Romney’s Binders: The Meme Women Love to Hate

How one little phrase became a potent political symbol

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Thank you Mitt Romney for your “binders full of women” gaffe. Surely you weren’t intending to be condescending at the second presidential debate, but it turned out to be a perfect metaphor for the obstacles so many women face in the workplace. The image of women in binders is so good, so visually acute, it might just replace the shopworn “glass ceiling.” After all, you can’t dress up for Halloween as a glass ceiling. Something about women in binders is both disturbing and funny. That’s useful because there’s nothing less popular these days than a humorless feminist. It’s no wonder that binders have become a kind of exquisitely evocative shorthand the way that hoodies were after the death of Trayvon Martin.

(MORE: Women Voters Won The Second Presidential Debate)

Still, I gather that you and many male political pundits are perplexed as to why this “nonissue” has touched off such a tsunami of criticism, much of it implying that you are completely out of touch, or worse yet, insulting to women. After all, you were just trying to say that when you became governor of Massachusetts in 2003, you found that all the applicants for your cabinet positions “seemed to be men,” so you went looking for qualified women. You probably brought up that anecdote thinking you’d win some points among female voters by describing your heroic return from this search with “whole binders full of women.”

What a surprise it must have been to find that not all those photoshopped images of women pasted into Trapper Keepers on Tumblr were planted by the Obama campaign, and that the hundreds of thousands of people commenting on Facebook and writing hilarious product reviews on Amazon.com were not going to let that one little slip fade out after 24 hours.

So, to help you out, here are four reasons why bindergate isn’t just a superficial “gotcha moment”:

1. The image of a bunch of men leafing through “binders of women” is just icky. It evokes catalogs, porn magazines, mail order brides.

(MORE: The Tyranny of the Sexy Mom)

2. “Binders of women” separates us from the rest of the workforce — which is ironic since we’re the majority of the population. And, the binder comment wasn’t the only time you seemed to describe women in this way, you also singled them out as the ones who need to rush home early from work “to make dinner.” As The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson pointed out “… given an opening to talk about women in the workforce, Romney described people who either had to be dragged on to the stage or would run off of it as soon as they could.”

3. In our paperless society, binders are terribly old-fashioned. They invoke a time when the only jobs women could get in offices involved secretarial duties like putting together binders for the men who would do the real work. And given that women still occupy so few upper management and CEO positions, the thought of being relegated to an old-fashioned office supply item is such a perfect symbol of so many things that irk us.

4. And, as hundreds of online commenters (male and female) have pointed out, the word binder implies, well, binding. And we’re kind of sick of being bound up unless it’s in an E.L. James novel.

We know you meant well in your goal to hire more women in government, even though you didn’t actually go out and ask for the women candidates as you implied, the women had to come to you. (Turns out, they were recruited prior to your election by a bipartisan coalition called MassGAP. The group noted in a statement Wednesday that halfway through your term as governor, 42% of the 33 new appointments made by your administration were women, but by the time you left office, that number had dropped to 25%.) More importantly, you didn’t answer the question that you were asked at the debate, which was, would you support legislation enforcing equal pay for women? Now we might be making a mountain out of a binder, but if you can’t even agree that women deserve to be paid the same wages for the same work as men, then the metaphor is still all too relevant.

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