Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven

In her two terms in office, state Sen. Sally Doty has adopted a trick to avoid uncomfortable physical encounters.

“I make it a point to shake hands with men, not hug. In fact there’s a joke at the Capitol that I’m not a hugger,” said the Republican from Brookhaven with a laugh.

Sometimes when meeting with men one-on-one, she’ll bring someone else as a buffer if “it just might seem a little odd.” But unlike hugging, she says, she decides this on a case-by-case basis. It’s not a blanket policy.

“I don’t really know of anyone (who’s a woman) who has that sort of rule,” Doty told Mississippi Today.

Men in Mississippi politics, however, are a different story. Last month, Rep. Robert Foster, R-Hernando, a candidate for governor, made national headlines when he refused a campaign ride-along with this reporter, saying he won’t be alone with a woman who’s not his wife, even in a work context.

Days later, Foster’s opponent in the Republican gubernatorial primary, former Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court Bill Waller Jr., told Mississippi Today that he follows the same rule. And last week, their opponent for the nomination, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, took time out of the Republican gubernatorial debate to commend Foster on his stance.

But in politics, having a blanket policy never to meet alone with someone of the opposite sex is a right that only men have. After the controversy erupted, Mississippi Today spoke with conservative women in Mississippi politics about the policy.

Rep. Missy McGee said “appropriate behavior does not lend itself to conservative or liberal (ideologies).

“There are 122 members of the Mississippi House. Only 15 of us are women,” said Rep. Missy McGee, R-Hattiesburg. “So this conversation that we’ve been having the past couple of weeks is concerning to me because if we start limiting men and women from being able to work together, in the end it only hurts women.”

Just 13.8 percent of Mississippi’s lawmakers are women, the lowest percentage of any Legislature in the United States, despite the fact that women make up 52 percent of the state population. In comparison, one in three Mississippi lawmakers is a white man over the age of 55.

Until last spring, Mississippi was also one of two states that had never sent a woman to Congress. In March, Gov. Phil Bryant appointed then-Commissioner of Agriculture Cindy Hyde-Smith to the U.S. Senate, leaving state Treasurer Lynn Fitch the only woman in statewide office. Asked if she’s willing to work with men, unchaperoned, Fitch said not doing so has never been an option for her.

“I’ve worked in a male-dominated field for 34 years,” Fitch said.

Waller called his decision not to meet alone with women with whom he works “common sense,” adding that transparency and appearances are important “in this day and time” and that “people need to have the comfort of what’s going on in government between employees and people.” Foster made this point as well, arguing that someone could misconstrue the professional relationship for a personal one.

Women, however, said when they do decide not to be alone with certain men, their decision comes down to one thing — safety.

“It’s really not talked about from a woman’s point of view, but in reality women have been doing this for years — not for fear of a false allegation but for fear of inappropriate behavior,” Doty said.

Asked if she believes it’s disingenuous that men are the ones with policies against being alone with women, despite being the ones who traditionally instigate the inappropriate behavior, Doty laughed.

“That’s just not common in our society, that someone says, ‘Sally Doty put the moves on me.’ That’s not usually what the conversation is. But with women it is, you know, men will make an inappropriate comment, make a pass. If you feel that’s a situation that you might be in, it’s better to have someone with you.”

Although conversations about whether it is appropriate for men to work alone with women have become politicized, with all three Republican gubernatorial candidates expressing support for Foster’s decision, and the Democratic front-runner, Attorney General Jim Hood, expressing disdain for it, McGee chafes at the idea that one’s politics justify support for not working alone with a member of the opposite sex.

“Appropriate behavior does not lend itself to conservative or liberal (ideologies). All of us, no matter what side of the aisle we’re on, should portray ourselves in an appropriate way, and I can’t assign liberal or conservative to that,” McGee said.

Foster initially leaned on this idea of appearances when his campaign told this reporter they would not allow a ride-along, unless I brought a male colleague on the reporting trip. But in his first Facebook post on his decision, Foster cast the issue in religious terms, calling it “the Billy Graham rule,” a reference to the evangelical minister, and writing “my decision was out of respect of my wife, my character, and our faith.” Reeves reinforced this point of view in the debate when he commended Foster for “following his faith.”

Hyde-Smith has often spoken openly about her faith. Her favorite compliment for Vice President Mike Pence, arguably the most prominent adherent of the the Billy Graham rule, is that he was “washed in the blood,” a reference to Christians who are said to be washed in the blood of the lamb of God.

However, Hyde-Smith, whose office told Mississippi Today that the senator “isn’t interested in participating in this story,” also built her career as one of few women in a male-dominated field, first as the chairman of the Agriculture Committee in the state Senate, then as the state’s first female Commissioner of Agriculture. In the U.S. Senate, her chief of staff, deputy chief of staff and press secretary are all men.

And in an interview last October with Mississippi Today, Hyde-Smith shrugged off the suggestion that being a woman ever affected her work relationships.

“I don’t think about gender that much. The opportunities have been there, and I felt like God called me to them,” Hyde-Smith said.

On Tuesday, Mississippians voting in the Republican and Democratic primaries will have the opportunity to advance more female candidates towards the Legislature, though Fitch, who’s vying for the nomination for Attorney General, is the only Republican woman running for statewide office.

Doty, who is working on a book about the 25 women who’ve served in the Mississippi Senate, said regardless who wins the governor’s race, she hopes he remains open to putting women in key positions on his staff, even if he’s not comfortable being alone with her.

“If that’s someone’s belief, I respect him and those who have that rule. But it’s… I don’t know. It presents a few challenges. And I think if you have that rule you take the responsibility of figuring out a way to have that meeting or whatever it is you need to do. You don’t keep the woman out of the conversation,” Doty said.

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.