Mitt Romney’s "Binders Full of Women" and Its Contexts

In my post yesterday I mentioned that I sometimes write entire blog posts but then fail to publish them. This is one of those posts. Most of it was written in the heat of the moment the morning after the second presidential debate. I wasn’t planning to post it because I was so depressed about the political process—how is a guy who can’t even find qualified female staffers on his own running for the most important job in the country? But then yesterday one of my best friends came out of the closet because she felt the need to explain why she is so impassioned about marriage equality. Her willingness to justify her political position in such a personal way was a wake up call. Change doesn’t happen on its own; and though I doubt anything will come of this post (if you’re reading my blog, you probably already know that I’m a feminist) I encourage us to think deeply about what we believe, no matter what side of the aisle we happen to be on.

I, like a lot of people, sat for a moment in shock before hysterical laughter bubbled in my throat when Mitt Romney said:

‘Well, gosh, can’t we find some women that are also qualified?’ And so we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. 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.”

Leaving aside the fact that what he said isn’t quite factually accurate (via The Washington Post), the reason why it’s funny is because it’s true. In this country, even today, women are not the first choice for leadership positions. When I was at Centennial celebrations a few weeks ago, several older women pulled me aside to say how pleased they were that a woman was the GSA president. At first, this comment struck me as odd and beside the point (shouldn’t they be complimenting me on my work ethic and not my gender?) but as more and more made a point to seek me out to say the same thing, I began to realize that I shouldn’t take what I do for granted.

When I look at women in my generation, the one’s who grew up with Title IX and who routinely score higher on standardized tests than our male counterparts, I don’t see a disenfranchised group who have had to work against the system to get ahead. I’ve never had to fight against anything, really, other than my peers who are just as smart and strong-willed as me. We read Dickinson alongside Thoreau in school. Girls are our Drum Majors and Drill Captains and Coaches and Teachers.

And then I got a job as an administrative assistant straight out of college. I was livid for most of that year. Some of my jobs included—I kid you not—cleaning the kitchen, making sure the fridge was always stocked with soda, and getting the (male) engineers coffee. One of the executive assistants even tried to pull me aside one day to tell me the best way to arrange the sweetener packets on a plate.

Um, what?

I said thanks, but no thanks to that job. I didn’t leave college with thousands of dollars in student loan debt to do things for my colleagues I’m not willing to do for Husband. (Husband, a drinker of tea by the gallons, brews his own tea, and if he runs out of the pink packets, he has to buy them himself. I don’t have time for that!) My feeling is, if you drink the last cup of coffee in the break room, you brew a new pot, no matter what gender you happen to be. It was—is— a shock to my system that not everyone agrees.

So Romney’s Binders Full of Women. If you haven’t seen the Tumblr, you haven’t lived. I’ll wait. You’re back? Ok, let’s have a conversation about this. Some of the many snort-worthy pictures added in the minutes and hours after the debate are, just, classic. The comment lends itself so well to memes. (My personal favorites: One Does Not Simply Fill Binders with Women; Nobody Puts Baby in a Binder; Not Impressed.) The first picture, the one that anticipated the deluge, was a picture of a Trapper Keeper, with the words, “Trap Her, Keep Her,” emblazoned in front of a unicorn and dancing rainbow. The trapper keeper, for those who didn’t grow up in the 80s and 90s, is a binder for young adults, often with pretty cartoons in front, that was a coveted prize in school. The Trapper Keeper was to binders that Coach is to purses. You have one, and the other girls all want to be your best friend.

Perhaps a bit of hyperbole, but not by much (c’mon, you remember what junior high was like). But the words “Trap Her, Keep Her” struck me cold. It doesn’t take an English major to unpack the significance of these lines. It’s almost so ridiculous as to be unworthy of attention, but then it circles back around to tragedy. The reason why so many of us ROFL’d from the twitter feeds was because if we didn’t laugh, we would cry.

The terrifying implication is that it embodies the very real opinion of a certain type of person (male, white, privileged). They really do think we should get back in the kitchen and make them a cup of coffee (two sugars, no creamer).

The woman in a binder is contained. She has a container (both in the object and the person who put her there) and she has no autonomy. She is not even a person, but the representative for her gender. She has no identity, and thus she has no rights. Her binder (object, person) represents the centuries of history wherein women are contained. The Binder has taken many forms in many cultures—foot binding (designed to make women more aesthetically pleasing by controlling a part of her body that is natural in a man but becomes a disgusting fetish on a woman that must be distorted to be beautiful), the corset (designed to make women fit a standard mold, side effects being a rearrangement of organs, loss of breathing capacity, fainting)—but it always comes down to the idea that women are not good enough on their own. We must be shaped, reformed, controlled.

We cannot afford to let Romney’s Binders Full of Women be another political meme, quickly forgotten and shoved under the rug for the latest gaff (“horses and bayonets,” anyone?). If you care about the women in your life, or if you are a woman, think carefully about your vote. And if you think your vote doesn’t matter, remember the lessons of Florida—every. vote. counts. Vote. And then get back to your desk and keep writing.

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3 thoughts on “Mitt Romney’s "Binders Full of Women" and Its Contexts

  1. Libby says:

    I think the fact that he didn't see that statement as condescending is indicative of many many problems he doesn't know he has with women. I refer you to "I have many _______ friends"

  2. Noah Kaplan says:

    Anna, great post. I'm glad you decided to share it. It's worth noting all the other things Mitt Romney said while people were too busy tweeting and photoshopping to deride his choice of words. He said the way to get women back in the work force was to have more jobs with flexible scheduling (assuming that women want/need more flexibility to be with family than men) and that he will create 12 million jobs, which by definition will put women back to work (suggesting that the way to make women desirable employees is to make them the only unemployed people left in the labor market). Though the "binders full of women" evokes a stronger image and therefore has more resonance, I thought it really was his policy prescriptions that were so objectionable.

  3. Anna says:

    Can I just take a moment to say that if I were to pick any of my friends to run for political office, Noah Kaplan would be at the top of the short list? Yes, THANK YOU for commenting and pointing out Romney's specific policy recommendations. Sound bites are convenient for The Daily Show and blogs, but we always need to do our own homework and read about what each side has to offer. Always always always think for yourself—and learning to have a constructive opinion about important topics begins by reading and listening to primary sources.And thank you, Libby, for also reminding us of the many other questionable comments he's made about other groups over the course of this campaign—lest we forget about the 47% sound bite, another bit that resonated within the media but that suggests a larger issue with Romney's policies.

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