Dr. Jill Biden is back in the classroom this month, carrying a course load of three classes as she returns to her full-time teaching job at Northern Virginia Community College. Her work looks a bit different after a year off on the campaign trail. Two of the classes are hybrid, featuring live-streamed instruction as part of the Covid protocols not yet necessary when she took a leave of absence last January. She also returns with a new title: First lady of the United States.
In retaining her full-time job, Biden is breaking tradition — and a glass ceiling that has hovered over first ladies throughout US history. It is the second time she has made this particularly kind of history: when her husband was vice president, she became the first second lady of the United States to hold a full-time job. As second lady, she not only spent her time grading papers and teaching classes, but leveraging her political role to fight for things like free community college. That dedication no doubt comes in part from her career as a teacher at a community college, a job that she sees as both a calling and a form of service.
Her determination to continue that career as first lady comes at an important moment. Millions of women in the US have been forced out of the workforce by the pandemic, their careers put on hold as they pick up the work of childcare and education caused by shuttered schools and gendered pay inequities that lead opposite-sex couples to sacrifice the woman’s job first. By both keeping her job against expectations and speaking openly about the meaning and value of her career, Biden has underscored just how important women’s careers are, and how necessary it is to provide opportunities for those unwillingly displaced from the workforce.
In some ways, it sounds like a retrograde conversation: praising a woman for having a career feels like a throwback to the 1960s. That is due in large part to the retrograde nature of the position of first lady. It comes with no defined duties (and no paycheck), and yet has been larded with so many responsibilities and expectations over the centuries that it has been a minefield for the women who suddenly find themselves filling the role.
That’s because the role of first lady grew out of presumptions of women’s inequality. For the first 130 years, first ladies were unable to vote and unlikely to pursue careers while married. They might have served as their husband’s (or in some cases, father’s) confidante, smoothed prickly diplomatic conflicts, and hosted state dinners and parties, but they did so under the expectation that that was what wives of well-connected men did.
The position that emerged in that first century of presidents and first ladies reflected the values of the time. The legal notion of coverture meant that a woman’s legal identity was subsumed under her husband’s, while the cultural notion of domesticity relegated women to the care of home and family. As such, the first lady became an extension of her husband, her work largely limited to social affairs.
Even as women’s citizenship grew following expansion of suffrage in 1920 and the decades following, the role of first lady remained fully rooted in those values. A few first ladies, most notably Eleanor Roosevelt, exercised political influence and pursued projects and causes that were important to them. That became more the norm in the 1960s, as Lady Bird Johnson — who had two bachelor’s degrees and a successful business career and, behind the scenes, advised her husband — used her position to push for projects like highway beautification, a cause still tied to domestic ideas of cleanliness and beauty.
The strains of the position became increasingly visible starting in the 1970s. As second-wave feminism and changes in the economy made dual-income households much more common, the image of the first lady as a kind of volunteer hostess grew more and more outdated.
Instead, first ladies had to set aside successful careers or vocations of their own to support their husbands’ new position. The clash in values occasionally broke through: Betty Ford used her role as a kind of bully pulpit, pressuring her husband on issues like reproductive rights and representation on the Supreme Court.
But the strains became especially visible in the Clinton years in ways that followed Hillary Clinton throughout her political life. On the campaign trail in 1992, the successful lawyer found herself baking cookies in penance for a comment about the importance of her career.
“I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas,” she said when questioned about her work during her husband’s time as governor of Arkansas, “but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.”
The outrage that followed grew so intense that Clinton ultimately submitted to a cookie bake-off with Barbara Bush to demonstrate her domestic bode fides. Journalists and Republicans continued to hold her professional ambitions against her throughout her tenure as first lady.
Clinton had broken a kind of glass ceiling of her own as first lady, having been put in charge of a substantial, if ultimately unsuccessful, policy portfolio. Precisely because of the failure of healthcare reform and the lashing she took in the media, future administrations were hesitant to replicate that model. But they also shied away from it because the women who followed were not especially interested in being policymakers. Laura Bush made clear early in her husband’s career that she did not see herself as a political wife.
And Michelle Obama, who had a successful career as a lawyer and hospital administrator, chafed at the sacrifices required by her new position. When her husband won the Iowa caucus in 2008, she had to leave her job at the University of Chicago Medical Center. “It had been painful to step away from my work,” she wrote in her memoir, “but there was no choice: My family needed me, and that mattered more.” She didn’t want to be a Hillary Clinton — though she pursued important projects as first lady, she had never longed for a career in politics — but the options open to a first lady seemed limited to projects that complemented her husband’s agenda.
That’s what is so remarkable about Jill Biden’s decision to maintain her separate career. Precisely because her ambitions are not aimed at the political sphere, but are wholly separate, her choice conveys a kind of independence that former first ladies did not, and likely could not, claim.
As first lady, she uses her title “Dr.” (despite some conservative protestation), a reflection of the education doctorate she earned in 2007. In the classroom, she keeps her other title under wraps. “I am an English teacher at NOVA — not First Lady,” she wrote to campus colleagues after the inauguration. “I am not mentioning it in my classes AT ALL. Thanks for honoring my teacher identity.”
And she has done all this without forfeiting her own voice in policy issues she cares about, from community college to her work with veterans. Though it looks much different from, say, Clinton’s path through the first lady’s office, it is empowering in a deeper way: Biden has managed to carve a path through these awkward offices by offering her service but never sacrificing herself.
That she has been able to carve a space for herself that is not circumscribed by her husband’s role is a significant step, one that has the potential to transform the way Americans see the office. The country does not need a partner impressed into service because of their spouse’s job.
If the position is going to remain, it should reflect the values of equality and autonomy that emerged long after the job of first lady did. Biden’s decision gives us a chance to begin radically rethinking what the position looks like. And more than that: it models just how vital it is that women have autonomy over their lives and careers, something that will be vitally necessary as we work to rebuild in the aftermath of the pandemic.
The writer, Nicole Hemmer, is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project.
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