Romney and the binding of women

The post-debate headlines highlighted the tension and the incumbent's vastly improved performance from their first encounter. The consensus from the polls and pundits is that President Barack Obama got the best of Mitt Romney at the town hall debate at Hofstra University on Tuesday night, and we are inclined to agree.

But presidential debates aren't like scholastic competitions, where scores are added up by a bunch of teacher-advisers analyzing points and counter-points and the winner walks off with a trophy. In this case, what may turn out to be the most important take-away from New York has to do less with the inside-the-Beltway issues of the day (the economy, Libya, clean energy, taxes, etc.) than it does with a fundamental view of women in the workplace.


Henceforth, let it be remembered as the "binders full of women" moment, when Mr. Romney — whose recent resurgence in the polls has been linked not only to his strong performance in the first debate but to improved standing among women voters — reopened an old wound. Although it instantly went viral on the Internet, the odd phrasing turned out to be the least of his problems.

For those who missed it, here's what happened. A woman asked how the two men would address inequities in the workplace, specifically the way females earn only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn.


It was a straightforward question on a subject that had not yet come up in the debate but was hardly foreign to the candidates. Mr. Romney chose to steer the conversation away from the Lilly Ledbetter Act (the fair pay law that was the first piece of legislation Mr. Obama signed), a measure he did not support and that his running mate voted against. Instead, he emphasized how he hired women to top posts when he was governor of Massachusetts.

Apparently, he started with not a single female applicant for a major job, so he told his aides, "well, gosh, can't we — can't we find some — some women who are qualified?" Then he recalled approaching women's groups and asking them if they could help, "and they brought us whole binders full of women."

Leaving aside that this was a tacit endorsement of affirmative action (he confessed to making gender a primary hiring criteria), one might think that Mr. Romney had served as governor two or three generations ago. No, this was 2003. He had to hit up special interests to find qualified women professionals in Boston nine years ago? Really?

But then it continued. Mr. Romney acknowledged that women often have less flexible work schedules because of children at home (as if men don't have similar obligations in the 21st century). He offered no hope for fair pay laws but expected women to find jobs as the economy improves under his presidency. "They're going to be anxious to hire women," he promised.

Together, his views of women managers as a novelty and as more chained to home obligations than men, and his obvious expectation that privately employers would eventually right the unequal pay situation that has lasted for generations without strengthened laws on the books added up to one strong impression — namely an episode of "Mad Men" and the societal attitudes of the early 1960s. Add to that Mr. Romney's equally regressive views on contraception and family planning and funding for Head Start and you would think he just stepped out of a time machine instead of a town car before hitting the stage at Hofstra.

Make no mistake, Mr. Obama's night was far from a slam-dunk. He was no charmer, no Bill Clinton wandering into an adoring crowd, and he frequently spoke over the heads of his questioners in order to attack Mr. Romney. His response to a question about the Libyan consulate attack was weak and obfuscating, and he offered little clue to a second-term agenda.

But Mr. Romney was simply worse. Bad enough that the debate laid bare how his tax overhaul claims don't add up (unless his intent is to add trillions to the deficit), but his views on women suggest the stereotype of the buttoned-down Wall Street candidate trapped in amber for a half-century. It's clear Mr. Romney is satisfied with keeping women bound — whether in three-ring notebooks or stuck making 72 cents for every dollar that men, ad executives or otherwise, earn on the job.