The 'Binders Full of Women': From Debate Line to Internet Gag

During the second debate, Mitt Romney mentioned a “binder full of women” qualified for cabinet positions he commissioned as Massachusetts governor, thus giving the internet an instant “Big Bird” type moment to knock around for a week. In response to a question on pay equity, Romney told a story about his attempt to appoint women to his cabinet in Massachusetts, via Politico’s Playbook:

“[An] important topic and one which I learned a great deal about, particularly as I was serving as governor of my state, because I had the chance to pull together a Cabinet … I went to my staff, and I said, ‘How come all the [candidates] for these jobs … are all men?’ They said, ‘Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.’ And I said, ‘Well, gosh, can’t … we find … some women that are also qualified?’ … 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 women.”

This wasn’t a “gaffe,” so to speak. But The New Yorker‘s Amy Davidson explains why that particular phrase caught everyone’s attention: “‘Binders full of women’ is a phrase that provoked instant fascination, because it is so strange, and, as a prop and a concept, so vivid.” It’s only grown more vivid since last night, so let’s trace what seemed like a ten minute life during which a debate line transformed into an internet gag:

Reporters look for holes: The Globe‘s Beth Healy noted that there were no female partners at Bain Capital during Romney’s time there. This gets at the major reason some women complained that the anecdote didn’t make Romney look as inclusive as he wanted it to. Davidson writes:

One got the sense of Mitt Romney coming from a place where women were generally in the other room, waiting to be invited in only when the moment—or the visibility of the job—called for it. Romney was fifty-six when he became governor, with decades spent in business during which he could have made the sort of contacts that would have turned him into a resource for others looking for qualified women.

Spin doctors begin spinning: American Bridge 21st Century, a PAC committed to reelecting Obama, bought before the debate even ended. It’s designed to resemble a piece of lined note paper, and features tabs with arguments for how Romney’s policies hurt various groups of women, from “mothers in need” to “senior women.”

Reporters find the holes: The Phoenix‘s David Bernstein wrote a post saying he remembers what Romney is talking about, and the candidate is twisting the facts:

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.

The internet does its thing: Some enterprising debate watcher made an instantly viral tumblr blog filled with recurring internet memes tailored to Romney’s phrase. Here’s just a sample (working off this meme):

And with that, the transition is complete.