News & Politics

The Real Reason Mike Pence Refuses to Dine Alone with Women

It's all part of his deeply retrograde world view.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

I have to hand it to conservatives: it’s 2017, and somehow they have Americans debating whether it’s appropriate to dine alone with a woman.

You see, this week a Washington Post article about Karen Pence revealed that the vice-president will not eat a meal with a woman other than his wife. Those on the right are commending Pence’s marital devotion and moral fortitude, claiming that such a rule is a smart defense against sexual temptation.

One conservative blogger questioned whether there was ever a good reason for a married person to eat out alone with a member of the opposite sex; the former CEO of the blog RedState chimed in to answer: “Planning your spouse’s surprise party or funeral and that is it.”

Why overwhelming sexual desire is only a danger over a plate of pasta, I’m not sure, but perhaps this explains the noticeable lack of women in White House photos—they’re all out to lunch!

While Republicans swoon over Pence’s supposed old-school propriety, the rest of us were simply reminded that you don’t need to brag about “grabbing pussies” to be a misogynist.

Never mind what it means for the (very few) women who work in the White House, who apparently can’t count on business dinners or mentorship over a meal. The underlying message of a rule like Pence’s is the same one that’s taught to teens in abstinence-only education classes: men can’t control themselves when alone with women.

It’s an insulting view of men, a limiting role for women—we’re there to either entice or domesticate—and an archaic take on gender roles more generally.

As the Black List founder Franklin Leonard noted, if Keith Ellison—who is Muslim—“refused to dine one on one with women and used his religion to justify it, the political right would lose their minds”.

While we were all fighting about Pence’s dinner plans, though, Republicans were hard at work attacking women and their rights while putting on a show of caring about gender justice.

The same week the first lady gave a speech at the state department’s International Women of Courage Awards, insisting, “We must continue to fight injustice in all its forms, in whatever scale or shape it takes in our lives,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer chastised veteran reporter April Ryan for “shaking her head" at him. (Just last month, Trump asked Ryan if the Congressional Black Caucus were “friends” of hers.)

While the president was asking a room full of women if they had ever heard of Susan B. Anthony, the conservative Fox News host Bill O’Reilly was under fire for making a racist and sexist comment about the California congresswoman Maxine Water’s hair and an Iowa legislator said that if a pregnant woman found out her fetus has died, she should carry the pregnancy to term anyway.

And while Pence trended on Twitter for his old-school sexism, what went largely unremarked on was that the vice-president cast the tie-breaking vote to push forward legislation that allows states to discriminate against Planned Parenthood and other healthcare providers that provide abortion when giving out federal Title X funds.

Pence is a misogynist. We know it from his voting record, we know it from the things that he’s said about women’s rights and now we know it because of his odd personal rule not to dine with women alone. But let’s not let one man’s sexism distract us from his whole party’s sexist agenda.

Jessica Valenti is a daily columnist for the Guardian US. She is the author of four books on feminism, politics and culture, and founder of Feministing.com

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