It's wonderful being an American woman right now, because the last three weeks of the presidential campaign are going to be all about women. Well, it's only sort of wonderful, because while the campaigns will be paying women a lot of attention, they won't be treating women like they're smart. President Obama and Mitt Romney will not be talking about women's stuff because of all the Internet jokes about Romney saying "binders full of women" during the second presidential debate or a civic-minded concern about ongoing sexism and misogyny. No, the reason Romney brought up those women binders in the first place was because he knew that one of the reasons he had been able to close the gap in the polls between him and Obama after the first debate was by closing his gender gap among women.
People who study these things (including the pollsters for both campaigns) have been talking about the opportunity to win the race by winning women. But not just any woman or even all women. The portrait of the available woman voter is actually pretty depressing: polls say undecided voters are more likely to be women and less likely to know stuff about politics. The key to winning this group isn't talking about policies that will help women, the logic goes, it's about making an emotional appeal, like Romney trying to show he's a super pro-woman guy because he had all these binders full of women. On the day after the debate, both campaigns are playing the binder card. And that will probably continue on through the election on November 6.
Obama lost his advantage among women because, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite says at The Washington Post, "In my view, this was due to the fact that the fundamental question of women’s full humanity was not brought sufficiently and clearly enough into the whole presidential contest." But that's probably not the direction we're headed. The way a potentially uplifting debate for women will actually play out based on a pretty insulting view of women, which is that they are primarily motivated by some vague feeling of being disrespected by somebody, somewhere, and all other ideas are negotiable.
Rather than a grand discussion about making society more equal, it will be more about being sassy, like this: "Mitt the Man gets his way by talking over you and not stopping until you give in so he can make his point. Which he may have forgotten by then, because getting his way was the point. Mitt the Man can go from charming to testy in two seconds flat because while he has tolerated you as a female colleague, he will not allow you to disrespect him and his authoritah!"
While we, people who aren't paid to win elections, like to think of presidential elections as opportunities to focus the nation's typically divided attention on the most pressing issues of the day, the political pros are trying to win 50 percent-plus-one votes. They are very aware of the political knowledge gap between men and women, an unpleasant but true finding according to countless surveys have found. For instance, a Pew Research Center survey in January found that while 66 percent of male registered voters knew Romney was governor of Massachusetts, only 42 percent of female registered voters did. This past August, describing the demographic pattersns of the tiny sliver of the electorate that was still considering both candidates, National Journal's Beth Reinhard wrote, "They tend to be younger, female, and clueless about politics." Studies show undecideds "are less informed about politics and more likely to call themselves moderates." Last month, the Wire's Esther Zuckerman put a face on this demographic: Snooki, who told Meghan McCain (whose dad she voted for in 2008) last month:
To be honest with you, I’m not really a Republican or a Democrat. I actually signed up as an independent, just because I don’t want to pick any side and also I don’t really know a lot about politics. I only know politics about, like, you know, tanning and being a Guidette.
It's this narrow view of the "women vote" that is why the campaigns are trying to win women by arguing over whether Obama and Romney loves or hates them rather than through charts and graphs over equal pay and health care costs. Even old people get statistics thrown at them. Women's lack of political knowledge is the premise of Romney's new ad portraying him as a moderate on abortion. A woman, "Sarah," looks into the camera and says she thought the ads on Romney's abortion record seemed "extreme, so I looked into it." Then it shows her googling it. "Turns out, Romney doesn't oppose contraception at all," Sarah says. "In fact he thinks abortion should be an option in cases of rape, incest, or to save a mother's life." While the abortion thing is important to her, she cares more about jobs, she says.
This might be why the Romney campaign is going all-in on binders full of women. Romney said it awkwardly, but at least it's catchy. ".
@BarackObama's Second Term Agenda for Woman is AN EMPTY BINDER.... #EmptyBinder," Leonardo Alcivar, Romney's online rapid response director, tweeted Wednesday. Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus joined in: "President Obama’s plan for a 2nd term is an #EmptyBinder – a President without a plan to turn his failed policies around." (The Boston Phoenix's David S. Bernstein explains that Romney didn't solicit his binder -- it was created independently by a bipartisan group of women. Nevertheless, he hired a bunch of them.) "WOMEN CAN'T AFFORD ANOTHER FOUR YEARS OF PRESIDENT OBAMA" a Romney press release says. The RNC posted the image at left on its website.
Meanwhile, Obama's campaign is arguing Romney is anti-woman. "Must-read Huffington Post - Romney was opposed to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina tweeted on Wednesday, probably a reference to the report that Romney adviser Ed Gillespie said Romney opposed the law that makes it easier for women to sue over pay discrimination. But Messina didn't tweet a link not to the Hufington Post, which he cited, but to an Obama video titled, "Mitt Romney's Condescending Views Toward Women" (that's a still from it at right). It shows the "binders full of women" clip from the debate.
Some men on Twitter have expressed confusion over why "binders full of women" is such a thing. "Can somebody pass along story explaining why 'binders full of women' was so insulting? All articles I read accept it as self-evident," The Washington Examiner's Philip Klein tweeted. "I had same question. Answers: 1) missing word ('candidates') and 2) the way he said it, which I missed because I'm male," New York's Jonathan Chait responded. I can't believe that I -- a woman -- have to explain a joke to men. But here goes. Women are living humans, and you can't put humans in a binder! You can only put small, flat, inanimate objects in a binder. Romney wanted to express that he sees past the secondary sex characteristics of employees to appreciate their character -- or as Dolly Parton put it, that "under the wig is a brain, and behind the boobs is a heart." But the way Romney expressed his appreciation for applicants' humanity was by saying, I love them so much I have piles of them in my filing cabinets.