Romney's 'binders' comment drives dialogue on women

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Flocks of seagulls, schools of fish, charms of hummingbirds ...

Binders of women?

What started as a spontaneous social media blowup Tuesday during Mitt Romney's presidential debate reference to "whole binders full of women" evolved the following day into something else entirely.

Certainly, many of the Tumblr blog memes, Twitter references and Facebook pages -- 10 created overnight -- were clever. More important, say some experts on women's issues, they set the table for something smart.

"I think that this has opened the door a bit for both campaigns to talk more fully about women's issues as a whole, and perhaps women's representation," said Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy at Chatham University.

"This is a welcome conversation that we haven't had before."

It all began Tuesday night when Mr. Romney -- who has consistently trailed President Barack Obama among female voters -- was asked about equal pay for women and what he would do to achieve parity between male and female pay. He began to discuss diversity hiring after he was elected governor of Massachusetts.

Mr. Romney said he went to "a number of women's groups and said, 'Can you help us find folks?' And they brought us whole binders full of women."

The Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus on Wednesday disputed Mr. Romney's assertions that he initiated the search for female job candidates. In a statement, the group said it approached both Mr. Romney and his opponent during the gubernatorial campaign seeking a commitment to hiring parity, and presented Mr. Romney with top female applicants for each cabinet position after he was elected.

The Romney campaign responded Wednesday that he had worked with the group to find qualified women for top positions.

Within minutes of Mr. Romney's remark Tuesday night, someone created and a similarly named Facebook page (with more than 260,000 likes as of Wednesday afternoon) and at least two very active Twitter accounts. During the debate itself (#Debates) there were more than 7.2 million tweets from 9 to 10:39 p.m., according to Twitter, with 104,704 tweets per minute when Mr. Romney made the binders statement at 9:36 p.m.

"Hey Mitt. Show us a binder full of tax returns" read one post.

The real frenzy was on Veronica De Souza's Tumblr blog ( For Ms. De Souza, it was quite a day. Earlier Monday, she lost her job as community manager/social media specialist at a tech startup in New York City.

At home that night, she went online to watch the debate with special interest, having graduated from Hofstra University.

Laptop at hand, she heard the "binders" quote and got busy. After a minute, she had created a meme of a binder with the words "Trap her, keep her," a play on words from the title of an old-school, back-to-school binder.

Within a half-hour, she had 3,000 followers and no chance of watching the rest of the debate.

"I opened it for submissions, and it kind of took on its own life," she said. "I was up until 3 a.m. going through submissions."

With her cell phone set to vibrate alerts, she awoke to constant buzzing. By 9 a.m. the blog had 10,000 followers and 1,500 unread submissions. By 3 p.m. Wednesday, the unread submission lists had grown to 3,000.

"I'm thinking, 'Thank God I'm unemployed because now I have the time for this,' " she said, laughing.

To be sure, the memes were entertaining. A number of them played with themes of keeping women "bindered" to traditional stereotypes of homemaker, more than a few pictured Mr. Romney with actual binders full of women's photos.

There were a couple of "McKayla is not impressed with binders" submissions, suggesting good memes don't die, they just get recycled.

On YouTube, there were several musical tributes, including one by "Johnny Showcase" and his ukulele, which painfully rhymed "I got a bind-er, hope that I find her."

Although Ms. De Souza "had to explain to my mom this morning what a meme was," the power of it cannot be underestimated.

"To me, it's not surprising it's spread really, really quickly," said Andrew Stephen, a social media expert whose is an assistant professor of business administration and Katz Fellow in marketing at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Business.

"On the one hand, it's funny, and that's fine, but also it's related to some important issues that people have felt are underrepresented in this campaign," Mr. Stephen said.

"These [memes] always take off and then they die out," he said. "This one exploded so quickly and might have more staying power because it hit on an issue that resonated and hadn't been discussed much by the campaigns, plus it ties in with this ongoing theme that the Obama campaign is saying Romney is lying about everything. I think this one is going to stick.

"But it's going to evolve beyond 'Hey, he said something silly.' "

Although social media has the potential to raise awareness of issues, it hasn't necessarily been an effective source for news, said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Institute's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

He said the percentage of people who get their campaign news via Twitter is relatively slight, because only about 13 percent of Americans use it. Less than 5 percent of Americans said they regularly used Twitter for election news during the primaries.

"Our tracking of the conversation also found that it was a select group. If Twitter conversations were representative or predictive of the population, even the primary voter population, Ron Paul would have been the GOP nominee."

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The Washington Post contributed. Maria Sciullo: or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.


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