Some people are mystified as to why “binders full of women” is the meme that people remember from Tuesday night’s presidential debate. Some men obviously don’t get it (see below), but I think a lot of women were struck by the awkwardness and belabored tone of Mitt Romney’s anecdote about improving the representation of women appointees in his gubernatorial administration in Massachusetts in the past decade. In trying to demonstrate that he thinks about sex equity and has taken steps in his career to redress what he sees as an imbalance, he unfortunately only confirmed a Democratic perception of him as insular and out of touch with the worlds that most people live and work in. Perhaps many were wondering like me, “the only time you thought about this was when you were nearly 60 years old and in public office? What about all of those years at Boston Consulting Group and Bain? Hmmm.”
(N.B. Before demagoguing this, Democrats should ask themselves about their party’s commitment to sex equity and equal opportunity for women and men in the workplace. How ’bout that 2008 primary season? Remember that? Then shut up, Democrats, and stop acting like your party isn’t the abusive boyfriend or husband warning women “It’ll be worse for you if you dump me for the other guy!“)
This discussion of the “binders” comment is highly instructive for women who choose to initiate a serious conversation about feminism or gender issues with a group of men who refuse to take these issues seriously. These maneuvers will look familiar to a lot of people who follow conversations about gender and feminism on blogs, in faculty meetings, or anyplace where there is a large number if not a supermajority of antifeminsts. Incidentally, it also illustrates exactly why the “binders” comment resonated with a lot of educated and politically informed women–starting with the fact that there is only one woman at the table. From this morning’s “Morning Joe,” with Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough:
- Brzezinski opens the segment announcing that she wants to talk about the “binders full of women” comment, and how it’s actually untrue that Romney solicited the binders when they were apparently provided to both campaigns by an advocacy group for women in public service.
- Mark Halperin immediately demurs, suggesting that this is just a dumb “gotcha” issue and wishes instead for a “spirited debate in this campaign about which of these candidates would do more for all Americans, including women,” instead of a trivial comment from a live debate. In other words, women’s issues aren’t universal, they’re particular if not trivial, and they’re not what a great campaign or political conversation should focus on.
- Brzezinski then defends her position and explains that Romney misrepresented how the binders came into his possession.
- Joe Scarborough then says this is “a ridiculous, ridiculous” argument for Democrats to make, and says that it’s a sign of desperation on their part. He then trivializes Brzezinksi’s concern, reassuring her that it’s only “your concern, that’s not the concern of a waitress who’s trying to keep her two jobs in Youngstown, Ohio.” In other words, shut up you privileged, bourgeois feminist! Your bourgeois feminism doesn’t speak to working class women’s concerns, when clearly Mitt Romney’s policies do!
- Willie Geist neither joins with the boys nor sides with Brzezinski, but rather points out that it wasn’t probably smart politics for Romney to invoke flex time so that women could go home and make dinner for their families. (Actually, this is a very good point.)
- Joe Scarborough then ignores the entire premise of the segment and accuses Democrats of wanting women to be “hyper-obsessed with abortion.” (Actually, Brzezinki is trying to talk about jobs and pay equity, not abortion. But at least no one argues with us when we point out that abortion is in fact a legitimate women’s issue!) He then trivializes Brzezinski by saying how much he loves her and then proposes that the show be called “Morning Mika” instead, mocking her efforts to initiate a discussion of a legitimate news item. (Dismissive and patronizing! That’s our Joe!)
- Brzezinski continues to press the larger point, trying to pin down Romney on the Lily Ledbetter Act, equal pay for equal work, and the economy. Halperin then says he’s up for a discussion about the economy, just not one about the trivial “gotcha” issue that is “something that doesn’t matter as much as a lot of other things.”
- Scarborough then complains that all the mainstream media want to talk about with respect to women is “abortion,” and invokes a working-class woman again to justify his point.
- The conversation continues in which the men argue with Brzezinzki about having to talk about this meaningless issue that only interests bourgeois feminists. They agree that what Romney did is just what corporate titans do–they ask people for binders full of information whenever they need to make decisions, and it’s unfair to criticize Romney for this because “it’s not right for the country” (in the words of Halperin).
In the end, though, Scarborough reveals that “e-mails are flooding in ten to one on this issue” in favor of Brzezinki’s point of view. A producer goes on camera to read one that he thinks sums up the sense of 90% of the e-mails: “back off, Morning Joe boys, Mika’s point is relevant.” And all of the boys laugh, but then they complain yet again that they’ve “been talking about binders for 20 minutes.” Actually, no: they’ve been talking about how pointless it is to talk about something that Brzezinski wants to discuss on behalf of many women voters, and they’ve come to an almost unanimous conclusion against their own viewership that they are right and that they shouldn’t have to take this issue seriously at all.
I kept wondering what the discussion would have sounded like if there were just one or two other women on the roundtable besides Brzezinski–not that they all would have agreed with her, but I doubt that the whole conversation would have been about her choice of subject matter and its relevance to this election. But of course, unless there are other women, it will be easy (and clearly fun) for the MJ boys to mock and patronize Brzezinski, with her silly little “women’s issues.”
Someone needs to start the “binders full of asshats” tumblr feed.
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