the 2012 presidential campaign.) Speakers included Jill Abramson, formerly of the New York Times, Anna Holmes, formerly of Jezebel, and Leslie Jamison, the current favorite of the nonfiction literary world.


There were panels on book reviewing, writing the perfect pitch, writing the personal essay, networking, and how to create real change. Everywhere I went I felt as if I was witnessing a significant moment in the history of women writers in this country. I kept wondering, how would Woolson’s life—or the lives of other 19th-century women writers—have been different if they had had a community such as this?

Binders women

(from BinderCon’s Kickstarter campaign)

I have been carefully following the conversations about the second-class status of women in the literary world and was thrilled when they turned into something more than talk last summer with the formation of a Facebook group for women writers to connect and support each other. The so-called secret group has nearly 30,000 members, most of whom have found a home in various sub-groups (for freelances, women of color, book reviewers, regional groups, and the one I started for biographers and writers of narrative nonfiction). The overall theme of the Binders is how can women support each other in their efforts to make their voices heard and to make a living as writers.

On the one hand, it’s frustrating that so much attention still has to be paid to women writers as a separate class, but on the other it is wonderful to see women so openly inspiring and supporting each other. Whereas Woolson feared being lumped together with other “female scribblers,” today’s women writers are realizing the strength in their collective association. They can create their own magazines, websites, and presses. They can use their positions as editors to solicit more reviews from women about women’s books. They can be mentors to younger women in the newsroom.

All of this was unthinkable in Woolson’s day, when she was one of only a few women trying to gain entrance to the nearly all-male club of serious literature. She relied so much on the good opinion of men that she could never be truly honest about what it was like to be a smart woman in a world where men prized women’s youth, beauty, and nurturing roles above all else. The truth erupts through the cracks of her stories and novels, whereas today’s women are writing openly about their lives.

While I was observing the conference through a historical lens (that was the professor in me), the writer in me was also eagerly absorbing every insight and tip I could. I learned so much about how to approach editors with a story idea, how to get the word out about your work without feeling like a used car salesman, and how to write a killer personal essay.


My favorite panel  was “Dear Reader, I Reviewed It.” I soaked up every word about the lack of gender parity in the reviewing world. An editor from The Nation explained the sad fact that the way publishers market women’s books to women (with pink covers and pictures of shopping bags) makes them unsuitable for reviewing in serious venues such as hers. And I was fascinated to learn that journals that pay little or don’t pay at all have a much more even gender distribution than the big literary venues.

While the stranglehold of white men from Ivy League schools on the New York literary and media worlds was a major theme of the conference, so was the need for women to demand better pay. Jill Abramson advised an utterly silent room, filled to overflowing, to ask about pay upfront—don’t wait until you realize that others (men) are paid more. (Asking for a pay raise was one of the reason’s Abramson was fired from the New York Times.)

Another theme was also the changing media and literary landscapes and how the internet has created new opportunities for women, especially those of us who didn’t attend Ivy League schools. You can be a writer anywhere, at any stage of life. What matters now more than ever is the quality of your writing, not who you know– words uttered by Anna Holmes that were to me the most inspiring of the whole conference. I wish that Woolson had been there to hear them.


Leave a Comment

  1. This sounds like a wonderful conference. I especially liked what you wrote in your last paragraph. The Internet, I think, has made writing more democratic. Writers do not have to depend on the goodwill of editors to publish online. As you point out, it’s the quality of the writing that matters, not who you are, where you live, who you know, or the schools you went to. This development is, of course, beneficial to all marginalized groups of writers who have been excluded by more traditional publishing companies.

    I also found what you wrote about the marketing of women’s books to women interesting. While I wonder how “men’s book to men” would be marketed, I think about how often I see the terms “ladies’ novel,” “woman novel,” and so on and how rarely I see the terms “man’s novel.” In my experience, also in Norway – so this is clearly not an American phenomenon only – novels that are targeted toward men are far more often labeled by the theme, while novels targeted toward women are so often labeled as “women’s literature” or “woman novel” or something similar, independent of the theme. It is interesting and, to be honest, provoking, to always observe this difference, particularly because it seems like many people use the term “ladies’ novel” to lower the reader’s expectations.”

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Karen! It’s always great to hear from you. It is distressing to hear how often women’s books are marginalized simply because of the gender of the author and the the subject–even in Norway.

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