First, Mississippi gubernatorial candidate and state Rep. Robert Foster refused to have a female reporter accompany him on a campaign trip, an otherwise standard practice. Not to be outdone, his competitor Bill Waller Jr., the former chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, stated that he would not spend any time alone with a woman (who is not his wife) in a personal or professional setting. According to CNN, here’s Waller’s murky statement:

“I just think it’s common sense. I just think in this day and time that appearances are important … transparency’s important. And I think that people need to have the comfort of what’s going on in government between employees and people. And there’s a lot of social issues out there about that,” Waller told the news outlet on Monday. He said his goal “is to not make it an issue so that everyone’s comfortable with the surroundings and we can go about our business.”

[…]

Waller told Mississippi Today that in his 22 years serving on the state Supreme Court, he never found himself alone with a female colleague.

This reasoning was similar to the one that Robert Foster had provided:

“I trust myself completely, but I don’t trust the perception that the world puts on people when they see things and they don’t ask the questions, they don’t look to find out the truth. Perception is reality in this world, and I don’t want to give anybody the opinion that I’m doing something that I should not be doing,” he said.

Given Waller’s statement that this has been his practice for many years, even the most creative minds won’t be able to blame this one on #MeToo (they might still try with Foster, though). So how are we to understand these men’s attitudes? Here are some possibilities:

  • While they would deny this as the reason, these men don’t trust themselves not to misbehave around women. This should make them look bad to voters.
  • Their wives don’t trust these guys around women. Voters may want to inquire why that is, and the reasons may well end up looking bad to voters.
  • These men don’t trust women not to behave inappropriately toward them. Any women. This should make said men look bad to voters.
  • These men don’t trust how journalists would present such interactions and/or they don’t trust the public in how it would view Important Men spending any time alone with women. In other words, these candidates don’t trust voters with something fairly basic. Why should voters trust them with much more important things?

If I was a voter in Mississippi, I would feel either 1) suspicious or 2) fairly insulted and stereotyped by now. I expect that individuals in that state are no less able to form judgments about human relationships than individuals anywhere else, even if their politicians apparently hold them in lower regard than I do. The exclusion of women from the same professional opportunities as men is a long-standing problem. Occasionally men express concerns about “what will people say” as a reason not to provide mentorship in a number of settings. This only becomes the reality if we let it become self-fulfilling–meaning, if interactions between one man and one woman are treated as inherently suspect.

Whenever I hear of stories like in Mississippi, or in fact ones where men did misbehave, I am reminded of how somehow none of this was a problem during my clerkship year. As it happened, I clerked for a Southern male judge (Judge Morris S. Arnold of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit) who had an all-female crew of three year-long clerks, one permanent clerk, and one administrative assistant. The fact that it was all women that year was coincidental, and most years it was a mix of genders, including with male majorities.

Never once did I think my judge acted inappropriately toward me. None of my co-clerks ever reported anything to me, either. Sometimes several of us spoke to him in chambers, and other times it was just one of us. Neither did that ever feel uncomfortable nor did anyone else think it was strange.

I have yet to meet anyone who speaks ill of Judge Arnold for any reason. He had (and I believe still has) a happy marriage with a lovely wife. If he could pull off healthy professional relationships with all his female employees in Arkansas over a decade ago, these Mississippi gentlemen could surely give it a shot in 2019.