By Elise Viebeck - 10/17/12 09:31 PM EDT
Critics are targeting Mitt Romney for ducking a question on pay equity.
In Tuesday's debate, the candidates sparred over plans to break the glass ceiling and ensure women do not face pay discrimination at work.
Romney spoke of his commitment to women serving in his Massachusetts administration and to family-friendly work policies, which he said benefited his female chief of staff.
On a call organized by the Democratic National Committee, critics charged that the GOP nominee had "refused to answer" a direct question about pay equity Tuesday night.
"He talked down to the women in this country," said Lilly Ledbetter, a Democratic activist known for her fight for equal pay at Goodyear. A bill named for her was the first signed into law by President Obama.
Ledbetter added that Romney patronized women when he said he had "binders full" of qualified female candidates for his Cabinet — a comment that has now gone viral — but passed on a chance to discuss the importance of equal pay for equal work.
"Romney's binder did not help me at Goodyear, and it is not helping women across this country getting 77 cents for every dollar a man gets," she said.
The Ledbetter bill extends the time during which women can challenge unfair pay. Previous rules would have prevented a worker from suing if she went more than six months on the job without realizing her pay was discriminatory.
Republicans argue that measures like Ledbetter are onerous for business and unnecessary, given that pay discrimination based on gender was outlawed by Congress in the 1960s.
Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), expanded on his criticism of the bill in an interview with CBS, saying the Ledbetter bill was not, in fact, an "equal-pay law."
"What Lilly Ledbetter did was open the statute of limitations for lawsuits that could have occurred decades after alleged abuses occurred, even after people have already not even worked at a place anymore," Ryan said Wednesday. "It was about opening up the lawsuits and the statute of limitations.
"We, of course, agree with equal pay," he added of himself and Romney.
Obama, meanwhile, made the Ledbetter bill a major part of his appeal to women Tuesday night.
"That's an example of the kind of advocacy that we need," he said, "because women are increasingly the breadwinners in the family. This is not just a women's issue, this is a family issue, this is a middle-class issue, and that's why we've got to fight for it."
Republican officials later used the remark to pivot to the struggling economy, seen as a weak spot for the president.
"When the president talks about women issues, he doesn't talk about addressing the number of women who are unemployed," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) on a call organized by the Republican National Committee.
"I'm the mother of two children," Ayotte continued on Wednesday. "The reason I ran for the Senate was because of the fiscal state of the country. This issue is of deep concern for women."
—This report was originally posted at 4:11 p.m. and last updated at 5:31 p.m.