Why Mitt Romney deserves #bindersfullofwomen

Talking to Anne-Marie this afternoon about the “binders full of women” meme that sprang from last night’s presidential debate, and in particular about the pushback coming today from self-identifying feminists and feminist allies, we reached a few points that, to me at least, suggest that Mitt Romney deserves this response even if it is arguably reductive or making too much of an awkward turn of phrase.

The most important point here is that Romney’s binder remark was made in response to a question about pay equity, and whatever credit Mitt Romney might deserve for seeking out women for cabinet positions (see Amanda Hess’ blog post at Slate today), his statement is a bad answer to that question. In effect, he is saying, well, I hired some women once. At best this is a non-sequiter. At worst it’s a dodge that betrays a lack of concern, or lack of understanding, for the well-documented discrimination that women face in the workplace.

On its own, “binders full of women” probably doesn’t merit the attention it has received, but there is the larger context in which that phrase can be seen. I think that it is the context for the remark, and not the remark in and of itself, that explains the fast emergence and popularity of the meme.

To begin, Romney consistently went back to a vision of families with heterosexual partners where women do the cooking and childcare. As Amanda Marcotte points out, pivoting to the question of employers providing more flexible work schedules shows some progressiveness in regards to women in the workplace, even as it sidesteps the original issue, but he clearly has no room in his head for men wanting or needing the same kind of flexibility (one assumes that a household with two male or two female parents or a single male parent is beyond the pale for anyone capable of securing the Republican nomination for president).

Second, his most direct response to the original question was to argue that as president he would grow the economy to a point where employers would want to hire women. Amanda Marcotte makes a good case that this free market vision for achieving pay equity is belied by how women actually get paid in the workforce. But additionally, the way Romney made his argument implied that employers would start hiring women only after they had lots of jobs to offer. Scarce jobs, I guess, go to the men, who, in Romney’s world, probably merit them more as the primary breadwinners, if not entirely because they are obviously┬ámore qualified.

Finally, there was his blaming single-parent, and especially single-mother, homes for gun violence. The stigmatization of single mothers is a tired trope in American politics and one that any thoughtful person should be questioning rather than deploying as an alternative to gun control.

On the whole, Romney’s vision of progress might be notable if this were, say, 1980 (consider him in comparison to Ronald Reagan on these matters), but while I think that he clearly sees women in the workforce as a reality, he also clearly sees that as a novelty.

Next to the question dodging, I think the above points to another reason why Romney is being derided for “binders full of women”. While it is, of course, good that someone in Romney’s position would make an effort to hire women into government, the binders image, especially when seen in the context of his entire debate performance, brings to mind both mail-order brides and tokenism, rather than a genuine commitment to equality. In both cases, women are seen not so much as people, but as tactical objects waiting to be summoned or deployed as needed by their male patrons, whether in the home or in the cabinet.

Chuck Tryon points out that the politics underlying both this meme and the earlier one arising from Romney’s Big Bird comment in the first debate are far from coherent. However, what the macros in both instances do is highlight the inadequacy of Paul Ryan’s and Mitt Romney’s responses to tough questions about big issues, which is to reduce them to anecdotes from their personal lives as if stories about individual acts of thoughtfulness or compassion or personal preferences are the same as articulating policy. The Romney-Ryan campaign is essentially based on the premise that we should just trust them to get the job done; let them worry about the details once they are in office.

For anyone seriously concerned about issues like pay equity or equal rights, the fact that Mitt Romney may have personally reached out to hire women into prominent positions is good to know, but unless he means to imply that he will use the office of the president to ensure that all women who want work will get work and at pay commensurate to men in similar positions and with comparable experience and qualifications, his story about “binders full of women” is no more a serious response to a question about women’s equality than is cutting PBS a serious response to a question about making his tax plan work with reducing the deficit.