By the time you read this, we will have survived the third and final debate and we’ll be in the final countdown to Election Day. But I can’t help it, people: I’m still shaking my head over Mitt Romney and his binders full of women. Of course I am thankful, along with so many voters, for the comedy it inspired. Yet at the same time, I’m saddened by what it says about how far we women have really NOT come since Virginia Slims launched its 1968 ad campaign with the catchy tagline, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
Funny how that particular jingle should spring to mind, with its dark double message: hey women, now that you’re so liberated, you too can smoke all you want and die of lung cancer, just like men!
When Mitt said it—it being, “I went to a number of women’s groups and said, can you help us find folks? And they brought us whole binders full of — of women”—you could feel a collective squirm go through the Columbia City Theater, where I was watching the debate with friends. The squirm was followed by a collective head-scratch: did he really just say that? We all murmured. What century is this?
You could argue that Mitt “meant well.” But what does it mean, to “mean well?” In this case, “meaning well” meant wanting to appear to be someone other than who he is: a guy, surrounded by guys, who—as the Boston Phoenix newspaper reminded us, contrary to the way he tried to phrase it in the debate—did not actually notice the paucity of women in his gubernatorial administration until a coalition of Massachusetts women’s groups brought it to his attention. They offered the binders not in the sort of distasteful, mail-order bride way it sounded coming from the candidate, but in a proactive, let us educate you kind of way: as in, we want to introduce you to some incredibly qualified candidates for state office who have mysteriously been overlooked.
But then Mitt made it worse, by talking about how he generously allows his chief of staff to go home to her family at night: as if only mothers, not fathers, would want or need such an allowance. As if: you’ve come a long way, baby—but hiring you is still way different than hiring a man.
It all felt so… Ron and Nancy. So George and Laura. So Tarzan and Jane. It kind of made me want to sneak a cigarette.
But only for an instant. Because that whole notion—that to succeed as a woman, you have to make it on your merits into a special binder, rather than, say, play racquetball with the right people—that’s exactly the kind of stress that made women want to smoke back in the Virginia Slims day. It’s the double standard we restless nesters want to believe will not be the working-world norm for our daughters. And so when Mitt brings it up, like it was a good thing—hey, we were an all-guy team but then I asked for the binders full of women, wasn’t that great!—it made us all squirm because it sounded like the kind of thing you’d expect, maybe, a 75 or 85 year old man to say. Not a 65 year old aging Boomer, who is running for president in a century that is supposed to be new. But then again, this is a candidate who did not support the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Which places him pretty firmly in the company of men who have NOT come a long way, and don’t plan to anytime soon.
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