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Friday, October 19, 2012

Dear Abby: Binders and Kitchens

Did you hear there was another presidential debate on Tuesday night?

Did you hear that Mitt Romney used the phrase "binders full of women" during that debate?

Did you hear that Mr. Romney also said he accommodated his chief of staff -- a woman -- so that she could leave work early enough to go home and cook dinner for her family?

There are only two responses to these questions:

  1. Yes. You've heard all of this. You've heard it so much that you can't even bring yourself to go into a Staples or near a cooktop stove.
  2. No. You haven't heard any of this. Because you're being held hostage in a sound proof box somewhere near Narnia and for whatever reason, your only access to the outside world is this blog. Weird.
Paid pundits and will-work-for-retweets social media contributors are exploiting these two comments by Mr. Romney for all that they are worth. There's a "binders full of women" tumblr page, memes galore, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account. MSNBC now goes by the acronym BFOW. And I guarantee you that the most popular Halloween costume for women this year will not be "sexy nurse" or "sexy devil," it will be "sexy Trapper Keeper."

Those who are up in arms say that they are up in arms because the comments show that Mr. Romney does not value women, harbors a "keep 'em barefoot and pregnant" view of their rightful place in society, and fails to grasp what is important to them. They contrast that with what they say is the President's much stronger position "on women," pointing to the first piece of legislation that he signed, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which makes it easier for women to bring a lawsuit claiming discrimination in their pay.

A reader asked me to chime in on all of this. Here is what I think.

I think the entire focus of the brouhaha is misplaced.

This is a sensitive issue, and a lot of women whose opinions I value and often agree with differ from mine here. I respect the fact that that this triggers an emotional response from a lot of people. So I will try to tread carefully.

I think that Mr. Romney has a problematic stance on certain "women's issues." He has stated that he wouldn't have signed the Lilly Ledbetter legislation, and I think that's pretty outrageous; women should receive equal pay for equal work, and should be able to access the courts when they are being denied that equal treatment. I disagree with his sometimes-stated support of the Blunt Amendment, which would have allowed any employer with "moral objections" to providing insurance coverage for birth control to refuse to do so. And I distrust his position on abortion, which I think is a position that depends on who he is talking to and what he is trying to accomplish. (The views of his running mate on abortion, "forcible rape," and a "personhood" amendment to the Constitution outright scare me.)

His "binders full of women" comment was problematic for three reasons. One, it was part of an answer that wasn't true. He was trying to champion himself as a guy who tries to put women in positions of leadership, when in fact a non-profit group had taken the initiative to provide then-Governor Romney with a stack of resumes (presented in binders) of women qualified for various positions on his staff. Two, the context in which he used the phrase made it sound like it's really hard to find a woman suited for a high-power post -- like she needs to be rustled up, diamond-in-the-rough like. Third, "binders full of women" just sounds bad, and makes for an easy sound bite to twist for a variety of purposes, ranging from the comic to the antagonistic. Just like what's happening now.

What Mr. Romney should have said was that when he was Governor, his Lieutenant Governor was a woman, and that his chief of staff was, too. What he should have said is that any job -- one in an administration of his or anywhere else -- should be available to qualified applicants, a pool which will necessarily always include women (and minorities and public school grads and people who love Michael Jackson). What he should have said is that, given all the qualified men and women in the country, we should have more jobs to occupy them all.

I find nothing wrong with Mr. Romney's remark -- viewed solely in the context of the remark -- that his chief of staff ended her days at 5PM to get home to her family. The spin that's been spun -- that he "accommodated" her so that she could scurry back to her rightful place as the dinnertime chef -- is completely off-base. His said SHE asked for her schedule to allow for that departure because SHE placed a priority on being home for the early evening. If anything, I believe Mr. Romney deserves credit for acknowledging that she could fulfill her duties as chief of staff while still fulfilling her role -- as SHE defined it -- as a mother.

The powder-keg here is how women straddle the work-life divide, and if they should even be asked to straddle that divide at all. It is no secret that the vast majority of working-age men who can get work do indeed go off to work. It is also no secret that the vast majority of women with children who have the luxury of a choice between working full-time at home or working some-time outside the home have to wrestle with the child care demands to a greater degree than their partner. Whatever unfairness remains in that construct, it is not Mitt Romney's fault (directly) that it does. And whatever answer to righting that balance is a complex one, with one possible solution being "accommodating" a mother's schedule so that she can both have the job and some time at home when her children are awake.

And to paint Mitt Romney as some misogynistic pig for mere fact that he recognized out loud that working-outside-the-home women are also defined by the "work" inside the home is hypocritical. Many of those who consider themselves indignant over his comments turn around and laugh at jokes about Bill Clinton also having "binders full of women" (wink, wink). So it's highly insulting that Mr. Romney would have to comb through stacks of women's resumes, but it's hilarious to insinuate that Clinton's Little Black Book needed a three-hole punch? Mika Brzezinski, co-host of Morning Joe, has been totally apoplectic over these comments from Mr. Romney. Yet as she criticized him for them, she declared that "what women care about in this election is the economy and their family." So she can condemn Mitt Romney for his supposedly binary view of women, but then take the same view herself in the very next sentence?

But most supremely, look at the President and Mrs. Obama. On the one hand, President Obama has an arguably poor track record with how he has treated the women in his administration. Yes, Hillary Clinton is Secretary of State and yes, Valerie Jarrett sits on his right shoulder. But read about his administration's handling of the economic crisis, and you will hear countless stories about how he, with or through his top (male) dogs, marginalized the women who dotted his economic team. (Women who were put there after public complaints that there were no women on the team.) Larry Summers, Rahm Emanuel, and Tim Geithner were allowed to totally dominate and ignore women like Sheila Bair of the FDIC. In fact, the side-lined women formed an ad hoc support group after they voiced their frustrations to the President and he did nothing to change the dynamics. Some of those women went so far as to say their time in the White House was a hostile work environment.

And just last month, Michelle Obama -- of whom I am and so many are a big fan -- took the stage at the DNC and said, during her primetime address, that her most important role and title is...Mom In Chief. She is a military advocate, public health crusader, and an accomplished attorney in her own right, but ranks as her number one job that of mother.

Whether that's right or wrong is besides the point. The point is that the role and position of women in our society is still a work in progress. No one has figured out the right balance to strike in familial responsibilities or in workplace "accommodations" -- for both men and women, mothers and fathers. Many women themselves feel conflicted and unresolved, as the "having it all" debate rages on.

The fundamental truths are these: Women, like every other segment of society, should have every opportunity to do, achieve, decide and succeed. Women, like every other segment of society, should be allowed to go as far as their motivation and effort direct. Women, like every other segment of society, should be afforded the chance to triumph above circumstance and push beyond artificial limitations.

And this: we have a long way to go before we make those conditional statements declarative ones. But to miss the point and/or misrepresent Mr. Romney's comments from the other night as a short-hand way of crystallizing this continued climb -- and to blame Mr. Romney for the remaining ascent -- pushes the conversation off an unhelpful cliff.

Ha ha ha! See how this kind of makes me seem like property that can be put somewhere by a guy? Now that's funny and kind of hot, because I'd let Ryan put me anywhere. But that Romney guy who wants to employ me but let me leave by dinner-time?!? JERK!

1 comment:

  1. I for one am in favor of women in cabinet.
    Preferably 12 to make one hot calendar.