The Pence Policy
So, this became a thing:
The Washington Post ran a profile of Karen Pence, the wife of Vice President Mike Pence, on Wednesday. The piece talks about the closeness of the Pences’ relationship, and cites something Pence told The Hill in 2002: Unless his wife is there, he never eats alone with another woman or attends an event where alcohol is being served. (It’s unclear whether, 15 years later, this remains Pence’s practice.) It’s not in the Post piece, but here’s the original quote from 2002: “‘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.”
Some folks—mostly journalists and entertainers on Twitter—have reacted with surprise, anger, and sarcasm to the Pence family rule. Socially liberal or non-religious people may see Pence’s practice as misogynistic or bizarre. 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.
This kicked up quite a bit of dirt on Twitter and elsewhere. People who run or have run in Christian circles say it’s really not unusual, but a lot of people have spent a lot of time searching for something wrong with it. A lot of the the criticisms involve the belief that such a policy mentally reduces women to something second-class. If you do this, it must be because you believe that women only exist in a sexual context. If you viewed women as equals, you wouldn’t do this! The counterargument to this is that it is something Pence is doing for a woman. Specifically, his wife. Last year, it came out that National Review contributor David French’s wife did not socialize with men in particular ways. This was criticized as a manner of male control over women. I don’t think anyone took it as an indication that men were second class citizens who didn’t exist outside of a sexual capacity.
Another set of criticism involved the notion that you shouldn’t have to do anything like that to not cheat. Indeed, most of us don’t! That’s true, though it’s not a bad strategy to avoid temptation where you can even if you don’t think anything will come of it. One thing cannot lead to another if you don’t do the thing. A lot of affairs start with rather innocuous things that become more serious. If you can avoid it entirely, maybe you should? That’s what Ta-Nehisi Coates does. It’s also something we often do in other aspects of our lives. If we don’t have to deal with a temptation, it’s often best to simply avoid it altogether.
Because of all of this, I don’t really have much of a problem with the dynamics of Pence’s marriage. It’s not what I would choose to do, but in addition to Original Sin and all of that, in the political world it makes even more sense. Andrew Exum puts it well:
I’m not sure when Americans stopped being so clear-eyed about man’s sinful nature, but it surely wasn’t too long ago that we could all agree that men and women are frail creatures who, when left to their own devices, often fail to do the right thing morally.
The dim view of man’s nature that informs Mike Pence’s rules for himself would have been as familiar to Enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume as they would have been to John Calvin or Martin Luther. Based on the outrage among progressives that Mike Pence’s rule sparked, I’m guessing Hume’s own influence on Alexander Hamilton in this regard—which greatly informed the decisions Hamilton and other founding fathers made as they created America’s national institutions—did not make it into the Lin-Manuel Miranda version of Hamilton’s life.
In addition, speaking as a married man, I am very reluctant to cast judgment on whatever measures a couple take to protect the sanctity of their marriage. I am married to a wonderful woman, and marriage is the most rewarding thing I have ever done. It’s also the hardest thing I have ever done, including parenting two small boys and making three combat deployments. Marriage is hard work, and when I see stories in the news about men and women who have strayed from their marriage vows, my first instinct is not to point and laugh but to instead be deeply saddened and reflect: There go I but for the grace of God.
The strongest argument against what Pence is doing has absolutely nothing to do with his marriage or the state thereof. Rather, it has a lot more to do with female colleagues, associates, and employees. That argument resonated with me because it would be a lot more difficult for my wife to do her job if men refused to dine alone with her. She often bounces ideas off colleagues male and female. For a while, her tag-team partner was male and they would often meet over lunch to strategize and hash things out. On the other hand, over my entire career I’ve rarely been in a situation where I needed to meet one-on-one with anybody over a meal. It’s simply going to vary from place to place. One would think that politics is an area where such things would happen more frequently than with IT or medicine. Politics is a social occupation.
The concern here is that if female employees don’t have the same access to supervisors, colleagues, and networking contacts as male employees, they are at a rather substantial disadvantage in the workplace. If my wife’s colleague wouldn’t have met her, and would have met with a male colleague, she is suddenly less useful in her job than a male colleague would be. Granted, life is never fair. As a smoker, I have benefited from the access that the smoking dock gave me to higher-ups and colleagues. Of course, a non-smoker can hang out with smokers more easily than a woman can become a man, but you get the idea. With gender, though, it can become something of a systemic problem.
That said, it’s not a problem that can’t be overcome. And in the case of Pence, it’s not clear that it’s actually a problem at all. First, the wording within the article is actually ambiguous. “Alone” can mean “alone at a time” or “alone at a venue.” If meeting someone over a meal at a public restaurant doesn’t count, that opens a lot of doors. Second, a couple people have said that Pence doesn’t really meet with men in those kinds of circumstances, either. Which, if he simply doesn’t do those kinds of meetings, there’s no gender asymmetry. And some have suggested that if he does this that means he can’t put women in important positions, but he already has. It’s possible that beneath some of these hires still exists a pattern, but it doesn’t appear to be making a difference.
Either way, it’s important to be aware of the way such possibly-benign policies can have a negative impact. Likewise, we should be aware if such things are really our objection. It’s pretty clear that some of the people complaining about women career externalities are offended mostly by the notion of the Pence policy, or just offended by the man himself. It also seems likely that there would be a fair amount of shuffling on each side if we were talking about the Obamas, or if the underlying faith behind the policy were Islam rather than Christianity. And some of it is just a squeamishness at the idea of prudery, even when there might be a rationale behind it.