Now that Biden will soon be moving into the White House, there’s more history being made around her. Kamala D. Harris becomes the nation’s first female vice president. Her husband, Doug Emhoff, fills the newly named role of second gentleman. The country is in such a historically divided, volatile, damaged state that almost all of the inaugural traditions and formalities have fallen away. And the symbolism long attached to the first lady as healing and consoling has been tarnished.
In the midst of all of that hope and wreckage, Biden is poised to transform the way in which the presidential spouse is perceived. She isn’t angling to be a partner in governing. She’s planning to be her own person, which for her includes continuing to pursue her career. It’s a simple but profound decision that strikes a blow for gender equity and barrier-breaking that resonates more intimately than the headlines that scream madame vice president.
Biden is on the cusp of gently forcing the culture to rethink its definition of a role that comes with countless expectations but no real duties other than to represent some murky, genteel notion of American womanhood. Even as women were leaping over hurdles in a vast array of forums — from business to politics — the first lady, with all that she is meant to represent and embody, remained essentially unchanged. No matter how professionally accomplished or independent a woman might have been before her husband took the presidential oath of office, she was expected to shed her previous identity and set about representing the softer side of the United States.
A wardrobe of designer frocks was expected, but it was also one of her most powerful tools for communication since it was often so hard for her to claim the microphone for herself. The first lady mostly speaks on behalf of the president or the American people. Those rare times when she speaks for the East Wing — or herself — the country pauses as if in shock to discover that she has a voice all her own.
Biden, however, has promised that she will maintain her voice as a teacher — that she will not simply be an advocate for education, and community college in particular, but she will continue with the on-the-ground responsibility of educating.
This small act of self-determination is a continuation of what she did as second lady when the spotlight on her wasn’t as bright and her ceremonial duties were arguably fewer.
Emhoff, who follows in her footsteps, will also teach. He’ll be a visiting faculty member at Georgetown Law School, having set his career as a practicing lawyer aside to avoid conflicts of interest. His decision to leave his job has been greeted with the kind of admiration that might be awarded to a good Samaritan who has donated a kidney to a dying stranger, not someone who is simply supporting someone he loves in pursuit of her dream.
Emhoff, who describes himself as a student of history, tweeted a video of his visit to the Library of Congress, where he researched the spouses of previous vice presidents. Social media was gobsmacked — apparently amazed that Emhoff didn’t just intend to wing it in his historic role.
Emhoff has been greeted with the same kind of outsize applause that welcomes fathers who oversee play dates. He’s been getting virtual back pats because he’s a man reasonably doing what women do all the time. Jill Biden is also making a reasonable decision. But reason and logic have never really applied when the public fixes its gaze on the first lady.
In a recent video, Biden announced there will be a special live stream of the inauguration for students and families. She’s positioned against a backdrop depicting the U.S. Capitol and in between a vase of freshly cut flowers and a potted house plant. It’s not a fancy setting, but it doesn’t much matter. As an educator who still spends time in the classroom, Biden manages to hold one’s attention with her sheer enthusiasm for the educational live stream, which will be hosted by actress Keke Palmer.
It’s not a video that has the glitter of celebrity or the glamour of Hollywood. So far, that isn’t the identity Biden is crafting for herself and it’s not one that popular culture seems to have immediately chosen for her. It was Harris, after all, who was pictured on the February cover of Vogue, not Biden.
The country’s current circumstances are also setting the foundation for a different kind of presidential spouse. Biden was not invited to tour the White House and sit and chat over tea with the outgoing first lady because such niceties were purged from this transfer of power. There are no inaugural balls and so there will be no official inaugural gown to be enshrined in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History alongside all the other bits of silk and lace that tell the story of this country. Still, Biden gave American fashion its due, wearing a purple coat, dress and coordinating mask by the New York-based designer Jonathan Cohen when she and the president-elect departed Delaware for Washington on Tuesday afternoon.
Wednesday at noon, Biden will stand alongside her husband when he puts his hand on the Bible and takes the presidential oath of office. And in that moment, one wonders whether she will even manage to be in the periphery of the public’s gaze. People will have one eye on the new president and the other will almost certainly be scanning the horizon, on the lookout for signs of danger fearful of a repeat of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The glory and infamy of history will loom over the occasion. Dr. Jill Biden won’t be the center of attention, but perhaps more than any other first lady, she will be fully herself onstage.