Mitt Romney's wince-inducing suggestion for gender equality, "binders full of women," has become almost as much of major Mitt-ism from the second presidential debate as "Big Bird" was in the first.
But I'm not mad at him. The Republican candidate's expression sounded a bit crude, but he had the right idea. After all, it is far, far better for Romney to have "binders full of woman" than to be, say, a blind fool about women.
The issue came up in response to a question on gender pay inequality. A woman in the town hall setting asked President Barack Obama how he intended to fight inequality in the workplace for women, who are "making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?" That gave Obama an opportunity, which he eagerly took, to talk about the very first piece of legislation he signed into law as president, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
"It's named after this amazing woman who had been doing the same job as a man for years, found out that she was getting paid less, and the Supreme Court said that she couldn't bring suit because she should have found about it earlier, whereas she had no way of finding out about it," the president said. "So we fixed that." Romney responded with a story about his efforts to pull together his first cabinet as governor of Massachusetts. When the list of qualified candidates were almost all male, he recalled, he embarked on a concerted effort to go out and find qualified women who could become members of our cabinet.
"I went to a number of women's groups and said, 'Can you help us find folks,' and they brought us whole binders full of women," Romney said.
As a result of his outreach, he said, the University of New York in Albany later concluded that Romney's cabinet had "more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America." But the four words "binders full of women" already were going viral on the Twittersphere with its own hashtag, plus a series of memes on Tumblr and a Facebook page.
And the Obama campaign was quick to take advantage of the pseudo-gaffe. Vice President Joe Biden on the stump the next day called Romney's perspective on women a "1950s time warp" indicative of a conservative agenda on abortion, contraceptives and equal opportunity.
But to me, Romney's comment did not qualify as a genuine Mitt-ism. It fails to plays into the usual stereotype of an out-of-touch, privileged businessman.
To me, he sounded more like a lot of managers I know who have been grappling for years with a thorny question that now once again happens to be in front of the Supreme Court: How can they take affirmative action to diversify their workplace (or in the current Supreme Court case, college student enrollments) without employing quotas or other "preferences"? Romney did the right thing, judging by his account. If, instead of referring to "binders full of women," he had used the more conventional terminology, such as "reach out to expand the pool of qualified applicants to include more women," hardly anyone would have blinked.
Romney may have overstated his own initiative in launching the search, according to Jesse Mermell, a Democratic local official in Brookline, Mass., who was executive director of the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus at the time. Her group provided the resumes that Romney called "binders" without his request, she told reporters in a conference call along with Ledbetter.
But Ledbetter, the woman for whom the equal pay legislation was named, raised the central issue. Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, voted against the Ledbetter bill, as did most congressional conservatives. Romney has not clearly stated his position on the law, although he tends to look unkindly on other proposals that expand the right of workers to sue their employers.
Bottom line, Obama and Romney presented two distinctly different approaches to the challenge of expanding opportunities for women. Romney offers good role modeling in his outreach for "binders full of women." Obama offers legal protections so employers won't be blind to women's rights.
E-mail Clarence Page at cpage(at)tribune.com.