(CNN) - In the thousands of words spoken in Tuesday's presidential debate, it was four awkwardly phrased ones that set the Internet afire: Binders full of women.
In response to a question on gender pay inequality Romney said that as he was assembling his cabinet after being elected governor in Massachusetts, he questioned his staff for sending him only male applicants and was told those were all who were qualified.
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"I went to a number of women's groups and said, 'Can you help us find folks,' and they brought us whole binders full of women," Romney said.
Before the debate was over, there was a Twitter hashtag, a series of memes on Tumblr, and a Facebook page with over 100,000 fans. The phrase was the third-fastest rising search on Google during the debate.
It prompted memes, such as Hugh Hefner in what appears to be a library: "Binders full of women? Oh sure, I've got hundreds of them."
READ MORE: 'Binders full of women' is debate's viral hit
The Obama campaign was in on it as well: a paid post from President Barack Obama's official campaign account appeared atop searches for "binders full of women" on Twitter.
In the second question of the night, voter Katherine Fenton queried Obama: "In what new ways to you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?"
The incumbent cited the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was the first piece of legislation he signed into law.
Romney, who worked in business, then served as governor of Massachusetts, said he "learned a great deal" about the inequalities between men and women in the workplace when chief executive of his state.
"I had the chance to pull together a cabinet and all the applicants seemed to be men," Romney said. And I – and I went to my staff, and I said, 'How come all the people for these jobs are – are all men?' They said, "Well, these are the people that have the qualifications.' "
Romney said he requested "a concerted effort to go out and find women who had backgrounds that could be qualified to become members of our cabinet."
Then, the sound bite which drove the online chatter.
The tweets and posts quickly stacked up.
I'd love to see the meeting minutes from that roundtable. #bindersfullofwomen— David Weller (@dcweller) October 17, 2012
I'd love to see the meeting minutes from that roundtable. #bindersfullofwomen
Kate Segal, whose Twitter bio says she is the Democratic floor leader in the Michigan House of Representatives, took a political angle.
To solve the problem of pay inequality we don't need more 'binders full of women,' we need more ballots full of women. #BallotsNotBinders— Kate Segal (@KateSegal) October 17, 2012
To solve the problem of pay inequality we don't need more 'binders full of women,' we need more ballots full of women. #BallotsNotBinders
Among the memes was at least one using an image of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in sunglasses which went viral earlier this year.
"Romney still uses binders," the meme reads, as Clinton looks at her cell phone.
Another showed Romney speaking at a podium with a stack of ring binders next to him.
In the debate, the former governor credited his outreach effort with his mix of department heads.
"Now 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," he said. "But number two, because I recognized that if you're going to have women in the workforce that sometimes you need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school."
The highest-ranking woman in his administration was his number two, Lieutenant Gov. Kerry Healey.
But in the social media sphere, yes, puns are permitted: a post to a "Binders Full Of Women" Facebook page read, "Trapper Keeper jokes are appropriate."
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I never knew before this that Romney was an advocate of affirmative action!
President Obama did an awesome job on this debate!!! I believe the President won this one.
That is the main reason this Bain-Capital idiot wants to Eliminate Planned parenthood???? Nonsense idiot.
So Romney had to go out of his way in search of "qualified women"? And built a "binder full of women from women's groups? Give me a break!!! Offensive to women!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I'm sorry when but when I heard "Binders full of women," I guess my mind was in the wrong place.
There are a lot of things I don't know about Mitt, because he keep changing his positions like the wind.
I heard someone on CNN say this was a "draw'–you can only say that if you're worried about drawing fire from the right wing nutcases. Obama hammered Romney–no contest!
He didn't mention wages once in his answer or whether or not he paid all those women he hired the same as men.
Yeah right, Mitt Romney: Champion of Affirmative Action. give me a break.
Romney never knew before tonight that he was an advocate of affirmative action!
A binder full of women? I am not sure what he was planning to do them. h e did not say. The guy Romeny is a chameleon and can change his colors very quickly. Do not trust him.
The binder came from the book of mormans.
I'm sure my impression of that story (binders full of women) is clouded by my own political goggles, but the story sounds apocryphal. It seems like one of those fabrications of convenience that you couldn't really fact check and probably isn't true.
In any case, I'm not really sure it matters. Forget what Romney did in Massachusetts–after all, he has–just look at what he has said about women on the campaign trail (e.g., defunding clinics for women's health, allowing employers to stipulate the specifics of female employees' healthcare options). Paul Ryan voted against the Ledbetter Act; Romney waffled in April before saying (through his campaign) that he wasn't looking to change the law. Tonight, Romney only committed to encouraging employers to help ensure that women can get home sooner. It's an appeal to the notion of domestic duties, not to equality or fairness.
Meanwhile, Obama framed it as an issue about families and fairness. Oh, and he signed the Ledbetter Act as his first piece of legislation.
Really lets not take the "binders full women" comment too seriously. HR departments create files and store resumes of candidates.
Come on binders full of women? That's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.
I hope that in the third debate we get to see "previous Romneys" debate "current Romney".
Romney is out of touch.... his policies and thoughts are stuck in the 1950's... that is where his regressive policies want to drag the US government to. A vote for Romney is a vote to repress women.
Romney never answered the question.
"Binders full of women"? Is this the Mormon way? I know on HBO's 'Big Love' the Mormons use a binder of eligible women for older Mormon men to select their polygamy marriages!
This speaks volumes about Romney and the kind of yes people he surrounds himself with. Most leaders seek the best qualified regardless of gender, they tell staff to bring the best. His staff, based on prior experience with mitt only sought out men. He simply cannot change his spots by lying his way out of this one. Too many witnesses mitt
Let's remember there is no religion test in the constitution. So it ridiculous to attack his Mormon religion.
Binder full of sister wives!
Obama blazed it! Romney looked like a disrespectful bully at times. Romney showed no class and was very unprofessional. I loved it, so glad that Obama was tonight the way he should have been in Denver. 'Binder full of women', my eye, I am a woman, and one can tell what Romney and a lot of older white men truly STILL think of women. yes, keep talking Romney, this way we get to know the real you. I feel for your wife, but happily, she's probably blind. not a bad thing for a happy marriage.
And you're going to stop your coverage of Romney's comments before his misogynistic bit on how if you're going to employ women you have to be understanding and let them go home earlier than the rest of your team (read men and un-familied women) so that they can go home and cook dinner and take care of the kids (you know do all that other women's work). The double standard here not only implies that women are (IN FACT) difficult to employ (despite his efforts to get them) because they (and they alone?!) are expected to shoulder the demands of family-rearing and kitchen elf duties (carrying an undertone that they aren't good mothers if they don't, and that perhaps all that time they spend at this job he gives them is really time better spent barefoot in the kitchen and watching over the kids).