Mississippi Governor candidate Robert Foster has sparked a sexism row after it emerged that he denied a female reporter’s request to shadow his campaign trail unless she was accompanied by a male colleague. The reason? To avoid putting himself in an “awkward situation”.
Cast your mind back to March 2017. The news from the US administration was bleak as we read reports of Donald Trump’s executive order barring travellers from six mostly-Muslim countries, and the signing of the Energy Independence executive order reversing climate-control measures. There were protests, pain, and profound worry over the marginalisation of women and minorities in an increasingly divided America.
In the middle of the outcry, a Washington Post profile of Vice President Mike Pence’s wife, Karen Pence, was published. The article detailed the couple’s strong evangelical faith and described how the Second Lady acted as a “prayer warrior, gut check and shield” to her husband, as well as influencing key political decisions in the US administration. It was a small detail though that caught everyone’s attention, as it was emerged that Mike Pence won’t eat in a room alone with another woman besides his wife, nor attend functions without his wife if alcohol is being served.
“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,” the profile reads.
The “Pence rule”, as it became known, has roots in the teachings of popular evangelist preacher Billy Graham, who encouraged the practice of never being alone with a woman to avoid the appearance of infidelity. Predictably, the admission sparked outrage, and not just for the sexist assumption that men cannot be trusted in the company of the opposite sex. The disqualification of women from meetings with men, many pointed out, prohibited them from progressing in their professional lives. After all, how could a woman reasonably be expected to advance up the ladder if she couldn’t attend an after-work dinner with her male colleague?
We hoped the airing of this worldview would be a one-off affair. Alas, we were wrong, because this week, a Republican candidate running for Mississippi governor has denied a female reporter’s request to shadow his campaign trail unless she was accompanied by a male colleague. The reason? To avoid putting himself in an “awkward situation”.
Whilst we all desperately wanted to believe that the “awkward situation” said Republican candidate Robert Foster was envisaging was craning his head around on the “ride-along” to answer the questions of the reporter trailing him, Larrison Campbell, the woman in question, wrote in Mississippi Today that the case was actually as sexist as it sounded.
“In recent weeks, in an attempt to better inform readers about candidates in the upcoming Republican gubernatorial primary, Mississippi Today has asked to shadow each contender seeking the GOP nomination,” Campbell begins.
“Bill Waller, a former state supreme court chief justice, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves agreed to ride alongs with Mississippi Today reporter Adam Ganucheau. The other candidate — state Rep. Robert Foster, R-Hernando — declined, however, because I am a woman.”
Campbell goes on to explain that when she pressed Foster’s campaign director, Colton Robison, on whether she was being denied access to the trip on the basis that the appearance of the pair “could be used in a smear campaign to insinuate an extramarital affair,” Robinson agreed. “Perception is everything,” he said. “We are so close to the primary. If (trackers) were to get a picture and they put a mailer out, we wouldn’t have time to dispute it. And that’s why we have to be careful.”
Even though Campbell reassured Robinson that she would wear a Mississippi Today press badge at all times to avoid any confusion over her identity, her request to join the ride-along alone was repeatedly refused. Worse yet, in an interview with SuperTalk Mississippi radio, Foster defended his decision.
“It’s a ride-along request for a 16-hour day that we were going to be on the road. The other opponents of mine got a male reporter to ride along with them, which is a little bit different situation,” he told the station.
“In our case it was a female reporter asking to ride along, and my campaign director is in and out and gone sometimes – we have to divide and conquer – and there was just going to be a lot of opportunities where it would’ve been an awkward situation I didn’t want to put myself in.”
Meanwhile in a fundraising email sent midweek, Foster cited his Christian faith as the reason Campbell was denied access.
“Before our decision to run, my wife and I made a commitment to follow the ‘Billy Graham Rule,’ which is to avoid any situation that may evoke suspicion or compromise of our marriage,” he wrote. “I am sorry the liberal media doesn’t share our views, but their attack on us is all the more reason we need a conservative that will protect these values we share.”
Granted, Foster is entitled to his religious beliefs. But that doesn’t negate the fact that this policy is extremely damaging to women. By positioning his decision as a question of higher-ground morals, he casts doubt on Campbell’s professionalism, suggesting that women alone in the company of men harbour ulterior, sexualised motives. By that same token, he infers that men may be led into temptation in the company of the opposite sex.
As Campbell points out in her article, though, it’s not simply the idea that a cross-gender meeting will result in a sex scandal that is so deeply insulting. As a respected political reporter - the first, in fact, to break the news of Foster’s bid to become governor in December - Campbell’s progress in covering Mississippi politics has been stunted by Foster explicitly banning co-ed interaction.
Beyond suggesting that men are guardians of virtue, and women are temptresses, belief systems like Foster’s have real implications on women’s workplace opportunities. While Pence’s press secretary, Alyssa Farah, has defended Pence on the basis that he has “elevated women to positions of leadership throughout his career”, it is disingenuous to suggest that practices like this don’t negatively impact women. An anonymous survey conducted by National Journal into women’s experiences on Capitol Hill, for instance, found that “several female aides reported that they have been barred from staffing their male bosses at evening events, driving alone with their congressman or senator, or even sitting down one-on-one in his office for fear that others would get the wrong impression.” Make no mistake: this is a policy that protects men’s honourable reputations, whilst simultaneously eroding women’s personal and professional credibility. It is patriarchy in action, and locking women out of progressing in the business world where informal networking is key to getting ahead.
Furthermore, policies like the Billy Graham rule reveal a staggering lack of foresight when it comes to advancing women’s issues. A world where gender-segregated meetings and deal-making is normalised is not a world in which gender-specific issues can be seriously addressed. If anything, refusing to entertain cross-gender company actually pathologises male-female interaction, as if the hallmark of a noble professional relationship is to avoid one-on-one meetings at all costs. A political representative who cares more about people alleging impropriety than forging a decent working relationship is surely not someone who has their priorities in order.
Truly, Pence and Foster’s policy would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. Given their way, we would surely regress to a bygone working era where women were shut out of top management positions all together. Can you honestly imagine a world in which Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, or Kamala Harris refused to have meetings with men? Of course not. Women cannot afford to be so selective when it comes to rising through the ranks of the business world, when so many industries are overwhelmingly dominated by men.
Ultimately, prohibiting co-ed meetings amounts boils down to men’s power, and women’s subservience. And if you’re willing to preserve that, you’ve got no business pursuing a career in politics.