The Internet is on fire after an in-depth Washington Post profile of Vice President Mike Pence’s wife, Karen Pence. The article revealed that Pence explained, in 2002, that unless he is with his wife, he won’t eat alone with a woman or attend an event where alcohol is served, a spin on what evangelicals call the “Billy Graham Rule.” Twitter threads and think pieces have abounded. “Mike Pence’s ‘Billy Graham Rule’ has Internet yelling sexism,” blared a USAToday headline that could have read, but didn’t, “Mike Pence’s ‘Billy Graham Rule’ is sexist.”
What a luxury it is for a man to decide he can’t, and doesn’t have to, be unchaperoned in the presence of a woman who might be an evil temptress out to destroy him. And what a serious problem for women.
This quiet informal rule isn’t only a matter of Pence’s private life, but of his professional life and public policy. It is, if still true, ridiculous and a good illustration of the absurdity women have to put up with regularly. As Mother Jones’ Clara Jeffrey tweeted, “Would Pence dine with Theresa May? Angela Merkel? What, if he were to become POTUS, with female VP candidates?” Someone then asked her, “What sort of bosses have you had that required you to dine with them alone?” to which she replied, “I am the boss.”
In May 2015, Sarah Mimms wrote a lengthy Atlantic piece titled, Why Some Male Members of Congress Won’t Be Alone with Female Staffers. The starting point for her article was an anonymous survey of female staffers conducted by National Journal. Women aides described the many ways in which men who adhere to the Graham Rule left them out of meetings and professionally relevant recreational activities. The “never alone with a woman” rule makes it difficult for these women to do their jobs, become part of their workplace cultures and compete effectively for promotions.
One woman worked for a man for twelve years during which time he “never took a closed door meeting with me.” His refusal to meet with her “made sensitive and strategic discussions extremely difficult.” Male coworkers witnessed knowledgeable senior women being barred from key meetings. “I’d say, ‘she has more experience, this isn’t my area,’” reported one staffer. “They’d still say, ‘we need you to staff him tonight.’” Women who came forward in the survey would not share their names or the names of their employers for fear of retribution.
The Graham rule is based on two ideas, both of which reflect deeply impoverished views of human nature, debase men and impose real restrictions on girls and women.
One is that men are little better than animals who cannot control themselves and, so, can’t, ultimately, be held accountable. I have often heard men like Pence openly describe not hiring capable women because they might find them attractive, distracting and, from a marital perspective, disruptive. This equation was central to a 2013 Iowa Supreme Court case in which the all-male court reaffirmed the firing of a woman because she was too pretty and her employer viewed her as an “irresistible attraction.” In 2010, a woman sued Citibank for firing her for being “distracting” to the men in her office. The same ideas are the stuff that dress code enforcements that penalize girls and women for having the audacity to live in their bodies are made of. Men can and do control themselves. Predicating life on the idea that men can’t control themselves is a pillar of sexist discrimination.
Which brings us to the second idea, that in this world view women are understood in terms of their functionality to men, not ends in themselves but as means to children or sex. Either women are fulfilling a reproductive mandate or they are sex objects and temptresses. These assumptions might be among the most unifying shared by Pence and Donald Trump whose attitudes about women’s instrumentality appear to be the same. Pence is a man who calls his wife “mother” and Trump is one who sees all women through the filter of his sexual pleasure and violability, including, shamelessly, his own daughter. If you ever wondered what a walking/talking Madonna/Whore complex looks like you’d be hard pressed to find a better example than the dynamic duo currently in the White House
The fact that so many are eager to practice, tolerate or defend the acceptability of Pence’s “private” decision is a reminder of much deeper and less obvious issues that are rarely addressed as sexist. Gender essentialists are not just uncomfortable with women in the workplace, but actually hostile to them, particularly women in leadership roles. They can talk a good game and trot out sparkly loophole women, but they are measurably disinclined to create or enforce policies that help women achieve equality in the workplace. (For a good corky read: “Marriage Structure and Resistance to the Gender Revolution in the Workplace).
While conservatives like nothing more but to explain that women in the United States have achieved equality and should that we should consider ourselves lucky, the reality is that the United States, particularly under this administration, is a powerful reminder of how far women have yet to go.
There is no separating the fact that we are the most religious country in the industrialized world from the fact that we also have the worst record of institutionalized support for women working outside of the home. We are the only country among peer countries to have no mandated family friendly workplace policies, and the only one in which the percentage of women entering the workplace has been steadily declining for years. The entire economy is grounded in maintaining powerful fraternal orders reliant on women’s unpaid and low wage care and domestic work.
Today, women are still primarily responsible for children, do an average of two hours more unpaid work a week and make up three quarters of minimum wage workers. Thirty-nine percent of working mothers are sole providers for their families, compared to 43 percent of men, who are twice as likely to be making more than $50K and more than six times as likely to be making six-figure incomes. The top jobs in America for women today remain the same as half a century ago. They are jobs in which women support other people – administrative assistant, teacher, nurse - overwhelmingly men making more money and enjoying higher status. And the higher up you go in any organization in the country, the fewer women you will find because they remain, in culture and norms, fraternities. Fraternity is one of the most powerful obstacles to freedom and equality that women, including in the US, face today.
The idea that a man cannot be alone with a woman he is not married to is the essence of maintaining fraternity in the professional and political worlds. Despite women’s monumental gains in the workplace, and the notions that patriarchy is dead, women are the richer sex, and the end of men is nigh, women are stuck at 17 percent of leadership and management positions — in politics, entertainment, media, religion or corporations. This is true even though we know that companies and countries with more equitable gender balanced leadership are demonstrably more productive and economically secure. Some people find it hard to come to terms with sexism, even as it’s grinding them into a fine powder.
Pence and his wife will do what they need to in order to safeguard their marriage, but let’ s not pretend that what they do is a strictly private matter. Pence’s marital arrangement is central to his proudly being part of the most white, most heterosexual, and most male administration of the past 40 years. It’s dishonest and destructive to suggest that the quality and pervasiveness of a politician’s practice of faith should be off limits or restricted to a tidy “culture war” box. The evanescent effects on the workplace of self-described religious beliefs like these make any statements about women’s equality moot in tangible, practical terms. Attitudes like his will keep women out of important roles in the White House and beyond.
We should be openly and publicly discussing the social, economic and political impacts and costs of Pence’s private religious beliefs on women’s political and social equality. God or not, call it what it is: sexism, plain and simple.