Are Mike Pence's dining habits chivalrous or sexist?

By Jessica Lussenhop
BBC News

  • Published
Vice-President Mike Pence and Second Lady Karen Pence on inauguration nightImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Vice-President Mike Pence and Second Lady Karen Pence on inauguration night

US Vice-President Mike Pence reportedly will not dine one-on-one with any woman who is not his wife, Karen. A fierce debate is raging online about what this means about his attitude towards women.

The internet is abuzz over a single detail from a recently published profile of Second Lady Karen Pence.

According to the article in the Washington Post, the vice-president told a reporter 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".

"If there's alcohol being served and people are being loose, I want to have the best-looking brunette in the room standing next to me," Pence said to a reporter at The Hill at the time.

"It's about building a zone around your marriage ... I don't think it's a predatory town, but I think you can inadvertently send the wrong message by being in [certain] situations."

It should be said that the interview is 15 years old. The BBC asked whether or not this is still Mike Pence's practice, and received this response from the vice-president's press secretary, Marc Lotter: "I think you are taking this entirely out of context. He set a standard to ensure a strong marriage when he first came to DC as a congressman, clearly that worked."

These kinds of practices are not unheard of on Capitol Hill: A 2015 survey by the National Journal found that "several" male members of Congress will not meet or drive one-on-one with their female staffers.

The bulk of the Washington Post story is about the couple's close relationship - their matching email addresses, their side-by-side treadmills, the red phone on the VP's desk that connects him directly to his wife - but readers seized upon the detail about Mike Pence's dining and drinking habits, touching off a fierce debate: Is this chivalry or sexism?

Team Chivalry

Many applauded the Pences for their commitment to one another, and their wariness of the pitfalls of engaging with the opposite sex.

"He's a smart man who understands that infidelity is something that threatens every marriage and must be guarded against," wrote a senior editor for The Federalist.

"Why are people upset with Mike Pence for showing extreme faithfulness to his wife?" wrote one reader on Twitter. "That ought to be the standard for husbands."

Others pointed out that plenty of political careers have been tanked due to infidelity and that these are simply good rules to live by to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

"These are completely reasonable boundaries - especially for people in public life who come under media scrutiny," tweeted one.

Atlantic senior editor David Frum opined that, "You can criticize Mike Pence if you agree never to believe a rumour about a politician sighted with an aide of the opposite sex."

Image caption,
Meanwhile, Pence tweeted about Women's History Month and praised the women working within the administration

Team Sexism

However, plenty of others criticised Pence for viewing any solo interaction with women as inherently fraught, and wondered what this could possibly mean for the women he works with.

"The problem w/ this Pence/meal thing is that it suggests that every interaction w/ a woman is potentially a sexual thing," tweeted one reader.

"Indicative of notion that women are primarily sexual temptresses," wrote commentator Elizabeth Spiers. "Also means Pence cannot have a working relationship w/ any women."

"If Pence won't eat with a woman alone, how could a woman be Chief of Staff, or lawyer, campaign manager, or..." wrote Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffrey.

"I don't know/care if Pences have weird hangups. I do care if women are being denied jobs and opportunities."

Still others, including Texas Monthly executive editor Pamela Colloff, pointed out that few women can hope to lead successful professional lives if they followed Pence's rule.

"Trying to imagine what my career would look like if I'd refused to dine solo with male editors & interview subjects," she wrote.

A cultural divide laid bare

While the detail about the Pences may seem trivial to some, the ensuing debate has exposed yet another deep cultural rift among Americans, at once touching on issues of religion, gender equity and politics.

"The response to Pence's unwillingness to be alone with women is, from my POV, the most surprising and eye-opening cultural divide in a while," wrote New York Times scribe Nate Cohn.

"Socially liberal or non-religious people may see Pence's practice as misogynistic or bizarre," wrote The Atlantic's Emma Green. "For a lot of conservative religious people, though, this set-up probably sounds normal, or even wise.

"The dust-up shows how radically notions of gender divide American culture."

Meanwhile, as the debate raged on social media, the vice-president cast the tie-breaking vote to dismantle an Obama-era rule that secured funding for reproductive services for women.

"VP can't be alone in a room with a woman, but he can decide the vote on our healthcare," tweeted one female critic. "Wow."

Image source, Associated Press

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