'Binders Full of Women': Will Romney's Take on Equal Pay Affect the Women's Vote?

Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney debates with President Barack Obama at Hofstra University on Tuesday, …Women's issues took center stage at the second presidential debate Tuesday night -- and not just in terms of reproductive rights -- when undecided voter Katherine Fenton stepped forward with a question about women and equal pay.

Where the 2012 Presidential Candidates Stand on Women's Issues

"In what new ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace," she asked both candidates, "specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?"

President Barack Obama answered first, recounting his childhood (raised by a single mom, grandmother hit the glass ceiling working at a local bank) and reminding viewers that the first bill he signed as president was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

Related: Highlights from the 2nd Presidential Debate

"And that's an example of the kind of advocacy that we need because women are increasingly the breadwinners in the family," he told the crowd. "This is not just a women's issue. This is a family issue. This is a middle-class issue. And that's why we've got to fight for it."

But while the President talked about women as breadwinners, Romney's remarks sparked criticism -- and a new internet meme.

As the newly elected governor of Massachusetts, Romney said, he noticed that all of the applicants for his Cabinet were male. "And so we took a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet," he said. "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 women…. one of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort." (You can read the entire transcript here.)

"Binders full of women" quickly went viral, spawning a mocking Tumblr, at least 10 Facebook pages, and several binder-related Twitter accounts. But as David S. Bernstein points out at The Boston Phoenix, while those binders did exist, Romney never commissioned them.

"What actually happened was that in 2002 -- prior to the election, not even knowing yet whether it would be a Republican or Democratic administration -- a bipartisan group of women in Massachusetts formed MassGAP to address the problem of few women in senior leadership positions in state government," Bernstein wrote. "There were more than 40 organizations involved with the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus (also bipartisan) as the lead sponsor. They did the research and put together the binder full of women qualified for all the different cabinet positions, agency heads, and authorities and commissions. They presented this binder to Governor Romney when he was elected."

"Mitt Romney did not request those resumes," Jesse Mermell, a Brookline, Massachusetts, selectman who was the executive director of MassGAP told Yahoo! Shine during a conference call on Wednesday. "Mitt Romney did not answer the question about equal pay for women, and didn't even mention fair pay once."

Tuesday night, top Romney adviser Ed Gillespie told The Huffington Post that, had Romney been president in 2009, he would not have signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act into law. On Wednesday, Gillespie walked back his comment slightly, reaffirming previous statements that, if elected, Romney would not repeal the legislation.

“I was wrong when I said last night Governor Romney opposed the Lily Ledbetter act," Gillespie said in a statement Wednesday. "He never weighed in on it. As President, he would not seek to repeal it.”

But Romney's "binder full of women" comment also points to two other issues: By insisting that he sought out women for certain high-ranking positions, rather than focusing on all qualified candidates, is he saying he's in favor of affirmative action? And how could an experienced businessman like Romney not already know of any women worth hiring, or where to find them? (Worth noting: There were no female partners at Bain Capital when Romney was there in the 1980s and 1990s.)

While the Romney campaign has not addressed the binder statement directly, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan defended his running mate Wednesday morning.

"All he simply meant was that he went out of his way to try to recruit qualified women to serve in his administration when he was governor," Ryan told "CBS This Morning." "He has an exceptional record of hiring women in very prominent positions in his administration, and that's the point he was making."

"The other point is, this economy has been terrible for women," Ryan added. "Poverty rates among women are at a 17-year high. We need jobs, we need economic growth. And among those who have been hit hardest in this economy are women."

Obama failed to mention the fact that female employees at the White House currently earn about 18 percent less than their male counterparts, according to the Washington Times. And Romney failed to capitalize on it. In fact, during the rest of the debate, Romney's attempts to reach out to women voters seem to have fallen flat. In answering a question about assault weapons, he veered off into a lecture about single parenthood, and his take on working women seemed to center around getting moms home in time to cook dinner -- once companies start hiring more women, at least.

"I recognized that if you're going to have women in the workforce, that sometimes they need to be more flexible," Romney said. When he was governor, "My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school. She said, I can't be here until 7:00 or 8:00 at night. I need to be able to get home at 5:00 so I can be there for - making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school. So we said, fine, let's have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you."

"We're going to have to have employers in the new economy, in the economy I'm going to bring to play, that are going to be so anxious to get good workers they're going to be anxious to hire women," he added.

"I worked tirelessly in a tire factory for 19 years, and I never asked for flexibility or special treatment because I was a woman," Fair-pay advocate Lilly Ledbetter told Yahoo! Shine during a conference call on Wednesday. "Mitt Romney's solution on leveling the playing field tonight was to point out he once had a binder full of women applicants. That binder didn't help me at Goodyear, and it's not helping the women across this country, making 77 cents for every dollar a man gets. "

While Obama supporters pointed out that the debate question was about equal pay, not unemployment, Romney's spokesperson kept the focus on job creation.

"President Obama’s failed economic policies have left women with fewer jobs, higher poverty, and diminishing opportunities for the next generation," Romney campaign spokesperson Andrea Saul said in a statement on Wednesday. "Mitt Romney has a clear record of empowering women—and, as president, will work to build a stronger economy with millions of new jobs to help deliver a real recovery for all Americans.”

So will the Binders Full of Women affect women voters? As plenty of people have pointed out, women don't vote alike simply because they're female; issues that are deal-breakers to some barely register on other women's radars. Those who favored Obama before Tuesday night's debate probably still do, and those who were planning to vote for Romney probably weren't phased by his focus on jobs instead of paychecks. There's still one more debate to go before election day, and that gives undecided voters plenty of time to change their minds.

Voters, what did you think? Who won the second debate, and how do you feel about each candidate's take on women?