Yesterday morning, I logged onto Facebook only to have my News Feed inundated with memes and messages all about Romney’s “binders full of women” comment at the Presidential debate. Being in the U.K., I hadn’t watched the debate, so I had no idea what it was about. However, being the politically minded and overly curious person I am, I found a clip of the question and both Obama’s and Romney’s answers. I figured instead of simply sharing memes and so on, I’d come back to GMP for a moment to write an article discussing the differences between the two answers to the question that was raised.
So, the question was about equal pay and Obama’s answer was perhaps the most straightforward. Basically what he did was give an example of something he’d done in the past to help close the gap, and assured voters that he’d keep working to fix the problem. I mean it wasn’t a great answer; it was totally vague as to what he would do in the future with regards to the wage gap. Obama’s answer was basically acknowledging that there are some aspects to our social systems which make it more difficult for women to get paid the same as men for the same job. He professed an interest in changing the system to be fairer; in trying to take gender out of the workplace.
Romney’s answer, on the other hand, was a personal anecdote about a time when he was governor when he noticed that only men had applied for jobs in his cabinet, so he went looking for female applicants. And, of course, here is where he made his “binders full of women,” comment. Now for a moment let’s ignore whether or not the anecdote was true. Let’s ignore the fact that his anecdote didn’t answer the question, which was about equal pay not hiring practices. Let’s even ignore the meme-worthy quote itself, and instead focus on the main message of his answer: affirmative action.
As Role/Reboot columnist Lynn Beisner asserts, at its heart, Romney’s answer was a personal story about how he utilized affirmative action in his own hiring practices. Affirmative action, particularly the form it takes in the story Romney related, is really quite condescending and patronizing. It assumes that even women who are equally qualified for a job are somehow restricted from applying for and obtaining that job. Now if that is the case, then the answer is not to slap the band aid of affirmative action onto it. The answer is to change the system which is restricting women from getting those jobs.
The other part of Romney’s answer was about having flexible hours for women because of childcare and cooking dinner and what not. That’s actually not a bad idea, except for the way in which he emphasized its relevance to women. Parents should have more flexibility in their work hours, both mothers and fathers. Actually, I’d argue that the U.S. needs to seriously take a look at its work ethic in general, but that’s a different conversation. What’s important, and problematic, is that in Romney’s discussion of flexible work hours, he painted an idealized 1950s styled home, except that the mother/wife also works. Her work life takes a back seat to her job as a wife, which Romney suggests is a conflict of priorities unique to women.
Let me put it this way, the way I heard it, Obama’s answer was about ‘helping women help themselves.’ Romney’s answer very firmly places women as a group of people requiring help to gain equality. It basically says, ‘because you can’t do it yourself, we’ll do it for you.’ And that isn’t really equality at all, because if it is something that can be given, it can also theoretically be taken away again.