You may have seen the hashtag #PenceFence erupt on Twitter this week, after female journalists covering Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to the Western Wall in Israel were forced to report from the other side of a fence, behind their male colleagues. Some of those journalists, unsurprisingly, were not happy about it—and said as much on Twitter. Prominent Israeli journalist Tal Schneider wrote: “Separation at the Western Wall. The women stuck in isolation and cannot photograph, work. Women journalists are second-class citizens.”
This incident had especially viral potential, considering what Pence has said in the past about working with women. Pence previously made headlines when comments resurfaced that he does not dine alone with a woman other than his wife, and that he won’t attend events where alcohol is served without his wife, either. Both rules, of course, got their own share of blowback.
But Jenna Johnson, a political reporter for The Washington Post who was traveling with the Vice President on his Middle East trip, says that the Vice President’s team was actually advocating on behalf of the women reporters at the Western Wall. We asked Johnson, who just completed her second international trip with Vice President Pence, to give us the inside scoop on what she saw happen in Israel—and what it’s really like to work alongside Pence as a reporter, who is, you know, a woman.
Glamour: Can you explain the story behind #PenceFence? What happened at the Western Wall this week, when women journalists were forced to stand behind male journalists?
Jenna Johnson: When you visit the Western Wall, you get put into two groups: Men can go to one section, and women can go to another section. There is talk in Israel of adding another section, where men and women can go, and that idea has caused a big controversy. Last year it seemed like everyone had reached a mutual agreement—there could be a co-ed section—but that upset the ultra Orthodox jews in the area, so Prime Minister Netanyahu closed that plan. So again, anytime you go to the wall, men and women are split up. That complicates a visit like the one that Pence did, because only the men would be able to see it.
Glamour: Who controls the rules at the Western Wall? It’s not Pence, to be clear.
JJ: Correct. It is called the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. The Vice President was a guest there. And while his staff did work with them to get everything ready, it is their wall. They set the rules. And the [Western Wall Heritage Foundation] set up a work-around. They put up a platform on the male side so that all of the men could be a little higher up and get a good look at the Vice President. Then they made a platform on the female side, so that women could stand over the wall and look over and see the Vice President. This is the same setup that they did when President Trump was there. In the van ahead of time, [the Vice President’s] staff explained to us that this is how it works, this is what to expect. Once we got there, we got out of the vans. The male reporters went one way; the female reporters went another way. We got to our section and there were a number of female journalists, a lot of them local, who were already there. And they were very upset. Because on the women’s side, you just don’t have as great of a view as the guys do. We were behind them.
Glamour: Did the Pence team step in to try to resolve the situation for the female reporters?
JJ: The Vice President’s office had really jumped in and tried to make things better. They added chairs to the women’s side—that way we could stand up on chairs and be a little bit higher. There had been some rain earlier in the day, so there was actually a little tent up over the men. It totally blocked the view that the women had, so they took the tent down.
Glamour: Did the setup obstruct your view, or prevent you from doing your job in any way, shape, or form?
JJ: For me, as a print reporter, I reported in a little notebook with a pen, and I was able to stand on a chair, see the Vice President through the crowd, and get what I needed for my story. But it was a big problem for women [reporters] who were taking photos—or taking video. One woman who worked for a television station said, “The guys who did their stand-up [shots] were able to have the Western Wall as their backdrop. When I did my stand-up, there was a crowd of people behind me.” They felt like it was not fair, and they started tweeting about it.
Glamour: Do you think the Pence team handled the situation well? Do you wish they handled anything differently?
JJ: I think they were honestly trying their best to make it as good of a situation as possible. Again, we walked into a hot topic—there is a lot of disagreement over who can go where at the Western Wall. So given that, they did their best to try to make it as good as they could. And anytime a United States leader is traveling overseas, the [leader’s] communications [department] has a tough job of trying to negotiate how much access American reporters can get, especially in countries that aren’t used to that. Earlier in the trip, we were in Egypt and President el-Sisi’s staff did not want American reporters to come into a meeting that Pence and el-Sisi were having. And at one point, we were trapped in a bus for a couple of minutes. The security guard barred us from going into the palace and doing our jobs. It actually took Pence’s staff passing a note to the Vice President during the meeting—and letting him know what was going on—so that he could appeal to el-Sisi himself to get the issue resolved. So this is part of being a reporter overseas: Navigating countries and the way they handle journalists.
“The Vice President really makes an effort to get to know thereporters who are traveling with him…. On our way back [from theMiddle East], we could look up and see him standing there in hissocks, talking to his staff.”
Glamour: What is it like to travel with the Vice President?
JJ: This was my second trip with him. Right before Christmas we did a secret trip to Afghanistan to see troops there. These are often really long days. You’re watching something unfolding and trying to absorb every detail. Or you’re writing as quickly as you can, to get your story in before you lose wireless. Or you’re exhausted and sleeping.
Glamour: Do reporters have any informal interaction with the Vice President on these trips?
The Vice President really makes an effort to get to know the reporters who are traveling with him. At the beginning of the [Middle East] trip, and at the end of the trip, he and his wife would come back and thank us for coming along and chat with us about what was to come or what had happened. On our way back, we could look up and see him standing there in his socks, talking to his staff. He didn’t have any shoes on, chatting with his staff. [Laughs.]
Glamour: What were your biggest takeaways from this Middle East trip?
JJ: Back in December, President Trump announced that the United States was going to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It’s a decision that pretty much every ally urged him not to make. It has not been popular over in the Middle East, other than in Israel, and so, at each stop, this is something that was being talked about, whether publicly or behind closed doors. When we were in Jordan, King Abdullah [II] publicly laid out his concerns, and was kind of lecturing the Vice President about it. But Vice President Pence did not budge at all on this decision. At the end of the trip, he was as confident as ever. He heard the concerns, but he really didn’t see that much protest while he was there, because we were kept to barricaded-off streets, red carpets, palaces, and things like that. And he was welcomed, in Israel, as a hero. He became the first Vice President to address the Knesset, which is the Israeli parliament, and there were trumpets playing and people cheering. I think, for him, this trip just confirmed that the Trump administration made the right decision, despite what others might be saying.