Politicians say stupid things all the time. The comment that has caught American attention for the past few days was Mitt Romney's reference to "binders full of women" during the second presidential debate.
To put the remark in context, Romney was answering a question about equal pay for women (which he skirted) when he began talking about the early days of his administration as governor of Massachusetts and his efforts to incorporate more women into his cabinet.
"...I went to my staff, and I said, how come all the people for these jobs are - are all men? They said, well, these are the people that have the qualifications. And I said... can't we find some - some women that are also qualified? And - and so we - we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet. I went to a number of women's groups and said, can you help us find folks? And I brought us whole binders full of - of women."
Although his choice of words was slightly cringeworthy, it was clear what Romney was trying to say: I don't just preach inclusion, I practice it too. But his comment sounded off-key and just a bit desperate. It sounded like the only place he would have been able to find any qualified women was in these binders. To draw a crude analogy, he seemed to be shopping for a female cabinet minister the way some men might shop for a mail order bride.
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Normal people were left wondering why a corporate titan like Romney would have to resort to a binder to find qualified women. As David Bernstein points out, shouldn't he have been surrounded by smart and ambitious women through his years in the business world and from his political campaign? It led me to wonder: Why were these women so difficult to find in Romney's world?
On the surface, this appears to be the reason why his comment was so gaffe-worthy. But those who support gender equality ridicule his comments at their own peril (mea culpa, I include myself here). Despite the unfortunate language, the intentions underlying Romney's comment about binders full of women should be applauded, not derided.
Although it turns out that Romney did not ask for the binder of qualified women but was instead given it by MassGap, a bipartisan coalition of women's groups, the fact remains that he used that binder exactly as MassGap intended it to be used. He referred to it in appointing outstanding female candidates to senior leadership positions. This was affirmative action as it was meant to be practiced.
Romney even boasted in the next breath that "after I staffed my cabinet and my senior staff... the University of New York in Albany did a survey of all 50 states and concluded that mine had more women in senior leadership positions than any other state in America".
Romney should be praised, not chided, for doing with that binder precisely what women's organisations wanted him to do. He could have tossed that binder straight into the garbage can. The fact that he was proud of having so many women in his cabinet has not gotten nearly as much attention as it deserves.
Having had a few chuckles at Romney's expense over the past few days, let's recognise that MassGap's "binder full of women" was actually an effective way for him to search for qualified female candidates. After all, we don't mock organisations like Women In International Security when it assembles its portfolio of renowned female security experts. Nor do we laugh when the BBC works with findaTVexpert to add more women to its roster of television experts. Nor are we tripping over ourselves to make fun of MassGap itself.
These databases of women exist because officials need to make hiring decisions quickly and efficiently. I would be surprised and disappointed if Obama did not have his own binders full of women. Instead, if we want to have a critical conversation about the MassGap binder, let's find out who was in that binder and what policies they championed on behalf of women.
Sure, Romney could have and should have done more to promote women at Bain and during his governorship. Sure, it was somewhat embarrassing that he did not know enough talented women to fill his cabinet without consulting the MassGap binder.
But mocking Republicans for their efforts to include more women in senior government positions sends entirely the wrong message to those in positions of political and corporate power: We will lambaste you if you fail to include women in your senior ranks, but if you need to look outside your own circles for smart and talented women, we will create internet memes of you that will keep TV talk show hosts feeding on your remains for the foreseeable future.
Is this really what progressive America wants?
If Americans want to roast Romney and the Republicans for their attitudes towards women, then they should do so for the right reasons. There is no need to turn to "binders full of women" to see why the GOP has a problem with female voters.
First, Romney has pledged to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Then there was his promise to appoint an anti-Roe justice to the Supreme Court if given the chance. Let us also not forget Representative Todd Akin's laughably ignorant assertion that a "legitimate rape" doesn't lead to pregnancy because "the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down". And of course, Romney would have refused to sign the Lily Ledbetter Act.
These were the real reasons why the binders full of women comment struck a chord with Americans. In this Romney-Republican world, things happened to women - others made decisions for them, about them. When Romney and the Republicans realise that women can make decisions for themselves and about themselves, then maybe, just maybe, American women will start respecting the Grand Old Party once more.
Dr Christine Cheng is a lecturer in the War Studies department at King's College London. Previously she was the Boskey Fellow in Politics at Exeter College, University of Oxford. She co-edited Corruption and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding (Routledge) and is currently writing a book about Liberia's post-conflict transition. She blogs at www.christinescottcheng.wordpress.com.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.