Promoted by Mike Pence, the rule to not be alone with a person of the opposite sex has become the latest battle cry for conservative political candidates. As more candidates jump on the bandwagon, where will it leave women who just want to do their job? And let’s be frank - women are the ones paying the price.
When I started my career, it would have been impossible to avoid meeting with men one-on-one - men were all of my managers and the senior executives where I worked. I frequently traveled one-on-one with male colleagues and was often the only woman among a group of men at trade shows, conferences, and on sales calls. It was, admittedly, the tech industry, but it didn’t really change when I switched careers to the nonprofit industry. And while I realize my personal experience is not necessarily true of everyone, I can honestly say that in my 40+ year career, no one, including me, has ever questioned the nature of my relationships with those men.
So I was frankly a little lost with the pushback I got after posting a news clip about Robert Foster, a candidate for governor in Mississippi who denied the request of a female reporter who wanted to shadow him on the campaign trail for fear that someone might misinterpret their “relationship” and use pictures with her to smear his reputation. (And he’s not alone - a second Mississippi gubernatorial candidate, Bill Waller Jr., has decided to jump on the bandwagon.)
Most people agreed with me - that Foster’s response was sexist and a deal-breaker. But a few individuals reacted differently:
“I would never allow myself to be alone with a man who isn’t my husband. If I’m at work, I keep the door open. It isn’t about the “patriarchy,” it’s about being above reproach.”
“Hey, if that’s the agreement he made with his wife. I’m going to respect that. I don’t see that as being sexist, I think it’s just the world we live in now!”
Cue my confusion.
To suggest that caution to the point of exclusion is necessary to avoid the wrong impression reduces women (occasionally men) to sexual objects. It is, frankly, sexual harassment, in that even without overt advances, it taints a work relationship between two (or among a group of) people with sexual overtones.
It is an excuse on the part of men (usually) to avoid addressing their biases and beliefs about women’s right to be at the table. It is a power play that is sexist in nature, in that it usually results in limiting the opportunities for one gender - most often women - to advance their careers by restricting their access to potential sponsors and mentors as well as challenging work opportunities. Senior women couldn’t get away with a similar rule - they’d have no one to work with. And can you imagine doing the evaluation of a male subordinate with the door open?
It is also heteronormative - do these same people avoid being in a room with a gay person of the same gender? And what do they do with individuals whose gender identity is non-binary? Do they avoid being alone with those individuals as well? Taken to its logical and extreme conclusion, you would have to avoid meeting one-on-one with anyone to avoid any misunderstandings.
It should come as no surprise that this pledge to not be alone with a person of the opposite sex is known as the “Billy Graham” (more recently the “Mike Pence”) rule. It is a reflection of a conservative set of beliefs about women as the adulteress and temptress - a regular Eve. It is a reflection of a values system that defines women by a single biological function - reproduction - and all that goes along with it. It is designed to maintain the status quo of men in charge and women as helpers, helpers who aren’t in the room when the real decisions are made.
When it comes right down to it, I also find it arrogant and egotistical to consider yourself so desirable that the only way to avoid even the appearance of impropriety is to never be alone with anyone other than your partner/spouse. Seriously - get over yourself.
I stand by my belief that if this is where Robert Foster’s mind goes (or where he thinks others’ minds will go) when faced with the prospect of being alone with a woman who isn’t his wife, he shouldn’t be running for elected office (ditto Bill Waller). He needs to work for himself and by himself. He has no business leading or governing “we, the people”.