Last month’s Washington Post profile of Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, resurrected a comment the VP made to The Hill in 2002 in which he revealed that he does not eat alone with women other than his wife or attend events at which alcohol is served without her. Known as the Billy Graham rule, the practice prohibits men from spending time alone with women who are not their wives and is meant to serve as a means of avoiding sexual temptation.
The old comment generated immediate rancor, with critics pointing out the ways in which the Billy Graham rule in practice would disadvantage women seeking professional guidance and mentorship from male bosses. (Read Andrew Exum’s excellent take on why it’s also bad for women in religious settings.)
A few days after the Washington Post published its profile of Karen Pence, The New York Times released an investigative article detailing settlements totaling $13 million paid out by Fox News to five women who either worked for Bill O’Reilly or appeared on his show and who have accused him of sexual harassment or other misconduct. Two of the settlements were previously known; three were uncovered by reporters at The Times. The article describes a pattern of behavior in which O’Reilly formed personal relationships with particular women, made promises to advance their careers, and then pursued sexual relationships with them. When rebuffed, O’Reilly subjected the women to verbal abuse and neglected to keep his promises to help them professionally.
O’Reilly’s lurid track record might seem disconnected from Pence’s hyper-chaste code of conduct, but they are actually two sides of the same prurient coin. Both men seem to operate under that archaic assumption that relationships between men and women are inherently sexual, and both men are key figures in organizations with a history of sexism: the Trump administration and Fox News.
The more obvious commonality between Pence and O’Reilly is that they are both members of the conservative political establishment, which is, of course, led by a person comfortable trafficking in all kinds of sexism, from juvenile comments about women’s bodies to policies that deny life-saving services to the most vulnerable women around the world, such as the global gag order that cut off funding to women’s clinics abroad that provide abortion counseling or services. And while the political establishment on the left is no stranger to sexist and even predatory behavior (Anthony Weiner, Bill Clinton), the sexism of the conservative political establishment is unique in that it is an accepted and vigorously defended part of the institution.
The Christian author James Dobson decried the uproar over Pence’s refusal to dine alone with women, saying, “I have seen some crazy things, but this has got to be one of the stupidest that I have heard,” on the Family Talk radio program. And just days after The Times article about O’Reilly, President Donald Trump defended the news anchor, calling him “a good person,” and saying that he does not believe O’Reilly “did anything wrong.”
The sexism of the political right is couched in the rhetoric of traditional family values, dissembling its malevolence and allowing its practitioners to pat themselves on the back. And because these traditional values tend to assign women narrowly defined traditional roles—in 1997 Mike Pence stated that working mothers stunt the emotional growth of their children—they tend to see conduct like O’Reilly’s as the logical result of women’s presence in the workplace.
Indeed, this is exactly how President Trump explained the occurrence of rape in the military with a 2013 tweet asking, “What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?”
The subtext communicated by those defending Pence and O’Reilly is that were it not for Pence’s strict personal ethics, Pence might be in the same situation as O’Reilly, led into temptation by proximity to an unaccompanied female. Rather than being seen as a failure of self-control, respect for the bodily autonomy of another person, and general decency, the problem of sexual misconduct is framed as stemming from the mere presence of a woman. And while Pence’s desire to safeguard his marriage are certainly commendable, the Billy Graham rule is not the antidote to the sexual deviance exemplified by O’Reilly; it is simply a less malignant expression of the same sexist paradigm of belief that O’Reilly’s deviant behavior is rooted in.
This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them. Email Jennimaria with corrections, questions, comments, and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.