Binders full of women

Image credit here.

Some people are mystified as to why “binders full of women” is the meme that people remember from Tuesday night’s presidential debate.  Some men obviously don’t get it (see below), but I think a lot of women were struck by the awkwardness and belabored tone of Mitt Romney’s anecdote about improving the representation of women appointees in his gubernatorial administration in Massachusetts in the past decade.  In trying to demonstrate that he thinks about sex equity and has taken steps in his career to redress what he sees as an imbalance, he unfortunately only confirmed a Democratic perception of him as insular and out of touch with the worlds that most people live and work in.  Perhaps many were wondering like me, “the only time you thought about this was when you were nearly 60 years old and in public office?  What about all of those years at Boston Consulting Group and Bain?  Hmmm.”

(N.B.  Before demagoguing this, Democrats should ask themselves about their party’s commitment to sex equity and equal opportunity for women and men in the workplace.  How ’bout that 2008 primary season?  Remember that?  Then shut up, Democrats, and stop acting like your party isn’t the abusive boyfriend or husband warning women “It’ll be worse for you if you dump me for the other guy!“)

This discussion of the “binders” comment is highly instructive for women who choose to initiate a serious conversation about feminism or gender issues with a group of men who refuse to take these issues seriously.  These maneuvers will look familiar to a lot of people who follow conversations about gender and feminism on blogs, in faculty meetings, or anyplace where there is a large number if not a supermajority of antifeminsts.  Incidentally, it also illustrates exactly why the “binders” comment resonated with a lot of educated and politically informed women–starting with the fact that there is only one woman at the table.  From this morning’s “Morning Joe,” with Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough:

  • Brzezinski opens the segment announcing that she wants to talk about the “binders full of women” comment, and how it’s actually untrue that Romney solicited the binders when they were apparently provided to both campaigns by an advocacy group for women in public service.
  • Mark Halperin immediately demurs, suggesting that this is just a dumb “gotcha” issue and wishes instead for a “spirited debate in this campaign about which of these candidates would do more for all Americans, including women,” instead of a trivial comment from a live debate.  In other words, women’s issues aren’t universal, they’re particular if not trivial, and they’re not what a great campaign or political conversation should focus on.
  • Brzezinski then defends her position and explains that Romney misrepresented how the binders came into his possession.
  • Joe Scarborough then says this is “a ridiculous, ridiculous” argument for Democrats to make, and says that it’s a sign of desperation on their part.  He then trivializes Brzezinksi’s concern, reassuring her that it’s only “your concern, that’s not the concern of a waitress who’s trying to keep her two jobs in Youngstown, Ohio.”  In other words, shut up you privileged, bourgeois feminist!  Your bourgeois feminism doesn’t speak to working class women’s concerns, when clearly Mitt Romney’s policies do!
  • Willie Geist neither joins with the boys nor sides with Brzezinski, but rather points out that it wasn’t probably smart politics for Romney to invoke flex time so that women could go home and make dinner for their families.  (Actually, this is a very good point.)
  • Joe Scarborough then ignores the entire premise of the segment and accuses Democrats of wanting women to be “hyper-obsessed with abortion.”  (Actually, Brzezinki is trying to talk about jobs and pay equity, not abortion.  But at least no one argues with us when we point out that abortion is in fact a legitimate women’s issue!)  He then trivializes Brzezinski by saying how much he loves her and then proposes that the show be called “Morning Mika” instead, mocking her efforts to initiate a discussion of a legitimate news item.  (Dismissive and patronizing!  That’s our Joe!)
  • Brzezinski continues to press the larger point, trying to pin down Romney on the Lily Ledbetter Act, equal pay for equal work, and the economy.  Halperin then says he’s up for a discussion about the economy, just not one about the trivial “gotcha” issue that is “something that doesn’t matter as much as a lot of other things.”
  • Scarborough then complains that all the mainstream media want to talk about with respect to women is “abortion,” and invokes a working-class woman again to justify his point.
  • The conversation continues in which the men argue with Brzezinzki about having to talk about this meaningless issue that only interests bourgeois feminists.  They agree that what Romney did is just what corporate titans do–they ask people for binders full of information whenever they need to make decisions, and it’s unfair to criticize Romney for this because “it’s not right for the country” (in the words of Halperin).

In the end, though, Scarborough reveals that “e-mails are flooding in ten to one on this issue” in favor of Brzezinki’s point of view.  A producer goes on camera to read one that he thinks sums up the sense of 90% of the e-mails:  “back off, Morning Joe boys, Mika’s point is relevant.”  And all of the boys laugh, but then they complain yet again that they’ve “been talking about binders for 20 minutes.”  Actually, no:  they’ve been talking about how pointless it is to talk about something that Brzezinski wants to discuss on behalf of many women voters, and they’ve come to an almost unanimous conclusion against their own viewership that they are right and that they shouldn’t have to take this issue seriously at all.

I kept wondering what the discussion would have sounded like if there were just one or two other women on the roundtable besides Brzezinski–not that they all would have agreed with her, but I doubt that the whole conversation would have been about her choice of subject matter and its relevance to this election.  But of course, unless there are other women, it will be easy (and clearly fun) for the MJ boys to mock and patronize Brzezinski, with her silly little “women’s issues.”

Someone needs to start the “binders full of asshats” tumblr feed.

39 thoughts on “Binders full of women

  1. Good N.B. above, Historiann. If Bain, et. al., weren’t such testosterone hot shops, Romney might have been able to go with the more professional–if still somewhat formulaic–office metaphor of “immediately went to my Rolodex, and realized that there were easily a dozen people who could serve, and who could refer to me other appropriate candidates for these positions…” That *is* certainly an artful piece of subject-changing that makes the proferred subject itself the subject of the conversation, rather than what it involves and refers to. The other meme that seems to be going around is whether or not these two strutting roosters circling each other on the stage were not undercutting their own supposed cultural sensitivities, etc., which takes us back, full circle, to the awkward question of 2008.


  2. p.s. those of you on Twitter can also follow her there. There was a funny and righteous part of the video above towards the end in which Cher (THE Cher) tweets that she’s digging Mika’s points, so Mika decides to follow Cher too.


  3. I didn’t see this exchange, though I do toggle back and forth between MSNBC and CNN at the gym. What I did see was Soledad O’Brien on CNN asking her roundtable of men whether too much was being made of the “binders full of women” remark and one of them – Will Cain – dismissed it as trivial. Either he is too literal-minded to understand that “binders full of women” isn’t just about “binders full of women” or he is of the same sexist mindset as Romney. I’m glad to see this post.


  4. Sure, Democrats aren’t any better. And sure, Obama won the 2008 primaries due to discrimination against Hillary. We are all paying for it dearly.

    The journalistic class bottom feeds on garbage and has not enough refinement to deal with social/political issues on any level acceptable to humans.

    “Binders full of women,” as a phrase, offends any person who thinks that we all are equal. Romney, as god, just picks an arbitrary woman from the binder and elevates her to a better place. Just go away. Just go away. And if you can take Obama with you, I’ll be delighted.


  5. The most mindblowing aspect of Romney’s performance, I thought, was how much effort and rehearsal went into it. All the media were casting this debate as being about women. Obama new it. Romney must have known it. And this was Romney’s best game. This is what he says after focusing heavily on a key cohort of voters.

    Maybe Binders Full of Women was a trivial slip of the tongue, but couldn’t Willard have rehearsed a couple of talking points? Even a simple-minded spiel about how what women need, above all, is a healthy economy would have been cogent. He couldn’t or wouldn’t do it.


  6. FWIW, I think the problem with the “binders full of women” thing for working class women is that nobody solicits binders full of anything for working-class, or even most middle-class, jobs, nor do advocacy groups provide such binders on those women’s behalves. “Binders full of women” leaves most women out of the jobs/economy conversation – basically assuming that “most women” aren’t really “part” of the conversation or care about these issues. You know, because our first priority is/should be cooking dinner for our families.


  7. I think Dr. Crazy is right about the “binders” comment. Romney’s notional view of women and work is of white-or pink-collar workers who are mothers, but this is not the Alpha and Omega of issues pertaining to working women. It would have been terrific if the boyz at MSNBC had discussed this with Brzezinski, because it’s clearly not bourgeois feminists who are trying to narrow the range of issues pertaining to working women in this campaign, it’s Romney himself whose vision is too narrow. (And remember, his “binders” comment was a non-answer dodge to a question as to pay equity for women.)

    What, BTW, is so politically risky about supporting equal pay for equal work? I thought even conservatives supported basic fairness, but perhaps I am wrong.


  8. H’Ann – The MARKET should decide! Fairness will happen by magic! It’s not government’s JOB to promote equality! Or diversity!

    And this gets to the larger point you make in your post about the fact that the Dems aren’t much better on “the woman question” than the Republicans are: those shaping the conversation on both sides ultimately believe (and I think they really do believe it) that women have “come such a long way, baby” that issues of equity and fairness in terms of job/pay/money have already been settled. Of course, they aren’t taking home the 77 cents on the dollar.


  9. Yeah, and they don’t want to hear about it from Mika Brzezinski that women aren’t there yet. Of course, they wouldn’t hear it from a non-college educated blue collar worker, either, but they’re not inviting them to sit next to them on their morning shows and decorate the set.

    I know that sounds demeaning to her, but hang on and let me explain. (I don’t mean that as a criticism of Brzezinski, but rather as a criticism of the role she plays on the show as the lone woman.)

    Upon the recommendation of a former student who said that the book reminded her of me, I read Mika Brzezinski’s book last year, Knowing Your Value. It was a little fluffy, as you might expect, but I thought she made good points and gave women good advice (based on her own mistakes, and interviews with successful women) as to how to get a raise and get paid what you’re worth. So although it’s not like a book by a political scientist or an economist, pay equity and women’s work is something she has been thinking about and researching for a long time.

    In any case, one of my favorite parts is when she talks openly about what it takes her as a 40-something woman to get herself camera ready by 5 or 6 in the morning every weekday: the hair care (cuts, color, maintenance), the workouts, the makeup, the clothing, all of which she pays for herself! She does all of this to get ready for work, and then she sees the guys roll in unshowered (and sometimes unshaved) in their polarfleece pullovers 10 minutes before air time, but that’s OK for them because they’re guys. She knows that she won’t keep her job long if she shows up just as informally and ungroomed as the men, but by capitulating to the teevee’s different demands for women’s appearance, she can then be trivialized by the men and demeaned as just another rich-lady privileged bourgeois feminist.


  10. I was really struck by some of the language Romney used. Not only the “binders” comment, but the basic implication that women get hired after everyone else, you include them because you kind of have to, and even then they are the ones most concerned with getting home from work in time to feed their children. And this doesn’t even account for those single moms out there, who are also responsible for kids who grow up and go on killing sprees with their automatic weapons.

    It isn’t that I don’t think he believes all this, because I think he does. It is that after all that coaching and debate prep, this is the best he could do.

    That is some seriously impenetrable bubble he occupies.


  11. Interestingly, Brzezinski is a graduate of a girls’ high school, the Madeira School, located in the VA suburbs of D.C. While Madeira and similar institutions have their strengths and weaknesses, I suspect graduates of girls’ high schools and women’s colleges, especially if they are in even superficial contact with their alumnae organizations, are likely to be especially puzzled by the idea that it’s necessary to search high and low to find qualified women for any job. It’s hard to believe that Romney (and, yes, plenty of Democratic candidates as well) couldn’t tap into such old girls’ networks if he/they chose. There are limitations to such networks, of course (they still tend to consist primarily, though not exclusively, of the privileged, and so, like old boys’ networks, perpetuate privilege), but, for powerful men, a potential contact is often as close as the other side of the bed, or at least the Thanksgiving dinner table (although Wikipedia describes Ann Romney’s alma mater, Kingswood, as a “finishing school,” I’m seeing a several quite accomplished alumnae from the ’60s on a list there, and more from the ’70s and beyond, and I doubt the list is exhaustive).


  12. Bravo! I very much like this quote: “Then shut up, Democrats, and stop acting like your party isn’t the abusive boyfriend or husband warning women “It’ll be worse for you if you dump me for the other guy!“)”

    But also this: “Joe Scarborough then says this is “a ridiculous, ridiculous” argument for Democrats to make, and says that it’s a sign of desperation on their part. He then trivializes Brzezinksi’s concern, reassuring her that it’s only “your concern, that’s not the concern of a waitress who’s trying to keep her two jobs in Youngstown, Ohio.” In other words, shut up you privileged, bourgeois feminist! Your bourgeois feminism doesn’t speak to working class women’s concerns, when clearly Mitt Romney’s policies do!”

    This is a similar argument to what many mainstream (white, middle aged, heterosexual males) journalists are saying in Australia about sexism and misogyny, and the Julia Gillard controversy – Labor is apparently only concerned with saving their own skin and not worried about ‘real sexism’ (which only occurs overseas in places like Afghanistan). I was wondering whether you had been following this story from down under? Any thoughts?


  13. She knows that she won’t keep her job long if she shows up just as informally and ungroomed as the men, but by capitulating to the teevee’s different demands for women’s appearance, she can then be trivialized by the men and demeaned as just another rich-lady privileged bourgeois feminist.

    Cf. country music. Shania Twain and Faith Hill still get attacked for makeup and glamour-shots poses. Not real country! If they skipped the glam + airbrushing as Willie Nelson and Toby Keith do, they couldn’t sing in a Nashville bar, let alone be signed by a label.


  14. Heh. I’d love to see a female Willie Nelson analog who was adored, revered, and sought after by much younger men! But of course, I never will in my lifetime.

    Evan, thanks for commenting. I have been following a bit of the Gillard controversy, but I don’t know enough to have an informed opinion. (I assume you’re referring to the Slipper scandal, the speaker’s resignation, and Gillard’s “misogyny” speech against Tony Abbott earlier this month?) I’d love to hear your take.


  15. Ok, here’s my take on the Gillard/sexism controversy:

    Gillard’s speech was very good. Her listing of Abbott’s sexist comments was very careful and well argued. It was a good reminder that Abbott has routinely made sexist (and racist) comments in the past. A list of quotes by Abbott can be found here:
    Also the organisation GetUp! (Australian equivalent of the US org MoveOn! I think) ran an ad during the last election making the same point:

    I think Gillard was genuinely fired up by Abbott’s new-found concern about sexism and ‘nastiness’ (after one of his shock-jock supporters was criticised widely a week before for his remarks regarding Gillard) and Abbott feigning his support of women, which was in contrast with this earlier statements. The wider parliamentary debate around Peter Slipper was not important for that 15 minutes.

    That said, Gillard’s support of Slipper, and many of Labor’s policies, are cynical and are attempts to control the ‘centre’. Labor under Gillard has tried some moderately progressive things, which have pissed off the Liberals (our version of the Conservatives – not small ‘l’ liberals at all), but the party has also wallowed in centre-right populism, just like New Labour in the UK.

    Gillard’s speech touched upon the wider issues of sexism and misogyny in Australian society, and I think this inspired a lot of women who have been told that sexism is a feminist invention and that sexism only exists in other places. But the likelihood of this rhetoric translating into policy is another thing entirely, and I’m pessimistic about it.

    In the aftermath of this, we have had many commentators arguing about the dictionary definition of ‘misogyny’ (which is apparently ‘the hatred of women’) and arguing that this is the definition we have to use. There is no regard for the fact that words change their meaning all the time and that words can mean different things for different people – but then again, most of these would hate this ‘postmodern’ idea. Using the dictionary definition to bolster your argument seems like such a first-year student thing to do – it’s like quoting wikipedia!

    However, if everyone gets caught up in squabbling over the definition of misogyny and detaing whether Abbott is a misogyny, as someone put it (I forget who), then it implies that it is OK for him to be just a sexist.


  16. What I thought was interesting in the exchange is that for whatever reason, Obama was prepared, and talked not just about Lily Ledbetter, but economic justice issues for working women, not just the governor’s chief of staff. After all, she’s probably NOT relying on Planned Parenthood for her mammogram. It probably makes a difference not only that he has daughters but that in spite of his basketball buddies, his inner circle also includes a few very powerful women.

    I watched the debate and my facebook feed more or less simultaneously, and the first “binder” image showed up within ten minutes. And in the conversations, people were at least as offended about the “going home to cook dinner” comment as the binders. And the dinner thing was this “Here’s a personal solution to a social problem” thing….


  17. For me it was thrilling to see the binders meme take off. As we have often discussed here, the media’s and the politician’s unwillingness to discuss women’s issues seriously has long been a feature of US politics. The strange ways that women’s issues have blasted into this election cycle has been interesting (how suddenly everyone was outraged that Republicans are skeptical about women’s claims of rape, for example, even though they’ve been saying crap like that for years), but what I loved here was as @Susan said, the meme popped up *immediately*, and then there was a tumblr, and did you guys see how the meme went viral on (have you ever seen those moments when people take over amazon reviews in amazing ways?)? I mean, the tumblr is brilliant, and there was Feminist Ryan Gosling, and Texts from Hillary and other memes showing up to participate in the Binders Meme. A binder full of awesome. Suddenly it was everywhere, and a moment that media may or may not have been talking about the next day was suddenly a force that everyone picked up on. And so Morning Joe has to cover the issue, and no matter how condescendingly and stupidly they treated it, their *viewers* heard what Ms. Brzezinski was saying, and we’re talking about . I was delighted to see social media providing a voice for those who are not usually heard. The binders comment provided fertile ground for creativity, but as @Susan and others have remarked, its main utility was to act as a starting off point for conversations about other things (equal pay, Romney’s comment about cooking for your children, etc).


  18. Wow, they really are chastened. And it looks like they’re trying. If they keep on trying, that’s a good thing! Mika Brzezinski comes across as mature, thoughtful, and poised. Very admirable.

    And yes, that is a lot of white men (and one woman).


  19. Need I say that “binders full of women” is reading entirely differently in the trans community?

    But that said — I pointed out to a (white, male) colleague that what Romney had described was affirmative action as we used to practice it, and I wonder if the GOP — which has vilified such practices as “quotas” understood that. Have an overly male, overly white candidate pool? I said; go out and recruit talented women and people of color into it and see if you can diversify the pool and increase your chances of a more diverse hire. I explained that I always did that when I hired, and had been able to hire terrific young scholars who were women and/or of color.

    This colleague responded (I am not f%#king kidding): “But then if you make that hire you have to lower your standards, and it’s just a disaster when you can’t award tenure to that person.”

    Gobsmacked. But not so much that I did not say: “I have never had that problem. Ever.” Which is true.


  20. @nicoleandmaggie, that rings true to me — when Obama talks about his hopes for his daughters, it’s real. Back in the day the president of my university was chastened during the Clarence Thomas hearings when his daughter told him about being harassed on the job: soon we had a task force to revise our policy. Daughters (and granddaughters) matter to men in power.


  21. Wow, TR: that is some asshattery in your department! Because a different pool of job finalists necessarily means “lowering your standards.” Idiot.

    Daughters and granddaughters are important, but it’s discouraging to realize how hampered are politicians’ imagination that a problem or issue is only real to them if it’s in their families. (This is like the lone Republican congressman or senator who supports federal support for a particular disease or condition mostly because someone in his family has this disease or condition, a la Jim Jeffords. Is it really OK for the rest of them not to support funding a program because they don’t know anyone affected by said condition?)


  22. @TR
    My department has had huge success hiring high quality women and minorities. (We’re almost all women and minority assistants and associates, in fact.) How do we do it? Well, we recruit widely and we pretty much just use rubrics to hire advanced assistants and new associates. We initially cut the pool by number of publications in a specific tier of journals. We look through the rest and rate on specific things in a grid using numbers. Then we compare people at the top with numbers that are above a certain threshhold. Then we double check all the women and minorities. We’re also good about policing potentially sexist and racist language and we almost completely ignore letters of recommendation.

    We don’t assume that the woman or minority is the trailing spouse. And we end up with really strong final candidates even though our teaching load is a bit higher than average and we’re in the middle of nowhere. And then they accept the job. (Turns out hubby or partner is willing to be a trailing spouse and single women actually will take jobs in the middle of nowhere.)

    I hear people (in other departments) say, “You can’t hire good women and minorities because they’re too hard to get.” But their only experience is trying to hire a shooting star woman or minority who is going to end up at a top 5 program. If the same person were a white man, our school wouldn’t even be trying because we know it would be a waste of time. But places aren’t willing to look at women who are objectively equivalent to the men they hire. Women (and minorities) have to be much much better, but women who are that much better go elsewhere. So we end up with folks who are higher quality than the men we could attract, just by using objective statistics. (Even though in our non-blind field, those objective statistics are already biased against women and minorities. Meaning their intrinsic quality is even higher just to get the same statistics. Even if the recommendation letters that are supposed to measure intrinsic quality are generally useless.)


  23. p.s. to Evan: your comment got held up in my SPAM filter. Thanks for your insider’s views on Gillard, Slipper, & Abbott.

    When I searched google for an update on what’s going on down your way last night, the first story to pop up was a story about how the most prominent dictionary of Australian English (Macquarie) is going to change its definition of misogyny to “entrenched prejudice against women” rather than “hatred of women.”

    This only makes sense, because all misogynists can point to a family member and say, “I don’t hate women! I’ve got a wife/sister/mother/daughter whom I love!” So while I understand your point about the cynical manipulation of feminism for Gillard’s ends–a point of view I share when it comes to Democratic manipulations of feminist ideas for the purposes of harvesting votes rather than implementing real change–at least you got a new dictionary definition for misogyny!


  24. But of course, the price for said chastisement on Morning Joe is starting a bitch-fight between Mme. Secretary Clinton and Those ‘whiny’ Other Gals, over her quotes in the Marie Claire (i.e. Bitch Fight Internationale) over Women Having It All.

    *le sigh*

    One step forward, 40 yards back….


  25. I don’t object to the discussion of Clinton’s comments in Marie-Claire. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic last summer was already discussed a lot. And, in the main, I agree with Clinton: educated women and men in the U.S. have choices to make about their lives. No one gets as much of what they want in every aspect of life all of the time. Women like Clinton and Slaughter can disagree about stuff–I don’t believe that it was portrayed as a “catfight,” although the MJ crew apparently enjoyed the frisson of Slaughter’s article having been inspired by resigning from a big appointment in the State Department.


  26. “Daughters (and granddaughters) matter to men in power.”

    Not really. A few – and I emphasize a few – men in power think their own girl-children’s lives matter beyond procreation.

    But that’s about that.


  27. I agree, H’ann, it’s pretty feeble that it matters that the president has daughters. The disease thing drives me nuts — it completely gets in the way of a sane medical research policy.
    It’s true, as gayle notes, that not all men change their minds. But I was in one of the early classes of women at a formerly all male university, and it was really clear that one thing that changed the dynamic for many men who had hoped it would always have just men was the idea of daughters and grand-daughters attending. So I do think that people’s experience changes their ideas. One would like to think that empathic imagination was more powerful than it is, but I’ll take experience.


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  29. Pingback: Joe Scarborough is right : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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