“Binders full of women”: Mitt Romney’s theology of the book

Since the presidential debate on Tuesday, Romney has been getting lots of grief for that seemingly off-key characterization of his approach to the glass ceiling. In his early days as governor, Romney recalled in response to an audience member’s question, his staff approached “a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.” Predictably enough, “binders full of women” went viral the moment Romney uttered the phrase, and there is now a tumblr site devoted to one of the great memes of the election.

What has been lost in all the post-debate ruckus, though, is the theological subtlety of Romney’s response. For in fact, in his evocation of “binders full of women,” the former Massachusetts governor was making a sophisticated historical reference to the visionary writings of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a Benedictine abbess of the Middle Ages. A nun, a musician, a naturalist, and a theologian of great accomplishment, Hildegard of Bingen was also the inventor of the three-ring binder, which she interpreted throughout her religious life as a complex allegory for the Trinity.

Hildegard of Bingen transcribing a vision. From the Rupertsberg Codex of the Scivias. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

We get an early posthumous glimpse at Hildegard’s theology of the three-ring binder in Theoderich of Echternach’s Life of Hildegard (book 2), where he records the recently deceased abbess’s practice of compiling her correspondence in a volume uniquely suited to the purpose:

It is also known how elegantly she replied to letters sent to her from diverse places, if anyone wished to consider more deeply the meaning of the words that she drew from the divine revelation. Indeed, the correspondence is gathered in one three-ring binder, both her own letters and those sent to her.

Theoderich’s Latin phrase (uolumen trianulum in the nominative) represents the first recorded appearance of the three-ring binder in the written record. While Theoderich’s authority is hardly in question, some scholars have rightfully wondered how the Sibyl of the Rhine could have developed a technology of such ingenuity in the midst of her straitened technological circumstances.

While Hildegard never tells us about the invention of the binder itself, one of her more obscure letters (yet to be edited from the autograph manuscript in Cologne) makes great theological hay out of the holy binder she claims to have seen in one of her many visions. Drawing on the venerable medieval tradition of interior writing, Hildegard rather gruesomely imagines the binder as a thousandfold stack of parchment folios, all rendered from the skins of women martyrs (the specific allusion is to the 11,000 virgin followers of St. Ursula beheaded by the Huns in the fourth century). Particularly intriguing are her glosses of the binders’ holes as the three persons of the Trinity and of the rings as the Three Marys.

The uppermost hole is God the Father, girding the roundness of the heavens with His omnipotence. The middle hole is His Son, displaying the wound in His holy side. The lowermost hole answers to the Holy Spirit, from whose mouth tongues of flame descend even unto the mind of this humble creature as she records the Word of God in the Divine Book. The rings answer to the three Marys at the tomb, mourning the death of the Son at the holy sepulchre. In this volume, moreover, are contained many pages, all filled with revelations of an age to come. These parchments are the skins of the eleven thousand virgins, dried and scraped in glorious martyrdom. Into this binder full of women the Lord gathers His feminine flock, and in reading from its womanly pages He promises our salvation.

“Into this binder full of women”: here, I believe, we have the key to Romney’s eloquent defense of his hiring practices.

Those still skeptical would do well to consult the visual record. One of the most famous artistic depictions of Hildegard comes from the Rupertsberg Codex, a manuscript containing her most influential work, the Scivias (see figure 1 above). While art historians have long contended that the illumination shows Hildegard writing in a wax tablet, recent restorative work to the manuscript leaves little doubt that the book in which she inscribes what she saw is, in fact, the same uolumen trianulum allegorized in her vision (see the detail). Both the rings and the stark holes are clearly discernible here, capturing the theological content of her vision.

Hildegard of Bingen’s three-ring binder (detail of Figure 1)

I hope this helps clear up the historical source and theological implications of Governor Romney’s evocation of “binders full of women” during the debate. A fair and judicious survey of the evidence suggests that he deserves better treatment from the public on this matter than he has received over the last twenty-four hours.

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36 comments on ““Binders full of women”: Mitt Romney’s theology of the book

  1. Jackie on said:

    *slow clap*

  2. Louisa Burnham on said:

    Bruce, have you ever heard of Spatulum, the journal of the Mid-Evil Academy of America? Because I think you may need to publish in it.

  3. Anonymous on said:


  4. Ryan Judkins on said:

    Governor Romney showed such implicit trust in his audience. He knew we’d pick up on this connection (once helped along slightly, at least, as here). I even wonder if he wasn’t cleverly referencing Italo Calvino, who in his _If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler_ makes much of the human body as a text to be read by one’s partner. How did he ever find such time for reading with his busy schedule!

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      Thanks for the contribution, Ryan. I was going to invoke the Calvino, of course, but the post was long enough already. :)

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  5. Noelle on said:

    Reading this was the best part of my day :-) Binders full of women indeed.

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      Thanks Noelle!

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  6. Sally Poor on said:

    Hi Bruce, you clearly have too much time on your hands… but I am glad of it, as this made me laugh out loud… thanks!

  7. Anonymous on said:

    Best part – detail of Figure 1.

  8. Cynjok on said:

    I have reconsidered my support of the candidate I was determined to vote for now that I realize Governor Romney wasn’t merely back-tracking, flip-flopping, stuttering in indignation and confused that his innate sense of being du entitled treatment wasn’t properly respected. Now that I understand he is a scholar and historian of such caliber as to recognize how much his binder reference is singularly apt when applied to modern sociological issues as they particularly apply to religion, family, gender, work schedules, and private ownership of AK47s.

    Thanks to you for noting the Governor’s insightful vision for our great nation in your essay. I am now fully prepared, nay, anxious, to press the touch screen in my voting station vigorously and righteously for Governor Romney and then to remove myself from society and retire to my binder community as a Sister of Tri-Ring, keeping chaste, modest, and quiet as befits the cloistered life I was destined for but knew not of until now.

  9. Trenton Merricks on said:

    I am learning so much from this blog! I didn’t know half this stuff!

  10. Louisa Burnham on said:

    Johannes L. Campus, an esteemed colleague from the Viridis Montis, sent me his comments on this:

    “Brilliant. But I think BH may have been mistaken in thinking that “binders” was a nominative singular noun. My understanding is that Mitt may have been showing off his Latter Day Biblical scholarship by demonstrating his familiarity with a recently recovered reading of Matthew 4:19 (previously misread as ‘fishers of men’; the new reading was found under a mountain in upstate NY but is only decipherable with special glasses) wherein Jesus calls upon his disciples, saying ‘Come, follow me, and I will make you binders of women.’ “

    • Anonymous on said:

      No, no, no …. You all have t wrong. Mitt was making reference

      • Oops. Let me try again:
        No, no, no … You all have it wrong. Mitt was making reference to brassieres. And as we all know, binding breasts is much easier than binding a whole woman.

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      I believe Professor Campus is correct, though I hadn’t been familiar with that emendation of Matthew 4:19. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Lisa Colton on said:

    I have always enjoyed your work, Bruce, but this is extra special!

  12. Theresa Coletti on said:

    Best thing I’ve read all week, Bruce. And on your lunch break too….

  13. Jennifer Bain on said:

    Thank you, Bruce, for a much needed chuckle! You might need to expand on your thesis for the pseudo-society session at Kalamazoo.

  14. Almost as good as Ian Frazier’s, “Lamentations of the Father.”

  15. mycrazyarmywifelife on said:


  16. Elizabeth Allen on said:

    Bruce, perhaps you have already seen the reviews for the Avery Durable Binder on Amazon? “This binder does not come with women….” etc. There are a thousand of them.

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  19. Anonymous on said:

    excuse my ignorance….but is this a joke or for real?

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      It’s a humor piece. Sorry if that wasn’t clear!

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  20. Nearly a month later and I’m still laughing. Bravo!

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