A Washington Post profile of Mike Pence’s wife, Karen, included lots of fascinating observations. But it was just this one sentence that inspired a tsunami of blog posts and opinion pieces:
“In 2002, Mike Pence told the Hill 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, either.”
Of course, people had a lot of fun with that. At the New Yorker, for example, Lauren Collins opened her article with:
“The Vice-President can’t get a burger with Lisa Murkowski without arousing suspicion or, possibly, himself?”
Apparently, Pence’s code of conduct is a version of the Billy Graham rule, designed to avoid even the mere appearance of sexual impropriety. Graham’s grandson Will explained:
“When my grandfather would check into a hotel, a man would go inside the room and look under the bed and in the closets…What they were afraid of was that someone had snuck in the room, like a naked lady with a photographer, and she’d jump into his arms and he’d take a picture, and they’d frame my granddaddy.”
By now, many have pointed to the very serious issue of the ways that Pence’s embrace of the Billy Graham rule disadvantages women in the workplace. With Pence’s powerful position as Vice-President of the United States, the matter may be especially consequential.
Jia Tolentino, also in the New Yorker, asked:
“How could you rule out meals with a person of the opposite gender over the course of an entire career? That Pence was able to do so speaks to an incredible level of inequity in the workplace; no successful woman could abide by the same rule.”
She also noted that the Pence rule “included requiring that any aide who had to work late to assist him be male.” That’s a policy that may well be in violation of workplace non-discrimination laws.
Lauren Collins added that the Pence rule “means that if a man and woman need to ride in a car together someone else should come along…Breakfast is out. So is coffee.”
At the Washington Post, Paul Waldman said:
“I’m sure Pence would say that he’s just being careful. But I wonder if he realizes the discriminatory consequences of his rule. Over his career, he has had many colleagues and employees. With the men, he can have complex relationships that traverse work and social contexts, build trust, and eventually help their careers. A woman who hoped Pence would be a mentor to her, on the other hand, wouldn’t be able to avail herself of those opportunities, since he can’t even have lunch with her.”
The Pence rule disadvantages all women. But I think it disadvantages single women most of all. Married women (or at least the heterosexual ones) could stay within Pence’s unfair boundaries by bringing their partner along with them, as demeaning as that would be to have to do so. Would a single woman have to have a boyfriend to meet Pence’s requirements? What if the single woman did not want to ask her boyfriend to be her admissions-ticket to dinner with Pence? Would a boyfriend even be allowed, or, without the marital tie, would the single woman be deemed too likely to lust after Pence? A female friend would not qualify – by Pence’s way of thinking, she would just be another temptress.
Paul Waldman’s article was titled, “Pence’s unwillingness to be alone with a woman is a symptom of a bigger problem.” That bigger problem is women’s inferior place in workplaces nationwide, in the policies of the Trump-Pence administration, and in states where Republicans have power. The efforts to defund Planned Parenthood are among the best known. But others are even more chilling, and sometimes they are particularly discriminatory toward single women:
“In Iowa, Republicans introduced a bill that would not only ban all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, but also require any woman under the age of 18 or any unmarried woman of any age to get her parents’ permission before getting an abortion. (After an outcry, the bill was withdrawn and replaced with a new 20-week ban.)”
In their personal lives, Mike Pence and his wife should get to do whatever they like. But workplace practices, and the laws of the land, go way beyond Mike and Karen’s personal lives. They are about the lives and livelihoods of all women.