Binders Full of Women: A Meme That Means Something

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Romney's turn of phrase wasn't just a Tumblr waiting to be born, it was an insight into his views on the importance of promoting women.

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HEMPSTEAD, New York -- Asked about pay equity for women, Mitt Romney launched the meme of the evening with his reply during the presidential debate Tuesday night.

It was "an important topic, and one which I learned a great deal about, particularly as I was serving as governor of my state," he said, "because I had the chance to pull together a cabinet and all the applicants seemed to be men."

"And I -- and I went to my staff, and I said, 'How come all the people for these jobs are -- are all men.' They said, 'Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.' And I said, 'Well, gosh, can't we -- can't we find some -- some women that are also qualified?'" he continued.

"And -- and so we -- we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet," he recalled. "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."

The Boston Phoenix's David Bernstein says the story isn't true -- that women's groups had been pushing these binders and that they were created by a bipartisan coalition of women's advocates:

What actually happened was that in 2002 -- prior to the election, not even knowing yet whether it would be a Republican or Democratic administration -- a bipartisan group of women in Massachusetts formed MassGAP to address the problem of few women in senior leadership positions in state government. There were more than 40 organizations involved with the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus (also bipartisan) as the lead sponsor.

They did the research and put together the binder full of women qualified for all the different cabinet positions, agency heads, and authorities and commissions. They presented this binder to Governor Romney when he was elected.

Regardless of who served as inspiration for creating the binders, Romney used them and MassGAP today says they got results:

In 2002 women held approximately 30% of the top high-level appointed positions in the Commonwealth, even though they compose 52% of the population. To rectify this inequity, more than 25 women's organizations banded together to form the bi-partisan MassGAP Project for the purpose of increasing the number of women in high-ranking appointed positions in Massachusetts and achieving fairer representation of women. MassGAP sought to eliminate the difficulty that state executives say they experienced whenever they tried to find qualified women for high-ranking positions. MassGAP did this through providing names and resumes of qualified women for top appointments.

Between January 2002 and July 2004, 42% of the new gubernatorial appointments made by Governor Mitt Romney were women. Massachusetts was widely recognized for that achievement and MassGAP was given credit for it. In a survey by the State University of New York (SUNY), Massachusetts was ranked first in the nation in the percentage of women holding top state positions. As the Boston Globe noted at that time, "Women fill 10 of 20 top positions in Governor Mitt Romney's administration, making the Commonwealth one of five states that come close to matching the percentage of top women appointees to the proportion of women in the overall population."

This accomplishment is significant. Nowhere else in Massachusetts government--not in the legislature, not in statewide offices, and not in municipal offices--are the numbers for women anywhere near as good. This fact was acknowledged by the Women's National Republican Club, which presented Governor Romney with its 2005 Exemplary Leadership Award for his work in recruiting and promoting women to cabinet and senior-level positions in his administration. At the dinner in Manhattan at which the governor was feted, he attributed his success in attracting "top-level women to serve in [my] Administration to the MassGAP program spearheaded by the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus shortly after the 2002 gubernatorial election."

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe reminded, "There were no women partners at Bain Capital during Romney's tenure."

And that's the heart of the issue. Romney did a good job appointing women to high office in the context of a bipartisan statewide push to get him to do so as a new governor, but a terrible job in finding and promoting women to senior roles in the context of the high-paying private-sector business he built himself. That may be why, by his own admission, his social power network when he came into office led to an all-male pool of job applicants. And as any woman with a job knows, getting the job is not the same a being paid the same amount as male colleagues for it -- the question on the table before Romney Tuesday night, and one he ultimately punted on.

That led to what could have been one of the strongest lines of the night for Obama in reply, though he didn't fully realize the potential of the rejoinder. "I've got two daughters and I want to make sure that they have the same opportunities that anybody's sons have," the president said. The meaning was clear: If Malia and Sasha Obama don't have the same opportunities (even without being the children of a president) as Tagg and Josh and Craig and Matt and Ben Romney, America is not living up to its potential.

"Binders full of women" was also exactly the sort of slightly awkward Romneyism that inspires the Tumblrsphere, and Veronica De Souza of Brooklyn was quick to turn it into a crowd-sourced meme-generating project, Binders Full of Women. A self-described "social media pro," she also described herself as in search of work.

The American Bridge PAC, meanwhile, jumped on the non-Tumblr URL and snapped up BindersFullOfWomen.com "to educate voters on Romney's REAL record on issues important to women & his record on (not) appointing many female judges," according to the group's Chris Harris.

On Facebook, Binders Full of Women by Wednesday morning had garnered 242,000 likes and inspired a slew of imitators -- Binders Full of Men, Binders Full of Gays, etc. -- with fewer.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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