History Suggests We Should Be Paying More Attention to Karen Pence

As the U.S. descends into unprecedented political territory with investigations into the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia, pundits are scrambling to understand just what Trump is thinking. But history suggests that to understand Trump, we need to look beyond the usual cast of characters and consider some unlikely members of his inner circle. Chief among them? Vice-president Mike Pence’s wife, Karen.

In March, the Washington Post reported that Karen Pence “is the vice president’s ‘prayer warrior,’ gut check and shield.” She’s “a woman so inextricably bound to her husband that even then-candidate Trump understood her importance and consulted her in critical campaign moments.”1

Trump knows how important Karen Pence is. Why, then, do we hear almost nothing about her?

The answer is simple. When it comes to politics and public life, Karen Pence doesn’t want to be heard. “I don’t ever get involved in policy. I don’t weigh in on that. It is not my role,” she said. Brian Howey, publisher of Indiana’s political newsletter, Howey Politics Indiana, considers Pence to be her husband’s “silent, omnipresent partner. You knew she was there, you knew there was some considerable influence she wielded, but boy, she was not public about it.” “I don’t think they make decisions separately,” Peter Rusthoven, a lawyer who has known the couple for over 25 years, adds.2

Second Lady Karen Pence and Vice President of the United States Mike Pence speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Skidmore/Flickr)

A social conservative and evangelical Christian, Pence sets (or has set) rules on how her husband should behave while working in Washington. In 2002, then-Congressman Mike Pence told The Hill that he won’t eat alone with another woman or attend an event where alcohol is being served unless his wife is present. Ashley Parker’s profile in the Post also stresses the overwhelming influence that Karen Pence has in terms of policies, especially opposition to gay marriage and Indiana’s religious freedom law, which many see as a precursor to Trump’s recent “Religious Liberty” executive order.3

All of this is eerily similar to another woman who kept quiet about her considerable power over American life: President Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel.

Like Karen Pence, Rachel Jackson was a social conservative, evangelical Christian, and former divorcee. Perhaps because of her failed first marriage, Jackson, like Pence, invested a lot of emotional energy into her second marriage.4 The Jacksons cultivated a deeply committed and mutually dependent marriage that lasted until Rachel Jackson’s death in December 1828. Their partnership had a lasting effect on gender roles and ideology in nineteenth-century America.

Portrait of Rachel Donelson Jackson, wife of U.S. President Andrew Jackson.
(Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl/Wikimedia Commons)

Much like Karen Pence, Rachel Jackson set rules on her husband’s behavior. She urged him to refrain from drinking alcohol and attending any of Washington D.C.’s famous social soirées, where elite women had long been prominent and influential.5 Jackson also encouraged her husband to embrace some of her many political goals. In 1821, for instance, she convinced Andrew Jackson, who was then serving as Florida’s first governor, to pass laws prohibiting business and public activity on Sunday in the former Spanish colony. Similar ordinances also restricted the sale of alcohol.6

Rachel Jackson could influence her husband because she embraced her era’s most conservative ideas about how women should act, also known as “separate spheres” ideology. “Separate spheres” doctrine maintained that politics was the domain of men. Virtuous women who cared about their reputations were supposed to stay out of it, along with business and the law. (Poor women who had to work for wages need not apply.) Women’s spheres were those of the “domestic,” mainly family and faith. To be feminine was to be silent in public and without political opinion. Believing that men were active and women were passive, most overlooked the political power wielded by many politicians’ wives.

Almost two hundred years after Andrew Jackson’s election to the presidency, Karen Pence is using the same script deployed by Rachel Jackson. And so far, the media is buying it. With some rare exceptions, Pence is regularly seen as an apolitical or insignificant political figure because pundits continue to assume that women’s political action is only action when women are speaking politics in public. So far, the only thing Karen Pence has said publicly about politics is that she’s uninterested in it. It’s not her “role.” But in 2017, we should know better. We know that everyone is a political actor. We also know that when it comes to politics, the line between “private” and “public” rarely, if ever, exists.

Karen Pence and her style of politicking is dangerous because it quietly vilifies women who speak out, especially those who object to the sexism of men like her husband’s boss, Donald Trump. This reverses many of the democratic gains made by women’s rights advocates since the 1960s.

It’s also hard to gain insight into the most unprecedented president in American history when one of his key advisers is hiding in plain sight. Taking Pence at her word — as a woman disinterested in policy and politically silent — obscures the very real political power that even the most socially conservative women can exercise over their husbands. The trick is trying to see and hear it.

Notes

  1. Ashley Parker, “Karen Pence is the Vice President’s ‘Prayer Warrior,’ Gut Check and Shield,” The Washington Post, March 28, 2017. Return to text.
  2. Parker, “Karen Pence is the Vice President’s ‘Prayer Warrior,” The Washington Post. Return to text.
  3. Also see Emma Green, “How Mike Pence’s Marriage Became Fodder for the Culture Wars,” and Olga Khazan, “How Pence’s Dudely Dinners Hurt Women,” in The Atlantic, March 30, 2017. Quotes from Parker’s article in the Washington Post. Return to text.
  4. For Rachel Jackson’s first marriage, see Ann Toplovich, “Marriage, Mayhem, and Presidential Politics: The Robards-Jackson Backcountry Scandal,” Ohio Valley History, 5, no. 4 (Winter 2005), 3-22. Return to text.
  5. See, for instance, Andrew Jackson to Rachel Jackson, December 28, 1823, in John Spencer Bassett, ed., Correspondence of Andrew Jackson, 3 (Washington D.C., 1935), 219-220. For women’s influence in Washington society, see Catherine Allgor, Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government, (Charlottesville, 2000). Return to text.
  6. See Rachel Jackson to Elizabeth Kingsley, July 23, 1821, The Papers of Andrew Jackson, Digital Edition, ed. Daniel Feller (Charlottesville, 2015). Return to text.

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4 Comments

Laura Ansley

Melissa, I love this piece. I’m a news junkie and yet knew next to nothing about Karen Pence and her influence, so thank you!

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Colleen Boyett

Melissa, I enjoyed your article, but please check your dates. You stated “Almost one hundred years after Andrew Jackson’s election to the presidency, Karen Pence is using the same script deployed by Rachel Jackson.” It has been closer to 200 years since Jackson’s election.

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Melissa Gismondi

Colleen, thanks so much for catching that mistake! It’s certainly been *well* over 100 years!

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