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Why It Matters That Pence Won't Have Dinner With A Woman Who Isn't His Wife

In Pence's worldview, men have no self-control, and women are either temptresses or guardians of virtue.

31/03/2017 7:00 AM AEDT | Updated 01/04/2017 9:27 AM AEDT
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A recent Washington Post profile of second lady Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, uncovered an interesting detail about their extremely close relationship. Mike Pence reportedly told The Hill in 2002 that “he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side.”

This tidbit caused a small uproar on Twitter, with some praising Pence for respecting his wife and his marriage...

...and others pointing out that, perhaps there are reasons outside of a sexually or emotionally untoward encounter to go out to dinner with someone. Maybe you have a friend who isn’t the same gender as you! Or maybe you work with people of different genders, and you sometimes attend professional dinners with them! 

The way Mike Pence and his wife mutually define a respectful marriage is up to them. But there are two reasons that this revelation about the Pences’ relationship set off such a firestorm online. First, the religious guidelines that govern what “respect” means to the Pences are part of a system that works to prop up male power and keep women subordinate. And second, VP Pence is not just a man with a wife; he’s the first in line to replace Trump should he leave office for any reason ― which means that the way he views women in his personal life could have bearing on the way he sees American women writ large.

The no-eating-with-another-woman rule was made popular by evangelical pastor Billy Graham in 1948, as part of the “Modesto Manifesto.” According to the Christian History Institute

The most famous provision of the manifesto called for each man on the Graham team never to be alone with a woman other than his wife. Graham, from that day forward, pledged not to eat, travel, or meet with a woman other than Ruth unless other people were present. This pledge guaranteed Graham’s sexual probity and enabled him to dodge accusations that have waylaid evangelists before and since.

The provision, which came to be known as The Billy Graham Rule, allowed Graham to use his dashing looks to his advantage without cultivating an over-sexualized persona that other evangelicals might not have taken kindly to. (There are some Muslims who adhere to a similar only-dine-with-wives-and-relatives guideline, though one can assume such a disclosure would not elicit such a strong defense from the right.)

Pictorial Parade via Getty Images
American evangelist Billy Graham and his wife Ruth. New York, New York, May 18, 1966.

This history makes it all-the-more clear that this do-not-dine-with-women rule is predicated on the idea that the company of women is always first and foremost about sex.

There is nothing disrespectful about a committed person having a meal with a friend or colleague who is not the same gender as they are ― unless one is to assume that any interaction not under the watchful eye of a spouse would inevitably lead to infidelity. In this worldview, men have no self-control, and women are either temptresses or guardians of virtue. 

The underpinnings of this belief system are what allow men to view women as “other” rather than equal. They allow some to rationalize that female victims of sexual violence “asked for it” because they wore “provocative” clothing, and others (including our president) to believe that assault is a natural outcome of putting men and women together in a high-pressure environment like the military. These belief systems are what create male-dominated work environments where women are viewed as sexualized distractions or cut out of the office culture altogether.

Is the vice president of the United States able to see any woman as his contemporary, rather than a potential threat to his marriage?

The ability to refuse to be alone with someone who is not the same gender as you and still climb the professional ladder is a privilege that is simply not afforded to women. Imagine if Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris or Nancy Pelosi refused to attend political functions where alcohol was served without their husbands in tow to supervise them. Imagine if they never took one-on-one meetings with potential campaign managers or fellow lawmakers who happened to be men. These women’s careers would have been over before they started. 

To be a successful woman in an industry where men still make up the majority of power brokers means working with men. It means fighting for a spot at the table, and accepting that, sometimes, you may be the only woman there.

Perhaps VP Pence has made exceptions to his 2002 marital rule in the intervening years. But as Mother Jones Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery pointed out on Twitter, following this rule to its logical conclusion would mean that Pence’s ability to meet with and work with women would be severely limited.

Can he have a professional lunch with Kellyanne Conway or Nikki Haley or Ivanka Trump without viewing it as a marital betrayal? Is he open to hiring women into positions of power on his staff ― specifically positions that require consistent contact? Is the vice president of the United States able to see any woman as his contemporary, rather than a potential threat to his marriage? 

I don’t doubt that Pence has a deep regard for his wife. What is worrisome is the idea that the principles that govern his marriage could be used to govern the country.

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