Sharon Van Epps

On Writing, Motherhood, Inclusion and #BinderCon

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This weekend the Out of the Binders Conference for women and gender non-conforming writers is happening in New York. The event known as BinderCon offers keynotes, like today’s apparently amazing opening address from novelist/NYT journalist Anna Quindlen, panel discussions, and speed pitch sessions, where attendees can propose story and book ideas to magazine and book editors, and literary agents.

Founded by writers Luz Alptraum and Leigh Stein, Out of the Binders is “a non-profit devoted to advancing the careers of women and gender non-conforming writers by connecting them with the skills, knowledge, and networking opportunities they need to get ahead as authors, journalists, screenwriters, TV writers, playwrights, poets, and more.” The name Out of the Binders references Mitt Romney’s remark during the 2012 presidential debate that he had “binders full of women” to consider for his team, and communicates the group’s mission to move women writers from the margins to the center.

The very first BinderCon was held just two years ago. The fast-growing organization has also helped create dozens of closed online networking groups for women writers; members are sworn to secrecy regarding what is discussed there. I participate in several of those groups, and the support and information I’ve gained there has boosted my career beyond my wildest imaginings. But I’m writing today specifically about the conference, which is public, and the attendance policies that have a lot of folks up in arms, including me.

Search #BinderCon on twitter right now and you’ll uncover endless bits of writing/career wisdom flowing from today’s sessions. You’ll also find Britni de la Cretaz’s name mentioned quite a bit. Britni,  a mother of two who writes about “the intersections of feminism, sports, addiction, and parenting,” for magazines like Rolling Stone and The Atlantic, appeared on today’s Reproductive Justice panel. During the session, a colleague was babysitting Britni’s 6 week old baby in a nearby coffeeshop because the nursing infant not welcome inside the conference venue.

BinderCon’s no infant/no child policy got some press last year  when organizers made it clear to writer Jade Sanchez-Ventura that she wasn’t allowed to attend with her nursing baby, even though Ventura’s mother planned accompany her as an additional baby whisperer. Ventura wrote about her experience for Mutha Magazine in an essay titled “My Baby Comes with Me,” which kicked up some dust at the time, but not enough, since the essay is still relevant, and getting fresh shares on social media in light of this year’s gathering.

Lux Alptraum wrote a rebuttal to Ventura’s piece at the time, also published in Mutha, that read in part:

Over the past year and a half, we’ve wrestled with the question of who BinderCon is for. Should men be allowed to attend? Should attendees be allowed to bring their children? Should talented teenagers be welcomed as attendees? After much discussion, our team – an impressive group of accomplished writers; some child-free, some moms – came to the conclusion that, in order to provide the best BinderCon experience for all our attendees, attendance must be limited to participants only. As a professional development conference focused on advancing the careers of women and gender non-conforming writers, that means attendance is limited to working and aspiring writers above the age of eighteen who identify as women or gender non-conforming.

Alptraum went on to say that, as a young, mostly volunteer organization, BinderCon faces financial constraints and can’t provide childcare, but they welcome donations! The conference currently offers some scholarships and childcare stipends of up to $250, which is wonderful. But bottom line: banning babies and kids is not about the money. Allowing a nursing mother to wear her infant in a sling costs nothing. Allowing a single mom/parent whose babysitter bailed to bring her introverted 4 year old along with some coloring books and juice boxes also costs nothing. Yes, children can be disruptive at a professional conference — but so can adults. Disruptive people should be asked to leave, regardless of age.

Inherent in BinderCon’s policy is the idea that mothers/parents can’t be trusted as professionals to respect the needs of their colleagues. Newsflash: other than nursing mothers, most of us would PREFER fly solo at a professional event.  An open and inclusive attendance policy won’t somehow transform BinderCon into a birthday party at Chuckie Cheese. What it will do is allow a few more parent writers to attend, especially nursing mothers, single parents, and low income folks.

The twitter campaign protesting the attendance policy is capturing attention. I’m told that BinderCon organizers interrupted the Reproductive Justice panel today to announce they’ve just added a moderated discussion on the childcare policy, set for Sunday at 9:30 am. Will the session prove to be a meaningful exploration of the issue, or simple damage control? We’ll see. But there are plenty of talented Binders standing by, eager to help craft a creative solution to the dilemma of childcare at the conference —  IF the folks in charge actually want to find that solution. How many moms will actually be in the room for that moderated discussion? Only the ones with childcare. Britni de la Cretaz asked organizers if she could bring her baby to the session and was told, “Probably not.”

Many of the writers speaking out about the BinderCon policy feel a little guilty. We love and appreciate The Binders, but sometimes you have to make waves or you’ll be stuck in that binder forever.