In 2012, then-U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney made a remark about having “binders full of women” to consider for his potential cabinet. In addition to sparking intense backlash, the comment spawned a network of Facebook groups that promoted open conversation, exchange of information, and other means of “taking down the patriarchy.” These included groups for writers based on beat, types of writing and career opportunities, and geography.
Since 2014, these secret, invite-only communities have found members across the world, with #Binders becoming a mainstay in social media bios to serve as a signal to fellow members. Owing to their political origin, the groups aim to create safe spaces by keeping cisgender men out, and welcoming only “women, genderqueer and non-binary identifying writers.” The impact they have had on writers’ careers cannot be overstated.
Uruguayan-American freelance journalist Lola Méndez said these Facebook groups helped launch her career after an editor she met while traveling in Thailand in 2017 introduced them to her. “I learned how to properly pitch publications, how to negotiate my rates, what scope creep is, how to push back on contracts, and more… These groups are a form of community and I've virtually 'met' many of my closest writer friends through them.”
Over the years, however, these groups have also come under fire for various reasons, including allegations of racism. Many believe that being unsearchable and requiring an invitation for entry promotes gate-keeping and exclusivity, which unequally affects those who are already underrepresented in the writing industry.
“There is a huge racism problem. I’ve been in the middle of many race-related dust-ups, seen a few sub-Binders fall, and others double down on their own racism, and many new Binders come up with a clearer mandate to not center white fragility,” said Indian journalist Payal Dhar, who started using the groups seriously four years ago.
Sarah Alexander, a U.S. expat, small business owner, and writer based in South America, said that any group for marginalized people is inherently political. “It is unfailingly the case that racism and classism are allowed [in these groups], but any pushback is considered beyond the pale and disruptive.”
Recently, a group with over 30,000 members imploded over the ethics of approving job postings for publications such as Fox News. When members pointed out that Fox News actively harms people of color and LGBTQ+ people through their coverage, the administrators turned off comments instead of acknowledging them. The administrators then declared that they didn’t identify with the political foundations on which the group was originally based and thus decided to let cis men join, before finally archiving the group.
To move on from the toxicity and negativity in the aftermath of the incident, some writers created a new group to make up for the safe space to support and uplift each other that had been taken away. Sacramento-based Chicana freelance journalist and editor Liv Monahan is one of them. “It was a stark reminder that one person in the position of power over an entire collective is never the way to go — both on Facebook and in life. We now have two admins along with a team of intersectional moderators who each play a different role along with working together in tandem to ensure the group is the safe space that the original Binder pretended to be.”
Alexander also runs a similar group for new and upcoming writers with over 4,000 members. She and her co-founder ensure safety and sensitivity toward the marginalized members in many ways, which include taking a hard line on racist language and banning people who aren’t respectful of their fellow members.
To make the group more inclusive, they also prohibit rate shaming. “You start at a penny a word, good for you — you started. How can we help you go up from there? You jump up to five cents a word, you recommend someone to fill your spot at the penny job,” said Alexander. “It's a ladder. We keep pulling up the people behind us. We check the people who are privileged when they forget others may not have had the same opportunities, and remind them.”
Renee Midrack, a writer and content marketing specialist from South Carolina, is an administrator of a group for those writing on mental health. The already sensitive subject matter means that Midrack and her co-administrators need to go the extra mile to ensure that their group is a safe space. “We have had people who overly relied on other group members for mental health support to a level that was compromising. We addressed those issues directly with the individual."
In spaces that house people from a wide variety of backgrounds and intersections, differences are bound to crop up. However, the key to preventing them from snowballing into a debacle is to be accepting of your faults.
“This year, I started calling myself out. I started calling out bad behavior in our own group. And suddenly, the feel of our group shifted. We had members of color and members who were fighting for survival suddenly go from being passive readers to commenting, from all over the world. They felt safe, finally, to speak up,” said Alexander.
Running an online community comes with its fair share of difficult conversations, but it’s imperative not to avoid them.
“Our team is made up of women and non-binary members from all time zones, backgrounds and identifications in order to ensure that even within the group of moderators and administrators, we are holding ourselves accountable at all times… Binders are for finding work, but they must also be for finding a community and being supportive of that community if you want it to work successfully,” Monahan said. “The freelance world can be a rough place to survive in, and we are often put into positions of competition rather than connecting with each other. Our mission with this Binder is to be human first and writers second.”
Snigdha Bansal is an independent journalist from India, currently based in Amsterdam. She writes about culture, identity, and mental health.