Let me offer a quick caveat that Mitt Romney's story about having "binders full of women" to fill out his cabinet might actually be hogwash. And if folks want to attack Romney for telling a tall tale, be my guest. I get it.
But I think there's another criticism of Romney and his binders that's not quite right. And it's this: "He should already have known qualified women to fill out his cabinet."
And yes, he should've. But he didn't. So what should've happened then? Should he have ignored the binders completely and filled out his administration with men entirely because he hadn't previously cultivated those relationships?
I don't think so.
The reason liberals like me favor cultivating diversity, and even in using forms affirmative action to get there, is not because we believe in replacing merit with diversity, but because we believe that merit isn't limited to white guys—that it can and should be cultivated throughout the spectrum of humanity. One of the ways such merit (or lack thereof) has been traditionally cultivated has been through "the old boys network." Men knew other men, socialized with them, and brought them along when they got better jobs. It was like Twitter, only in person and generally larded up with privilege.
Romney came up through a sector of the economy that was particularly enmeshed in the "old boys network" way of doing things. And when he was governor, it appears he attempted to do something differently.
Now: Romney says he sought the binders full of women. Other participants say the binders were pushed to him, in an effort to diversify his administration. In either telling, the grip of the "old boys network" was loosened—maybe only slightly, and with real room for improvement, but loosened nonetheless. That's a good thing! Good enough? No.
I'm not going to argue that Romney is a feminist hero, or that he's the candidate that folks concerned with women's issues will want to support. He's not. But part of cultivating diversity—and merit—is breaking the grip of the old boys network. Sometimes, for the Mitt Romneys of the world, that effort will start with a binder instead of a lifetime of active cultivation. That's less satisfying, perhaps, and less pleasing to our sensibilities, but it lays important groundwork—groundwork that will make such binders less needed for future generations of women workers.