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Why a 'binder full of women' isn't a bad thing

You have  to move quickly on the Internet, especially during social-media's top political event of all time.

You have  to move quickly on the Internet, especially during social-media's top political event of all time. Tuesday's debate will hold that title for likely about another three weeks, when Election Day likely breaks Twitter. But last night, when Mitt Romney uttered the words "binders full of women" in his town hall debate with President Obama, it came off as just the kind of absurd neologism that inspires laughter, ridicule, and hastily constructed Tumblr blogs. So within minutes-- and I'm not kidding, minutes-- of Romney's utterance, came into being.

Then, not long after that, popped up,  purchased by the pro-Obama PAC American Bridge 21st Century to spotlight Romney's various failings on women's issues and reproductive freedoms. Naturally, there's a Facebook page, too, and it passed 300,000 "likes" this afternoon. The jokes are so plentiful that the Republican National Committee tried to make their own funny, releasing a photo of an empty binder representing President Obama's plan for a second term, and holding a conference call about it. Aw, snap.

"Binders full of women" is a catchy Internet meme and hashtag, but is it actually a good idea?

Here's what Romney said last night, responding to a question about rectifying gender inequities in the workplace, and citing what he did as Massachusetts governor as bonafides:

And -- and so we -- 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 I brought us whole binders full of -- of women.

Romney might have saved himself so much trouble if he'd simply phrased it "binders full of the names of women candidates." But he didn't, and thus, an Internet meme was born. But what about a real conversation about what Romney was actually talking about?

New York magazine's Ann Friedman would like to have one:

...creepy as that imagery is, the country would be better off if more powerful men took a cue from Romney on this one...This is a pretty big statement, especially coming from a Republican candidate. We talk a lot about how diversity matters and how equal representation is important. But in most corners of society, especially the upper echelons of power, we haven’t figured out the best way to walk that talk. Usually when advocates suggest that we need policies in place to ensure our elected officials and CEOs and college admission boards are making a concerted effort to go out and find women and people of color, all political hell breaks loose.

As both Friedman and our own Zachary Roth noted earlier, it would have been an even bigger statement from Romney if he had been telling the truth. Reporter David Bernstein of the Boston Phoenix broke the news about what really happened:

What actually happened was that in 2002 -- prior to the election, not even knowing yet whether it would be a Republican or Democratic administration -- a bipartisan group of women in Massachusetts formed MassGAP to address the problem of few women in senior leadership positions in state government. There were more than 40 organizations involved with the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus (also bipartisan) as the lead sponsor.They did the research and put together the binder full of women qualified for all the different cabinet positions, agency heads, and authorities and commissions. They presented this binder to Governor Romney when he was elected.

OK, so it may have been a fib, lie, untruth -- whatever you might call it. But that doesn't mean it wasn't a good idea. Frequent MHP guest and Feministing editor Chloe Angyal made the point earlier on Twitter that the non-existent binders would've been a form of affirmative action, and the blogger Atrios concurred:

It's about recognizing that if you're a product of a good old white boy network, it's a good idea to make the effort to read those binders, to make the extra effort to look at qualified women and minorities. This isn't a comment on what actually happened when Mitt was in office, just pointing out that if you embrace that story you embrace affirmative action, because aside from a teeny bit of minority business contracting and civil service hiring provisions, that's what affirmative action actually means in this country.

In Romney's effort to appear more moderate over these final weeks of the election, perhaps he'd be well-advised to use this piece of accidental wisdom. That is, if he and his campaign can decide whether or not he actually supports the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and gender equity in the workplace. Getting their talking points straight on that today seems to be an issue.