Gender Binder: How Mitt Alienated Women in Debate

For the first time in either a Presidential or Vice Presidential debate, the candidates delved into women's issues last night.

That was bad news for Romney, who had magically erased Obama's advantage with women voters after the first debate--which was completely free of women's issues.

Moderator Candy Crowley steered the candidates right to the edge of the gender gap when she called on a woman who asked a question about pay equity.

Obama reminded the audience that one of his first acts as President was to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

Mitt Romney, whose party has been denying the existence of the pay gap for years, gave a weird answer, spurring a torrent of social media satire, and plunging him right off the cliff.

When he became governor of Massachusetts, Romney said, he wanted to get more women into cabinet positions:

"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? . . . . 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!"

Binders full of women?

Something about Mitt's awkward phrasing--reminiscent of Ann Romney's "I love you, women!"-- tickled comedians from coast to coast.

On Twitter, Salon political writer Alex Pareene immediately flagged it: "Binders?"

"Get back in your binder!" Stephanie Miller was joking with female callers on her radio show this morning.

A Facebook page, "Binders full of women," had 273,198 "likes" by 10 a.m.

Among the posts: "The 3-hole-punch here is poking holes in women's rights: desire to repeal Roe v. W, getting rid of Planned Parenthood, and in Paul Ryan's case, voting against the Fair Pay Act."

But the best follow-up came from David Bernstein, who fact-checked Mitt's binder remark and found that it wasn't even true.

Romney's binder full of women was actually provided to him by a group called MassGAP, formed to address the problem of few women in leadership in state government.

Romney took the binder, appointed some of the women recommended by the groups involved, including the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus, mostly to head agencies he didn't care about, Bernstein reports.

Finally, Bernstein reports: "A UMass-Boston study found that the percentage of senior-level appointed positions held by women actually declined throughout the Romney administration, from 30.0% prior to his taking office, to 29.7% in July 2004, to 27.6% near the end of his term in November 2006"

So much for the binder approach to pay equity.

On this issue -- like others affecting women, including Romney's surprise reversal in the debate, when he declared, confusingly, that employers and the government should not block women's access to contraception and that he believes all women need contraception access--the Republican candidate has a serious credibility gap.

Romney's bullying style in the debate--toward both President Obama and Candy Crowley--doesn't play well with women, either.

My prediction: after the debate last night, the gender gap opens back up.

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Joe Biden's Class Act."

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter