In the US, the inner workings of the First Couple’s relationship have long been the source of both water cooler gossip and serious analysis. From the Kennedys, with their car-keys-on-the-table attitude towards fidelity, to the Obamas, with their displays of affection and mutual respect, presidential marriages seem somehow to set the tone of the administration.
This is, sadly, as true for Trump as for his predecessors. The discourtesy he showed Melania at his inauguration was a harbinger of the discourtesy he now extends to everyone – from immigrants to reporters to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But it wasn’t the president’s marriage that had tongues a-wagging last week; it was his vice president Mike Pence’s. In a profile of Pence’s wife Karen, the Washington Post reminded readers that, some years ago, Pence told a journalist he would never dine alone with another woman – known in Evangelical circles as “the Billy Graham” rule.
As is its wont, social media was divided on the issue. There were those who, remembering what Bill Clinton got up to in the Oval Office, thought avoiding all “occasions of sin” was a sensible strategy. Then there were the rest of us: baffled by the idea that – in 2017 – a prominent politician considered himself incapable of meeting an unchaperoned women without having coitus, and wondering about the foundations of a relationship that needs to build a moat around itself for protection.
The Washington Post piece attempts to cast the Pences’ mutual fixation as romantic; it talks about an antique red telephone the VP keeps on his desk – a gift from his wife to which only she has the number – and the fact they shellacked the loaf of bread in which he hid her engagement ring. But their relationship comes across as controlling and creepy (and that’s without any mention of the claims he calls her “mother”).
It’s unhealthy too. Not only is Pence denying himself (and his wife) the pleasure of life-enriching cross-gender friendships, he is wilfully shielding himself from potentially positive influences. No wonder his perspective is so narrow and his vision so limited if he cuts himself off from half the world.
In any case, such efforts tend to be self-defeating. The more religions preach about temptation, the greater the chances that people will err. The Billy Graham rule did not prove effective. In a survey of 1,050 Evangelical pastors in 2005-2006, 30 per cent said they had been in an ongoing affair or a one-time sexual encounter with a parishioner. And we know where sublimation led the Catholic Church: to bonking bishops, love-children and widespread abuse.
At first glance, the VP seems to be on the opposite end of the sexual spectrum from Trump whose “when you’re a star, they let you do it” comments so embarrassed the Pences. Trump is all about instant gratification – about taking what he wants, when he wants it – Pence about discipline and self-restraint. But, really, they are two sides of the same coin: both equally incapable of seeing women as anything other than potential kindlers of lust.
As with everything, their attitudes have as much to do with power as with sex. Whether you treat women as prostitutes or princesses, whether you grope them in a trailer or lock them in a gilded cage, the impulse is the same: to objectify them, to control them, to put them in their place.
In most spheres, in the UK and the US, a ban on lone cross-gender meetings will have far more impact, professionally and socially, on women than on men. In the Evangelical Church, where women are already marginalised, the rule has been used to further limit their role, so they can only minister to their own sex.
But the same is true in other male-dominated environments. Within journalism for example, a ban on lone cross-gender drinks would have little impact on the men – who would carry on networking regardless – but make the lives of women nigh-on impossible. It would also be quite dull.
The same desire to keep women down could be said to lie behind the Daily Mail Legs-it splash – the one that reduced Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon to their body parts. The headline had its desired effect – to provoke mass outrage, while distracting us from some of the more insidious sexism that goes on every day. But at least in the UK, such acts represent the death-rattle of a fading power. Paul Dacre may be able to troll the nation, but it’s two women who have their hands on the constitutional tiller.
In the US, women are fast disappearing from the political arena. There were none, of course, in the photograph of the Freedom Caucus debating female-specific aspects of the then proposed repeal of Obamacare. But there’s more, much more. Trump’s cabinet has the fewest women since Jimmy Carter’s. One of his first acts as president was to cut US funding to international women’s health organisations which counsel, refer or advocate for abortions. And last week, he gave a patronising speech on female achievement to a women’s empowerment event, wheeling out the lesser-spotted Melania to bolster his own credibility.
As for Pence, he has a long-established reputation for misogyny, cultivated, it seems, in the absence of any real-life experience. In the past, he has railed against working mothers and argued that women should not be in the military. Last week – to no-one’s great surprise – he used his casting vote to ensure a Bill allowing individual states to defund Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers would pass through the senate.
But then, what can a man who never spends time with women understand about their lives?
By ruling out cross-gender friendships, Pence – and others like him – shrink their worlds. But more importantly, a politician who isn’t willing to get to know women, to listen to them, and to learn from what they have to say, is not fit to represent them, nor to make policy on their behalf.