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“Binders Full of Women”

October 17, 2012

As everyone in the universe now knows, one of the questions at last night’s presidential debate was about equal pay for women. The question was well crafted; it explicitly assumed that women are paid less than men are paid for comparable work, and it implicitly assumed that the inequality is a problem that both candidates would like to fix. The question was, How will you rectify the inequality, not, Do you think there is inequality, or, Do you think the inequality should be rectified.

Little seems to be publicly known about the person who asked the question, Katherine Fenton. The right-wing conspiracy machine is in full blogging fury, because there apparently is someone named Catherine Fenton who made a liberal comment during the 2008 presidential primaries, and who identified herself at the time as the media coordinator of CodePink Long Island – Long Island being where last night’s debate was held, and therefore presumably where Katherine Fenton lives.

Apparently based solely on the similarity of the two women’s names and the fact that both appear to be from Long Island, the conspiracy machine has concluded that they are one and the same person. To the conspiracists, this proves that liberal-biased Gallup did not adequately screen the debate audience for truly undecided voters, and that the liberal-biased debate moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, did not adequately screen the audience questions.  It probably also proves that JFK was shot from the grassy knoll.

Just by the way, name searches on MSN’s white pages produced scads of Katherine Fentons, and another 20 Catherine Fentons – basically, enough Fentons to fill a binder.

Which brings me to the answers to Ms. Fenton’s question.

President Obama began his answer by offering a personal reason for being concerned with pay equity: the limits on the economic opportunities that his mother and grandmother had faced. In the course of that summary, he dropped buzz-phrases to show that he is up on the issue: he said his grandmother had “hit the glass ceiling” and she had trained men who would become her bosses.  He mainstreamed and humanized women by insisting that pay equity is “not just a women’s issue, this is a family issue, this is a middle-class issue.”

Obama moved next to what he did about pay equity in his first term: he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and he expanded educational opportunities through Pell Grants.

In his rebuttal after Mitt Romney’s answer, Obama faulted Romney for not taking a position on the Lilly Ledbetter bill, sliding in a quotation of the Romney campaign advisor who famously said, “I’ll get back to you” when a reporter asked for Romney’s position. The need to “get back” to the reporter confirms that Romney’s position was uncertain, or at least that the issue was not sufficiently important to the campaign that the adviser knew what Romney’s position was.

Obama linked Romney’s failure to advocate for pay equity with Romney’s views on women’s health care, specifically calling Romney out for opposing the Obamacare requirement that an employee’s health insurance must include contraception coverage. Mention of contraception coverage brings Sandra Fluke to mind, reminding us how badly Rush Limbaugh treated a woman who actually voiced an opinion, and how meekly Romney reacted to that abuse.

Obama also cast Romney’s intention to defund Planned Parenthood as a threat to women’s health and economic welfare. And he praised child care credits for allowing women to “go out there and earn a living for their family.” Full participation by women in the economy and pay equity for women promote economic growth, he said.

Obama concluded with another personal reason for his concern with pay equity: he has two daughters, and we wants “to make sure that they have the same opportunities that anybody’s sons have.” The point was laudable, not really arguable, well connected to the concerns of ordinary voters – and a teensy dig at Romney, who has five sons, and therefore, presumably, could not possibly share the President’s commitment to pay equity.

Romney’s answer to the Fenton question must have been written by someone who wants to aggravate the gender gap. Romney went right to a narrative of his history of hiring women, which, tellingly, began when he was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002 – when he was 55 years old and had already made a career running Bain Capital.  As governor, Romney did considerably less well in appointing women to the bench.  And as Bain’s CEO, he hired no women as partners.

As governor, Romney said, he learned a lot about the topic when he found that “all the applicants” for cabinet positions “seemed to be men.” So he asked his staff, “gosh” – yes, he said “gosh” to his staff – “can’t we find some women that are also qualified?”

The need to specify that the women who needed to be found should be “qualified” was odd, even jarring.  Would his question to his staff have been misunderstood if he had just said, “Gosh, can’t we find some women?”  Or was the point that qualified women are so rare, so out-of-the-ordinary, that specificity was needed?  As in, “Gosh, can’t we find a zebra that also has no stripes?”

It only went downhill from there. Romney said he had gone to “a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’” In fact, a coalition of organizations called MassGAP prepared the binders before the 2002 election, and brought it to Romney when he won.  . But either way, the point remains that Romney thought it showed his commitment to pay equity to bring to our attention the fact that his circle of contacts, and his staff’s circle of contacts, did not include cabinet-qualified women. Fortunately, the “women’s groups” responded to his plea by bringing in “whole binders full of women.”

OK, we know what he meant – obviously, the binders contained paperwork about women, not the women themselves. But the bleak insensitivity of the remark, the complete lack of any sense of how he comes off to people, was stunning. By contrast to Obama’s humanizing women and normalizing the pay equity issue, Romney figuratively reduced women to sheets of three-hole-punched papers in a binder, subtly reinforcing his image as a ravenous capitalist for whom people are just line items on a spreadsheet.

Next, Romney bragged that his cabinet “had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America.” Romney’s cabinet was more than 40 percent women, but commentators question whether women were entrusted to lead departments that were important in Romney’s policy priorities.

It’s not new for men to take credit for women’s ideas and work, so Romney’s claim to have initiated a mini-affirmative action plan that was actually handed to him fait accompli isn’t exactly a shocker. But it’s an odd tactic for a candidate trying to appeal to a demographic that is not within the natural comfort zone of his policy positions.

Romney then turned to a demonstration of his personal understanding of the problems women face in the workforce: he told us that he let his chief of staff go home at five o’clock so she could spend her evenings “making dinner” and caring for the kids. He endorsed giving women a “flexible work schedule.”  Men don’t need flexible work schedules, of course, since men don’t cook dinner or take care of the kids. This is a special accommodation made by the men who run the world so that women can be their chiefs of staff and still fulfill their duties at home.

Romney closed his answer with what could have been a reasonable argument: the best thing we can do for women to succeed in the workforce is to get the economy booming, and get employers hiring. The logic of the argument is not fundamentally different than the logic of Obama’s argument that enhancing educational opportunities generally will enhance women’s competitiveness in the job market. But Romney couldn’t even make that argument without stepping on his own feet. He put it this way: “What we can do to help young women and women of all ages is to have a strong economy, so strong that employers that are looking to find good employees and bringing them into their workforce and adapting to a flexible work schedule that gives women opportunities that they would otherwise not be able to afford.”

That sentence simply cannot be parsed, but it suggests that Romney thinks we need an economy that is generating so many jobs that employers will run out of men to hire, and then they’ll have no choice but to hire women.  When employers run out of men, they’ll look for women who are also qualified, and they’ll adopt flexible work schedules for women who need to get home and cook dinner.  Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice if employers were just that desperate?

Aside from its meandering length, the sentence began with a clumsy flub: Romney started out with “young women” and then self-corrected to “women of all ages.” The reference to age in the context of employment – especially a reference to women’s age by a middle-aged man who is used to being the boss – carries the whiff of discrimination. The self-correction only brought attention to it. Romney could have avoided the whole thing be referring to “women starting out in their careers,” but Romney obviously isn’t used to couching his words to accommodate other people’s sensitivities.

So Obama’s answer to Fenton’s pay equity challenge is that women have to do well for our families and our country to do well, that women have to have health care, educational opportunities and child care options in order to do well in the economy, and that federal pay equity legislation is a good thing.

Romney’s answer is that job growth and flexible work schedules will do the trick.  Also, asking women’s groups for “binders full of women.”

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