"Binders full of women" were the social-media sensation of last week's presidential debate. The unfortunate phrase was born as Mitt Romney described his quest to find qualified female candidates to fill his top-level appointments as a governor in 2003. "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 women," he said.
But Romney's story, as he told it, was not true. As I reported on the Phoenix website immediately after the debate, Romney did not initiate a search for qualified female applicants; a bipartisan coalition of 40 women's organizations spent months on the task, independently. Dubbed the Massachusetts Gender Appointment Project (MassGAP), the coalition planned to present its results to whoever won the gubernatorial race. And did so, to Romney, after the 2002 election.
Yes, in binders.
The spike of interest about those binders might seem like a passing memestorm. But it opens the door to an interesting question: should voters be concerned that a President Romney administration might not have women in key policy-influencing positions?
It's not a new thought. Way back in 1994, Senator Ted Kennedy criticized Mitt Romney for the lack of women and minority partners at his company, Bain Capital.
And not much seems to have changed, judging by the staff he assembled for this presidential campaign.
Aside from the communications team, headed by Andrea Saul and Gail Gitcho, that team has been almost exclusively male at the top levels. The campaign manager, top strategists, political director, digital director, policy director, operations director, and finance chair are all men, as are the overwhelming majority of his policy advisors.
It is true that — thanks in part to the résumés provided by MassGAP — Romney chose 14 women among his first 42 high-level appointments, according to a UMass-Boston study.
But for the most part, those women were in charge of departments and agencies of little interest to Romney. Key posts, including those in charge of the budget, economic development, transportation, and public safety, were always held by men under Romney. And the overall numbers of female appointees later declined.
Romney also took heat when the Boston Globe reported, in early 2005, that 17 of his first 19 judicial nominations were men.
That was despite major changes to the judicial nominating process, initiated by Romney to de-politicize what had, frankly, been an old-boys' network. Romney also stocked the Judicial Nominating Committee with women and minorities.
"The goal was to increase the diversity of the pool of applicants," says Dan Winslow, state representative from Norfolk who was Romney's chief legal counsel at the time. In some respects, it worked — for racial and ethnic diversity, and in promoting women to magistrate positions.
But in recruiting women judges, Winslow concedes, "Did we succeed? No, we did not."
Critics say that more should have been done — but that Romney only took further steps later, to fix the political damage from the Globe story.
"I do not think that there was any effort to recruit women to the bench" before that, says Boston attorney Marianne LeBlanc, who was president of the Women's Bar Association at the time. "To the contrary, there were many qualified applicants who were overlooked."