WASHINGTON — Everyone's having a jolly time with Mitt Romney's “binders full of women.” Nonresponsive, certainly. (The question wasn't about hiring women but paying them equally.) Infelicitous phrasing, sure, evoking images of mail-order brides.
But Romney's preening about how many women he hired as Massachusetts governor didn't particularly bother me. Whether he solicited the binders or they were foisted on him, Romney's record on hiring women in office was pretty good.
The more telling — part comforting, part jarring — remark came when Romney spoke about how he sought to accommodate the needs of his gubernatorial chief of staff, a woman with young children.
“I recognized that if you're going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible,” Romney said. “My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school. She said, ‘I can't be here until 7 or 8 o'clock at night. I need to be able to get home at 5 o'clock 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.'”
Good for Romney. This is just what you want to hear from a boss when you go to him — or her! — about juggling work and family.
Here's the jarring part: Listen closely to Romney, not just in the debate but in his comments about women throughout the campaign, and you hear not only Modern Manager but Fifties Dad. He speaks of “the dignity of work” when talking about welfare moms. But at heart, he seems convinced that children are better off when mothers stay home.
“To have one parent that … can be at home in those early years of education can be extraordinarily important,” he said at NBC's education summit last month. Ann Romney on the campaign trail praises Mitt's beneficent assurances, when he would call home from business trips to tell his harried wife, “your job is more important than mine.”
How does that attitude translate to the workplace? Romney and his fellow managers find themselves on a treacherous gender tightrope. They must simultaneously be open to crafting flexible workplaces for women — and, might I suggest, maybe even men — without assuming that all women require such accommodations.
Contrast Romney's remarks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent comments about the can-women-have-it-all dust storm kicked up by her former director of policy planning, Anne-Marie Slaughter. Where Romney seemed broad-brush, Clinton differentiated.
“Some women are not comfortable working at the pace and intensity you have to work at in these jobs,” Clinton told Marie Claire magazine. “Other women don't break a sweat. They have four or five, six kids. They're highly organized, they have very supportive networks.”
In our family, I'm the one who has cut back on work to be with the kids. I'm the one who hustles, on the nights we aren't reduced to take-out, to get something that passes for dinner on the table.
This was my choice. It was correct but not easy. Listening to President Obama talk about juggling work and family, I feel as if he gets that tension, because he has lived it. “A lot of times, we felt like we were just barely keeping everything together,” he said of their Chicago days. “When we were at work, we were worrying about what was happening at home. When we were at home, we were worrying about work.”
Listening to Romney, I imagine that he'd be willing to pick me from those binders full of women, and even make it easy for me to get home at a reasonable hour. But I worry that he'd be thinking, secretly, that if I were a Truly Good Mother, I wouldn't be there in the first place.
WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP