Binders full of women: Inane office supply focus misses the point

Binders full of women: Of course politicians have them, along with binders full of any kind of potential appointees. Wouldn't we crucify Romney – or Obama, for that matter – if he didn't have lists of women? The important thing is what's done with the lists of women – let's focus on that.

Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus/AP
Binders full of ....appointees. This is the binder produced in 2002 by the Massachusetts Government Appointments Project, listing names of potential female candidates for high-level positions. During the second presidential debate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, referred to the MassGAP notebook in saying that he was sent "binders full of women," a comment which touched off a wave of social media parodies.

It’s not just Mitt Romney. I, too, have binders full of women.

OK, not binders. But lists, certainly. They are scattered on different word-processing documents and live in the far corners of my computer, generally connected with the strange variety of story topics I’ve covered over the past few years. They tend to include names and phone numbers and reasons why the women in question might be helpful for me to interview. And, for the most part, they remain out of sight, not even on my desktop.

Parenting-style quiz: Are you a helicopter parent?

But if I had a campaign staff – or, perhaps more accurately, the bipartisan Massachusetts Government Appointments Project (MassGAP), which actually did the hard work of putting together the now-famous Romney binders – you can be sure I’d have those lists in hard copy form. My binders would even be color coded. Container Store style. With a nice, pleasing Fall palate, of course.

Which makes me wonder: Do we have any info on whether Mr. Romney’s binders full of women looked like?  Maybe that could be the next hot campaign topic.

Because, if the past few weeks are any indication, when it comes to politics about women and kids – demographics both sides swear up and down are super duper important – the more inane the subject matter, the more buzz it gets.

The binders, of course, are the latest example. These notorious paper products (or were they plastic?) came up during the second presidential debate when presidential hopeful Romney answered (ish) a question about pay equity for women. He said that as governor of Massachusetts, he noticed that none of the applicants for his Cabinet were women, and that he asked women’s group to find qualified people. They, then, “brought us whole binders full of women,” Romney said.

(The way this actually went down is a bit contested, with some saying that the women’s groups – notably MassGAP – were the proactive ones in promoting gender equity in the State House.)

The Twitterverse responded immediately, with snarky comments and memes reminiscent only of... Big Bird. (Remember that Romney comment? The one about how he liked Big Bird but would still pull funding for public television? The spin after that was equally empty. Forget substantive talk about early childhood education or educational programming for underprivileged kids; let’s pit Big Bird against Oscar The Grouch.)

Democratic pundits are still criticizing Romney for the binders comment, with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden taking their own shots on the campaign trail this week.

“We don’t have to collect a bunch of binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women,” Mr. Obama said.

“The idea that he had to go and ask where a qualified woman was, he should have just come to my house. He didn’t need a binder,” Mr. Biden said.

Of course, because this is politics, others have jumped in on defense.  The binders represent a concerted effort to find qualified female candidates, they say.  They show that Romney cares about women.

Meanwhile, others are wondering what it would be to work in a place where people bring you binders full of useful information, and maybe even a cup of coffee now and then.

But seriously, folks, this is silly. Political institutions, from the White House to your city council, have “binders” of some form or another on just about everything.  You could argue that if Romney hadn’t checked out a binder full of women then he wasn’t doing his job. (Whether the binders themselves led to equity is another issue – women’s groups have pointed out that the percentage of women serving under Romney dropped significantly throughout his time as governor.)

Rather than debate this – or Big Bird, or Michelle Obama’s and Ann Romney’s matching pink outfits, or even the extent to which Mitt Romney values a home-cooked meal – maybe we could have more public back and forth about the substantive policy questions related to women and families.

We’ve noted a few of these in past posts.  But to get your policy juices flowing, consider:

Access to sick days. At the moment, 80 percent of low-wage workers and 40 percent of private-sector workers do not have access to even a single earned sick day to take care of themselves or to care for a child, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Surveys have shown this to be a big deal for moms, who are often the ones who take the workplace hit when baby (or an older kid) needs care. But is this an issue for government to resolve?

Maternity leave.  Yes, we’re mentioning this again.  As we’ve noted, the U.S. is one of the few countries in the world in which the federal government neither provides nor mandates paid leave after a birth of a child. This is a clear economic issue: according to the U.S. Census Bureau, some 40 percent of new moms take unpaid maternity leave, and many take on new debt or otherwise struggle financially because of it. (A small Human Rights Watch survey in 2011 found that about two-thirds of parents who went on unpaid leave took on debt.)  There is some research that even connects women’s higher bankruptcy rate to maternity leave. Again, is this an issue for government to address? How?

Parenting style quiz: Are you a helicopter parent?

These are just a couple of the important topics, from pay to contraception, that should be at the forefront of the political debate this year. Binders? Not so much.

I suggest, in fact, that we simply leave them behind.

Unless, of course, someone wants to work on mine. 

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