I’ve been riveted to presidential politics this fall—the polling, the spin, the analysis and projections, the Facebook discussions, and not least of all, the presidential and vice-presidential debates. As the election season winds down, I resonate deeply with Jennifer Holberg’s friend who, this past Tuesday, made the decision to pray instead of watching the final Obama-Romney smack-down, I mean, debate. Like Jennifer, I’m a bit weary of it all—a signal that my most cherished values for community, respect, honesty, integrity, and justice seem so lost in this cacophony. (As an aside, Krista Tippett’s NPR series on civil discourse couldn’t have come at a better moment in time. It’s been a source of hope in the midst of an increasingly contentious, polarizing climate.)
Nevertheless, while a part of me would like to disengage and write about something more sanguine, I find myself led right to the heart of at least one dimension of the current debates: the meaning of binders.
It’s been decades since I thought about binders, which were a huge improvement on spiral notebooks even if it took time, effort, and hole reinforcers to keep them intact throughout an entire school year. Now “trapper keeper” (i.e., trap her keep her) will forever hold an entirely new meaning for me.
Within what seemed like minutes of Governor Romney’s reference to “binders full of women,” a corollary Facebook page of the same moniker went viral. As of today, over 357,000 people have “liked” the page. The parodies on tumblr keep coming (my personal favorite is posted here), as do the copycat sites.
Some might suggest that all of this response is an over-reaction, a kind of hypersensitivity, to a poorly chosen turn-of-phrase. Perhaps this is just ideology at its worst or at the very least an instance of interpreting another’s word in an ungenerous light. Or perhaps it is just another example of politics turned desperately nasty.
But then again, perhaps not. Governor Romney’s comments about women raised more than one eyebrow on my visage. I don’t expect it to take significant research—or, hunting (!)—to identify qualified women professionals. If it does take this, then I expect that to be lamented, not simply celebrated. I expect some awareness of how our socialization (not to mention, sin) keeps us from equity in the workplace. Moreover, addressing women’s issues in the workplace in such a way that gender role divisions go unquestioned and reinforced is not a favorable strategy. Rather than having employers adjust their expectations for moms, I’d like them to adjust their expectations for families—moms, dads, and kids alike. What is good for the goose is good for the gander and the goslings.
And as for binders . . . the derivatives of that word hit painfully close to home for too many women. Being bound, kept, neatly tucked away in some side office, silenced, or literally held against one’s own power: these experiences in the economic, political, and religious spheres of life are far more commonplace than we would like to admit, especially if we consider the plight of women worldwide. The fact that these might not be the experiences of all women does not dampen or erase this sorrowful reality.
From a theological perspective, the phrase “binders full of women” is problematic—regardless of Governor Romney’s intention. Language powerfully shapes our experience of reality, our perceptions of and ways of relating to God and one another. The abundance of admonitions about one’s speech in the wisdom literature of the Bible points to the power of language to shape human life for good and for evil. Moreover, our language frequently (though not always) reflects something of our most fundamental, often unconscious, beliefs and assumptions. As Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.”
The Governor’s “binders” comment coupled with his and his running mate’s policies on issues related to women’s healthcare and fair pay do legitimately raise concerns, red flags, and significant worries about future justice, mercy, and freedom for women. However we vote on November 6 and however our elected officials themselves vote on future policies, the voices and experiences of women, particularly those who know all too well what it’s like to be bound, must be taken to heart, seriously, thoughtfully, passionately, and prayerfully, so that women may never be put in binders, and so that those who find themselves bound by structures, policies, and unquestioned practices, may be freed by the One who is our freedom and calls us to act with mercy, justice, and truth.
 By “debates,” I mean those formal rhetorical performances as well as the ongoing discussions, disagreements, and passionate arguments that simply are part and parcel of the political air that we all breathe.