By Peter Henderson
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - One group was not surprised to hear Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's comments about "binders of women" at the presidential debate this week - Mormon feminists.
Yes, there are Mormon feminists, and no, they do not think it is impossible to believe in women's rights and be devout members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a religion that once allowed polygamy and places a heavy emphasis on the role of women in the home.
But Romney's phrase, delivered in the presidential debate on Tuesday and which quickly went viral on social media, underscored the tensions over the role of women in the church.
Aimee Hickman, co-editor of the Mormon feminist magazine Exponent II, said Romney's remarks in which he said he looked at "binders full of women" while searching for staff as governor of Massachusetts suggested he was comfortable having powerful women around him, even if he put it awkwardly.
Yet when he then described setting up a flexible schedule for a senior aide so that she could go home and make dinner for her family, he was speaking in the church's paternalistic language that casts women ultimately as mothers, she said.
"The emphasis on them (women) being seen as leaders or them being seen as breadwinners is still really missing from our rhetoric," Hickman said. Romney's response put that "on full display," she added.
Hickman noted that feminists in general tend to be liberal, and Mormons are no different in that regard.
"I pretty much know every Mormon feminist, and I can't think of any of them that are going to vote for Romney," laughed Lisa Butterworth, who runs a blog called Feminist Mormon Housewives http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/.
Exponent II (www.exponentii.org), which is about to publish an issue on politics and the 2012 election, began conducting an online poll this week just before the debate, and Democratic President Barack Obama is ahead of Romney, his challenger in the November 6 election, 72 votes to 30.
A self-selected group of about 100 is not much of a poll sample, but Hickman said the results matched her view of how the race was shaping up among her readers.
Readers were also invited to comment on Romney for the current issue, and there was a range of views, frequently involving issues other than women's rights.
"Although I'm socially liberal, I'm a fiscal conservative. I am ecstatic about Romney's nomination," Andrea Alexander of Windham, New Hampshire, is quoted as saying.
"I'm not voting for Mitt, but I think he is a good person," an anonymous reader said, reflecting an oft-stated belief that Romney means well.
"I can't help but feel he is so far removed from my life he can't begin to imagine how his actions help or hinder it," wrote Eugene, Oregon, resident Emily Gilkey.
Romney himself was a lay clergyman, or bishop, in the church, which now claims 14 million members, about half abroad. In the United States, the religion is known for big families and conservative politics, although feminists say it has a history of powerful women, starting with the pioneers who trekked to Utah and Mormon suffragettes, who fought for women's right to vote.
Mormonism believes there is a Heavenly Mother, and lately senior leaders have been urging local bishops to consult women more frequently about church work. Earlier this month, the age limit for women to go on church missions was cut by two years to 19. That was seen by some as encouragement for women to try a mission rather than going straight into marriage.
"It is a very slow shift to an organization run by very old men," said Butterworth, who added that neither Romney nor Obama had addressed the deeper issues of women's rights and family.
"How can we create a system where the burdens of parenthood are shared among all of us, rather than falling just on women?" she asked.
(Reporting By Peter Henderson; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Eric Walsh)