WASHINGTON — In the debate on Tuesday night, Mitt Romney said that he made every effort to find qualified women for Cabinet positions when he was governor of Massachusetts.
“Well, gosh,” he said he told his staff who had an abundance of male applicants, “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?’ ” Romney added. “And they brought us whole binders full of women.”
The awkward turn of phrase — “binders full of women” — immediately took off online and triggered a day of back and forth between Democrats and Republicans over who can best represent concerns of women. A Facebook page, called “Binders Full of Women,” was created and by midday had nearly 300,000 likes. Dan Lacey, an artist known for political parodies, was selling a painting on eBay of Romney holding two binders with female legs coming out of them. A Tumblr page, with spoof images, was created, and President Obama resurrected the line during a campaign stop in Iowa.
“We don’t have to collect a bunch of binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women,” he said.
Democrats went into overdrive trying to spread the message, staging several conference calls and e-mailing reporters: “We’re Gonna Talk Binders at 12:15 PM EST.” The Republican National Committee staged its own call, to talk about “Obama’s empty binder second-term agenda,” and later released an image of an open binder with blank pages.
The hubbub over the topic seemed to typify a campaign that has been driven not by big, grand ideas for the country, but squabbling and attempts to win news cycles that are increasingly counted by minutes, not hours or days. But it also reflected how aggressively both candidates are courting women, who make up a larger share of reliable voters than men. Obama has long held a lead among women, but Romney in the past two weeks has been closing the gender gap.
Romney’s comment about seeking women in his Cabinet came in response to a question from a young woman asking about inequities in the workplace, with females often earning less than their male counterparts.
Romney’s contention that he initially reached out to women’s groups was not entirely accurate, or at least didn’t tell the full story. Leaders of the women’s groups said they were the ones who initially approached Romney, asking him to sign a pledge during the 2002 campaign, which he and his Democratic opponent Shannon O’Brien both did.
The “binders full of women” came from a coalition called Massachusetts Government Appointments Project, or MassGAP, that had formed in August 2002 to address the shortage of women in high-ranking government positions. The coalition had started assembling groups of applicants, reaching out to women’s organizations around the state to present potential hires to whoever won the election.
“We contacted both candidates before the final election,” said Liz Levin, who was chairman of MassGAP until 2010. “This was an effort that we put our hearts in. We wanted to make sure that people knew how many good, qualified, terrific ladies there were.”
Romney appointed Kerry Healey, the incoming lieutenant governor, to be the liaison to MassGAP, Levin said. Several weeks after the election, the group presented several hundred applicants to Healey, said Levin, who is an Obama supporter but stressed that MassGAP is a nonpartisan group.
And yes, there were binders.
“There were actual binders involved,” Levin said. “It was before stuff was done, like it is now, electronically.” The discrepancies in Romney’s statements were initially pointed out by the Boston Phoenix.
By some measurements, Romney’s record was fairly strong in appointing women to top positions, at least in the early part of his term.
Massachusetts ranked first nationally in the percentage of women in top executive branch leadership positions, according to a study by the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society at the University at Albany that was based on data collected in the summer and fall of 2003, several months after Romney took office.
About midway through Romney’s four-year term, 42 percent of his 33 new appointments were women, according to a study done by the UMass Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy using some of the data collected by MassGAP.
But over the next two years, women made up only 25 percent of the 64 new appointments Romney made. By the end of his term, women made up 27.6 percent of those in high-ranking positions overall, which was slightly lower than it was before Romney took office.
Obama currently has eight women among his 23 Cabinet members, or about 35 percent.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.