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Opinion Pence’s unwillingness to be alone with a woman is a symptom of a bigger problem

President Donald Trump with Vice President Mike Pence by his side speaks during a signing ceremony for executive orders regarding trade. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

No one will be surprised to learn that Vice President Pence is not a loose, casual, fun-lovin’ guy. But many people were surprised to read this little tidbit in Ashley Parker’s recent Post profile of Pence’s wife, Karen:

“In 2002, Mike Pence told the Hill 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, either.”

It’s easy to make jokes about, and it’s also easy to argue that this is nobody’s business but the Pences’. But there’s a deeply troubling worldview at work here, one that has profound implications for policy — and we’re already seeing it play out at both the state and federal levels.

Let’s take just a moment to consider this pair of rules Mike Pence has for himself. He obviously thinks that every interaction he has with a woman is so sexually charged that it’s safe to be around them only if there are other people there, too. Unless someone might be drinking, in which case even the presence of a crowd isn’t enough to prevent … something from happening. There’s little distance between that perspective and that of the ultra-Orthodox Jews who refuse to sit next to a woman on an airplane, or the fundamentalist Muslims who demand that women be covered head to toe to contain the unstoppable sexual allure that renders men unable to control their urges.

I’m sure Pence would say that he’s just being careful. But I wonder if he realizes the discriminatory consequences of his rule. Over his career, he has had many colleagues and employees. With the men, he can have complex relationships that traverse work and social contexts, build trust, and eventually help their careers. A woman who hoped Pence would be a mentor to her, on the other hand, wouldn’t be able to avail herself of those opportunities, since he can’t even have lunch with her.

As the second lady, Karen Pence is carving out an active role for herself in the new administration. Here's what you need to know about her. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Any ambitious woman can tell you how this is repeated in workplaces all over the country every day: The men in the office go out for drinks, have meals together and play golf, and the women have to fight to be included in places where deals are made and careers are advanced.

I don’t know if Pence ever had a woman as a boss, but his current boss is in a way his mirror image. Where Pence is reluctant and apparently fearful of too much contact with women, President Trump has boasted of being aggressive and predatory (provided they’re good-looking enough). Pence won’t eat with them; Trump brags of grabbing them by the … well, you know. And listen to Trump at this celebration of Women’s History Month on Wednesday:

As Trump addressed the group, he marveled at how his wife’s “poll numbers went through the roof last year” and recognized the women serving in his administration, strong female leaders throughout history and some of the women he had met over the past month.
“So as a man, I stand before you as president, but if I weren’t president, I wouldn’t be happy to hear that statement — that would be a very scary statement to me because there’s no way we can compete with you,” Trump said. “So I would not be happy. Just wouldn’t be happy.”

Coming from someone who has assembled the most male-heavy administration in years, that’s the kind of patronizing joke that can be made precisely because everyone knows it’s not true. It’s like the man who kiddingly refers to his wife as “the boss.” It’s funny because we know he doesn’t actually believe it.

Keep in mind that Trump very much got elected on the grievance of men who feel as though they’ve lost their place atop the social hierarchy. That’s the most compelling explanation of why Trump did so spectacularly well among evangelical Christians despite his libertine lifestyle and lack of religiosity: He promised a return to a patriarchal social order in which the supremacy of men was unquestioned. Others thrilled to his willingness to offend and insult; at last, a politician was telling them that they didn’t have to mind their manners anymore, so they donned their “Trump That Bitch” T-shirts and chanted “Lock her up!” at his rallies.

As Jill Filipovic recently noted, Trump’s repeated photo ops in which he surrounds himself with a bunch of men as they discuss (or celebrate) limiting women’s rights has become too common to be an accident. “For liberal women, this latest all-male photo is a visualization of our worst fears realized. For many Trump supporters, though, it’s evidence of a promise fulfilled.”

Trump pledges access to affordable child care at women's empowerment panel (Video: The Washington Post)

This is all getting translated into policy. Republicans are preparing yet again to defund Planned Parenthood. All over the country, Republican lawmakers are moving to restrict women’s rights in ways that treat them as vessels for childbearing who are unworthy of their own autonomy. In Iowa, Republicans introduced a bill that would not only ban all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, but also require any woman under the age of 18 or any unmarried woman of any age to get her parents’ permission before getting an abortion. (After an outcry, the bill was withdrawn and replaced with a new 20-week ban.)

In Arkansas, the governor just signed a bill requiring doctors to ask a woman seeking an abortion whether she knows the sex of the fetus. If she says yes, the doctor has to then conduct an investigation on the “entire pregnancy history of the woman” to see if her reasons for getting the abortion are good enough. This follows on a law just passed in Texas that allows doctors to lie to women seeking abortions by telling them their fetus is healthy when it is actually suffering from some kind of anomaly or deformity. That in turn is part of a series of state laws forcing doctors to lie to women by telling them that having an abortion might drive them to mental illness or give them cancer.

You’ve heard the expression “the personal is political,” which people don’t say as much as they did back in the ’60s and ’70s. The idea then was that the individual choices we make and the conditions of our lives have broader meaning for the society we create. When it comes to politicians, though, we always assume the personal is political, that their personal lives tell us what kind of policies they’ll pursue and what choices they would make about the things that affect all of us. Sometimes that focus gets overstated or just silly; I really don’t care what kind of music my congressman listens to. But at other times, how a politician conducts himself in his personal life tells us a great deal about how he’ll act in office.

Just Thursday, Pence went to the Senate to break a 50-50 tie. The subject? Denying Medicaid reimbursements to Planned Parenthood. There’s no doubt plenty more in store.