If everything goes as planned, Jill Biden will become the first first lady with a paying job, as a college professor, outside the White House. She’s been talking about this frequently, her spokesperson told HuffPost on Sunday night.
“I like working,” the 69-year-old Biden explained to Vogue in September. “Like so many of your readers, I’m a working woman. [Teaching is] my passion. That’s what I love doing. That has been my career and really a major focus in my life, so I feel like I could handle it and do everything else that first ladies want to do.”
In one sense, this isn’t much of a surprise. Biden kept teaching at a community college in Northern Virginia when her husband was vice president ― a decision that an aide recently called “insane” because of the grueling workload it entailed.
And it’s hardly revolutionary in 2020 that someone’s wife has a paying job. But in the Upside Down of presidential gender dynamics, it’s a big deal.
A first lady is expected to support her husband and to take on causes of a stereotypically feminine nature ― perhaps to do with children, maybe food, fighting disease is good. She is judged on how she runs the White House, graciously hosts events, and dresses. Millions of words have been spilled on, say, Melania Trump’s outfits, Christmas decorations and landscaping decisions.
“I’m working ... my ass off on the Christmas stuff, that you know. Who gives a fuck about the Christmas stuff and decorations? But I need to do it, right?” the current first lady said in a secretly recorded conversation with one of her advisers, expressing her frustration with the expectations of the role.
Fulfilling the traditional responsibilities of a first lady is definitely a job, demanding hard work with no pay.
But it’s when a first lady steps out of that space ― particularly if she’s seen near real policy ― that she is typically excoriated.
Eleanor Roosevelt took heat from members of her husband’s Cabinet for her activism. Nancy Reagan was vilified for her involvement in her husband’s administration. Hillary Clinton was reviled for ... the list is long, but as first lady it was partly for being involved in health care reform (and that one time during the 1992 campaign when she disparaged homemakers).
Even if the first lady stays in her lane, she can get called out. High-profile women walk a tightrope and live in a double bind: Be successful but not ambitious. Beautiful but not showy about it. Well-spoken but not loud. Confident but not arrogant. Michelle Obama faced all of that and more as our first Black first lady, dealing with the pernicious overlay of both racism and sexism.
“Name a first lady and she has been reprimanded for being too outspoken or too reserved, too controlling or not ambitious enough,” author Kate Andersen Brower wrote in The New York Times four years ago, pondering what would happen if a man were in that role. Essentially, the first lady is supposed to embody the perfect woman, she wrote.
These days, the perfect woman typically has a job, in addition to all her other roles. Even conservatives out there touting a woman’s place at home seem to concede this point. Just last month, Republicans fawned over Amy Coney Barrett for having young children and a career. A woman’s place is still in the home, their new line of thinking seems to go, but it’s fine if you can handle that and hold down a paying job, too. (And expect no policy help from us.)
Possibly, the culture has moved a bit since Hillary Clinton was condemned for continuing her work as a lawyer even as her husband was governor of Arkansas. And for justifying it with her infamous quote about baking cookies.
There are also definitely a lot of caveats at play here. If Jill Biden were still the parent of young children, her choice to keep working would likely receive a lot of criticism. Expectations for women with little kids are different.
And if Biden said she was going back to work at a law firm or a widget factory or something more commercial and less recognizably altruistic than teaching, that would almost certainly still be controversial.
Teaching has always been seen as an acceptable job for a woman. It conforms to stereotypical expectations that women are simply better with kids, more caring, more empathetic and more giving. Laura Bush, a former teacher, was widely praised for her focus on education and literacy during her time in the White House.
Teaching also complements the work that Biden wants to do in her role as first lady.
“You wouldn’t want to have a situation where you had a first lady working in a sort of job that was in conflict for ethical reasons,” said Betsy Fischer Martin, executive director of the Women & Politics Institute at the American University School of Public Affairs. “And certainly teaching only enhances the kind of platform I know she’ll want to advocate for,” Fischer Martin said.
Still, Biden keeping her outside job is significant, said Jennifer Lawless, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. “It sends a very strong message to women: No matter how accomplished, powerful, or important your husband, you don’t have to abandon your own career or play second fiddle.”
The First Second Gentleman
The 2020 campaign was a groundbreaker for gender roles from the start. In the Democratic race, the possibilities for a presidential spouse were wider than ever before. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s husband kept his role at Harvard Law School when Warren ran for the nomination. Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s husband took time off from his job at a Montessori school during Buttigieg’s campaign for the nomination.
On social media, candidates were able to showcase their personal lives and their supportive spouses.
“In this whole cycle, even during the primary, there’s been a lot of different examples of what a partner looks like when you think of the fact that there were a couple of potential first gentlemen in the mix for a while,” said Amanda Hunter, research and communications director at the Barbara Lee Foundation.
Hunter pointed to another groundbreaking political spouse: Douglas Emhoff, soon to be the nation’s first second gentleman.
Emhoff had taken a leave of absence from the elite law firm DLA Piper to support his wife, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, during the campaign. He will officially leave the firm by Inauguration Day, a Biden campaign representative said on Tuesday.
It’ll be fascinating to see what Emhoff does with his new position. “It’s nice to have a man as the first for once,” said Fischer Martin.
Having Biden and Emhoff in these roles could open up the possibilities for all spouses.
“Overall we’ve seen so many stereotypes challenged in the 2020 cycle,” Hunter said. “This is one more opportunity for both Doug Emhoff and Dr. Biden to create their own role and not follow the cookie cutter of what previous first and second spouses have done.”
Crucially, Biden hopes to keep teaching at a moment of educational crisis amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Many kids around the country are going to school virtually or are stuck in some kind of “hybrid” limbo of both in-person classes and online learning. State and local governments are facing budget shortfalls that could severely undermine public schools. The long-term consequences of this break in regular education could be devastating for children.
So after four years of an administration that did little on education except push for more charter schools, having a first lady with a direct hand in education and a passion for public schools could prove to be no small matter.
“It demonstrates that education will be front and center in a Biden administration, which is a significant departure from the last four years,” Lawless suggested.
Other than confirming that Biden plans to return to teaching, her spokesperson Michael LaRosa emphasized her other goals right now.
“She is spending time with her children and grandchildren in Wilmington, Delaware,” said LaRosa in an email. “Dr. Biden is focused on building her team and developing her priorities focused on education, military families and veterans, and cancer.”