Binders Full of Women

The latest installment of BinderCon happened this past weekend in New York. This was my third time at the conference for women and gender non-conforming writers launched by founders Leigh Stein and Lux Alptrum. Kicking off the keynote, Anna Quindlen noted, “On the subway, I was thinking: in some perverse way, we’re all here as a result of Mitt Romney,” a nod to Romney’s comment during the 2012 presidential race about having “binders full of women.” Today, tens of thousands of us have appropriated the gender-neutral term, “Binders” to refer to ourselves and each other. Quindlen quickly quipped, “Compared to current events, Mitt Romney looks like Thomas Jefferson now, doesn’t he?” which drew bitter laughs.

Bookending the two-day conference of panel presentations, workshops, and coaching and pitch sessions, writer Elif Batuman described how her feelings about being a woman writer have changed now that she is approaching her 40s. She noted that, as a younger woman, “I felt like I was fine, that feminism was kind of over. All I had to do was do a much better job than the boys.” Her comment hit home — this was exactly how I had felt in my 20s and 30s, too.

By 2012, Romney’s gaffe hit a twang with me, but what was there to be done about it? It was yet another possessive/dismissive consideration of women as objects to be owned, listed or contained in some way by men. Besides, his comment was status quo, wasn’t it? Annoying but ho-hum, hardly the worst thing that anyone could say, as proven by the current Republican candidate. As a woman, it was natural to take comments like this in stride — we are constantly encouraged to not lose our cool, to not “read into” what was surely delivered with benign intent. After all, he was trying to be inclusive, right? He was trying to say that he had binders full of women job applicants. We should be happy that he was thinking about women at all, right?

Fast-forward to today when Romney’s comment, sadly, does seem benign. Donald Trump has –despicably, thankfully– revealed just how bad it still is for women in the United States. Not every man is Donald Trump, but there are more of them than anyone believes and their acts are cloaked in darkness. Say something about them and you’re gaslighted–I don’t think he really meant it that way, You must have misheard him, MAbe you misinterpreted his intentions, I’ve never known him to do or say something like that, etc. Or, the response is, Deal with it. When I spoke up about an incident of forceful sexual harassment at a past job, my boss’s response was, “Well, I guess you know now to stay away from him.” This guy was a senior VP and protected on high by the other senior VPs. I wanted to keep my job, so I kept quiet after that.

Growing up, my parents never talked about the equal rights amendment as it failed, nor did we discuss what I would face in the workplace as a woman, such as lower pay, sexual harassment, and diminished opportunities based on my gender. Nothing prepared me for brainstorming sessions in which my ideas either went unheard or were only recognized if repeated by male colleagues, who then received the credit. In those moments, I wanted to say, “Hey, that was my idea, actually!” but I was tongue-tied. Speaking up as a woman comes with the risk of being labeled as emotional, shrill, angry or aggressive–and then being punished for it. We’ve seen Hillary Clinton combat this throughout her campaign with more grace, resilience and patience than I can imagine summoning. And she still has to contend with comments on her looks, how much she does or doesn’t smile, and what she wears. Because that’s still part of earning our grade as women.

This weekend, I spent time contemplating my own feminism, particularly as it relates to my writing but also my life. Like Batuman, for a very long time, I did not feel that feminism really applied to me; it was something that someone else’s generation was supposed to have fixed. Essentially, I was living in the “improved” world, and everything was up to me. As she noted, I felt like my job was to aim for being better, and if I worked hard enough, I’d be rewarded. This self-centered [and very American] viewpoint of the self-made individual works only for the privileged, of course, even when those of us who are born into privilege don’t feel that we are. As for self-interest, there is no one more focused on their own success than people in their 20s, who believe that they can do anything, all on their own. We believe success should happen immediately from our merest efforts.

Thankfully, this viewpoint becomes more complex as we age, if we are mature individuals; we realize that we do nothing alone. It’s not only elbow grease that helps us meet our goals, but friendships, collaborations, and generous people affording us chances. As women in particular, our greatest successes come from offering help and collectively tackling challenges. Look at any community around the world and you’ll find the social glue is seated within the health and relationships of its women. This is exactly how I feel when I come to BinderCon where it’s easier to speak up, offer questions, or pull each other aside to ask for assistance, even if we are strangers.

Without intending to, over the past three years, I’ve been working on a collection of short fiction and essays that track back to the founding tenets of my identity as a woman, my attitude toward marriage and partnership, and my views on empowerment, sex and violence. The pieces, which are undeniably interrelated though they were not written to be, are based on the tacit lessons that I learned from watching my mother navigate her unhappy marriage and the role of women in the professional world. As I pitched this collection to agents and editors on Sunday, I realized that I not only felt comfortable within this feminist enclave, despite the revealing subject matter, but that it fed and nurtured me. Despite the pressure of pitching, I felt…. safe.

Relishing this sense of relief made my stomach drop for, as much as it felt good to feel safe, it called my attention to the shields that I typically employ when I’m out in the world. These shields –the same ones that Secretary Clinton must employ– are automatic, they are necessary, and they are exhausting to maintain. They result from feeling at odds, unsettled, dismissed, unheard. And they seem, at least for the time being, inevitable and unending. Ruth Ann Harnisch of The Harnisch Foundation, a founding sponsor of BinderCon, puts it best: if we proceed with women’s rights at our current pace, it will take centuries to make any real change in our society. Should Secretary Clinton win the election, I’d like to believe that she will bring our struggles to light in a way that will lead to change, but it will ultimately take all of us, not only women, to bring egalitarianism and equality to bear.

Even if this happens, there will still be a need for women to support each other. I think back to the myth I heard when first entering the working world: that women are detrimentally competitive with each other for male attention, that women are back-stabbing bitches, that women bosses are difficult to work for. For those who wish to discredit or disempower any group, the first thing to do is destroy that group’s solidarity. Somehow, we women have bought into this idea only to realize later that this false narrative was fed to us; it set us on the defensive and kept us apart. I’ve heard so many women say, “When I was younger, all my friends were men, then in my 30s and 40s I realized that I really needed the company of women.” To have conversations that are not diminished, to not have to defend oneself against unwanted attention, to confess parts of the secret self in the hope of empathetic advice or counsel, these are the enjoyments of female solidarity. I imagine that the power of these bonds is terrifying to people like Trump.

One thing I continue to reaffirm for myself is that these exchanges that we quietly share with each other need to be told in a broader context –both the good and the bad– if we are to unify as a global society. Like the women who have spoken out about assault and abuse in reaction to Trump bragging about getting away with the same, the sharing of one story can set free thousands of souls. The telling of stories brings light into darkness. In the face of the 24/7 news media, we forget that the purpose of communicating isn’t merely broadcasting or shouting but inviting conversation and exchange — a means of sparking change, bringing justice, forging connections for the greater good. Amongst the sessions this weekend, which ranged from what to do when one’s ideas or literal work is stolen, to building expertise in pitching, writing and selling personal stories, the common theme was dialogue, uncovering meaningful truth, and sharing the tools necessary to navigate the opaque publishing world, and the world at large.

It was also about creating relationships so that we, as women and gender non-conforming writers, can help one another. At its heart, BinderCon is about community-building as much as it is about craft. Speaking of that, it’s time to get back to it–there’s still much for us to do.