A lot of jokes and snide comments have been made about the fact that Mike Pence does not dine alone with any woman other than his wife. A number of these comments have been made by me. This tidbit about Pence was first reported in 2002 by The Hill when he was still a Congressman. Recently, it resurfaced in a Washington Post profile of his wife, Karen Pence, by Ashley Parker, who tweeted the information as a teaser for her article. Since then, we’ve been treated to jokes about Pence’s unrequited dining passion for every woman, from Chancellor Angela Merkel to Mrs. Butterworth.
Both the left and the right have weighed in on Pence’s rules. From the left, it seems ridiculous and sexist. From the right, it seems a proper avoidance of temptation by following “The Billy Graham Rule,” as Jia Tolentino explains in a New Yorker piece that focuses on the evangelical roots of the prohibition against being alone with a woman who is not your wife.
For my part, I’ve always found the practice of casting women as irresistible temptations by religious conservatives, Christian and otherwise, insulting not only to women, but also to men. Guys, I for one believe that you are not so ruled by your penises that you completely lose control any time you are alone with a woman. When I was single, more than one man found me mortifyingly resistible—and they were all single atheists.
But it’s not the antics of Pence’s penis that really bothers me about this story and the commentary that followed it. Yes, there’s an inherent sexism about the fact that the Vice President won’t work late with a lone female aid, but that’s not unheard of even outside of politics, particularly when there’s an imbalance in power. For years in academia, the protocol has been for professors to leave their office doors open when meeting with students so as not to ravish co-eds.
What I find most disturbing about Pence’s rules is what it seems to say about his friendships: The Vice President of the United States does not have intimate, platonic female friends. He sees no value in such relationships. In fact, he finds the idea of men and women being friends is improper.
For most of my life, I’ve had close male friends. I couldn’t imagine my life without them. Growing up as I did in an all female, feminist household, it would’ve been easy for me to believe that men were a different species, particularly as a teenager. John Grey’s Men Are from Mars, Women are from Venus certainly promotes that concept. There are endless feminist writings about how and why women and men think, speak, and react differently, including one of my favorite books, Carol Gillian’s 1982 classic, In a Different Voice.
If I’d spent my life, as Pence does, limiting my relationships with the opposite sex to only members of my family or romantic partners, I can guarantee that I would be a very different person. My male friends bring perspective, understanding, and humor to my life. Because of these relationships, I know that men and women are far more alike than we are different.
I’d be a poorer person if I had no friends who were male, black, gay, Latino, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, transgender, Asian, Midwestern, Southern, multi-racial—well, you get the idea. The diversity of my friends makes me a better person. I have a broader, more compassionate view of humanity. But the Vice President is seems more concerned with avoiding theoretical sexual temptations than expanding his understanding of other humans.
Diversity is certainly something of a liberal cause, but it’s also an American value. And the most basic type of diversity is male-female.
My belief in the importance of diversity is based on more than just my personal experience. Study after study has shown that diversity benefits the people from the dominant culture more than those from traditionally underrepresented groups. It’s well-documented that white children benefit the most from integrated schools, and according a 2015 Department of Education report, those children’s test scores stay the same regardless of the color of their classmates. Children in integrated schools are better problem solvers and more empathetic because they have been exposed to people different than themselves. Companies with a significant number of women in leadership roles are more productive and agile, according to a recent report by MSCI Research.
Higher productivity, better problem solving, and more empathy are certainly things we could use in the White House these days. Instead, the current administration makes clear at every turn that being white and male is what they value and will protect for the next four years.
So it’s not entirely surprising that the Equal Rights Amendment (E.R.A.), which was originally introduced to Congress in 1923 and was almost passed in the 1970s, is yet again gaining traction. A few weeks ago, Nevada became the first state to pass the E.R.A. since 1977. At the moment, Nevada’s passage is largely symbolic. But if two more states were to pass the amendment, in theory it could become law. Congress would have to remove the 1982 deadline, which of course would never happen with a Republican controlled Senate and House. Still the world has changed in the last 40 years, and there are certainly fewer politicians who will go on record outright opposing the text of the E.R.A.:
Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.
While Pence’s dining restrictions are wholly ridiculous to many of us, they underscore why the E.R.A. is still very much needed: Because equal rights for women should not be dependent on male politicians’ opinions about whether women are people–particularly, when some of those men do not even see women as their friends.