Vice President Kamala Harris's husband has to define the job to suit himself — and to alter perceptions of the high-profile political spouse.
Douglas Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris and the first second gentleman, visited the Library of Congress this month for what he called some "homework" on his new role. He learned of the story from a century ago of Lois Marshall, then the second lady in a Democratic administration, and Grace Coolidge, the incoming second lady in a Republican administration.
Coolidge was nervous on her way to Washington, unfamiliar with the city and its culture. But Marshall was there to greet her at the train station when she arrived, said Meg McAleer, a historical specialist in the manuscript division at the Library of Congress.
"It is just the most empathetic reaching out by one woman who has been in this role to the woman who is about to assume the role," McAleer said in an interview. "And it doesn't matter to either one that you're shifting from a Democratic administration to a Republican one."
The atmosphere in the capital 100 years later is profoundly different after President Donald Trump's efforts to subvert the outcome of the 2020 election. Emhoff did not have any direct contact with Karen Pence, his predecessor as the vice-presidential spouse, until they met during the Inauguration Day ceremonies at the Capitol on Wednesday (Thursday NZ time).
But they and their partners appeared at least outwardly friendly in a belated interaction on the steps of the Capitol, before Harris and Emhoff waved goodbye to the Pences. If nothing else, it was the kind of high-profile, eagerly scrutinised moment that political spouses have to learn to handle gracefully, and one that was unusual only because Emhoff was the first of his gender to fill the role.
With the inauguration of Harris as the first female, Black and Asian American vice president, Emhoff, 56, registered two firsts of his own: the first male and the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president. Although the details of what Emhoff might do with the platform are unclear — he has discussed focusing on "access to justice" — his presence indicates slowly shifting gender roles in politics and beyond.
But that shift leaves Emhoff with a responsibility to help define the role for men who come after him and alter traditional perceptions of the role of a high-profile spouse.
"I doubt people are going to be so careful about scrutinising what he's wearing or whether or not he decided to put new carpeting in the living quarters there at the vice president's residence," said Katherine Jellison, a history professor at Ohio University who studies women's history and first ladies.
Harris and Emhoff married in 2014 while Harris was the attorney general of California. Emhoff, an entertainment lawyer, became an eager surrogate for his wife on the campaign trail. After the general election, Emhoff left his job at the law firm DLA Piper amid questions about whether his work could pose conflicts for the Biden-Harris ticket. A transition official declined to make him available for an interview.
The role of the spouse of the vice president varies for each person, said former chiefs of staff to vice presidents' wives, with many using the platform to pursue different projects. Karen Pence highlighted art therapy. Jill Biden, who taught writing full-time at Northern Virginia Community College, helped start an initiative for military families.
Like Emhoff, Marilyn Quayle, the wife of former Vice President Dan Quayle, also abandoned a legal pursuit around the time that her spouse joined the administration. She was searching for a law firm job before Quayle joined the presidential ticket with George Bush in 1988 but was later advised that the conflicts would be too great for her to practice law and that her new position would provide a better platform, her former chief of staff, Marguerite Sullivan, said after conferring with Marilyn Quayle.
Lynne Cheney, the wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, continued to work at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, while her husband served in the George W. Bush administration, said Debra Dunn, her former chief of staff.
Emhoff joined the faculty at the Georgetown University Law Center and is teaching a course called Entertainment Law Disputes this semester. Pence taught art classes at an elementary school in Northern Virginia. Jill Biden, who plans to continue teaching at Northern Virginia Community College, will be the first first lady to continue her job outside the White House.
John Bessler, the husband of Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., spent time with Emhoff on the campaign trail and called him a "great ambassador" for Harris. During the Democratic primary, without much security for the candidates, a protester walked across the stage and grabbed the microphone from Harris. Emhoff could be seen climbing the stage and trying to pry the microphone from the man's hands.
Afterward, Bessler, whose wife was also a presidential candidate, sent an email to Emhoff applauding his effort. "He was now officially the head of security for Kamala's campaign," Bessler recalled.
Chasten Buttigieg, a former theatre teacher and the husband of Pete Buttigieg, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and Biden's pick for transportation secretary, recalled a moment on the campaign trail with Emhoff. "I'm not a theatre guy," Chasten Buttigieg said Emhoff told him. "I'm just, you know, a husband, and I'm here to tell people why I love Kamala."
With Emhoff's new role, men in the United States could see that they could step back "and let women lead," Chasten Buttigieg said in an interview. "And women can be the ones who hold the power in a relationship, and also like what it means to be a loving and supportive spouse, and sometimes that means taking a back seat or encouraging your spouse to fly."
Discussing his visit to the Library of Congress in an interview posted on his Twitter account Tuesday, Emhoff reflected on the legacy he might leave for future vice-presidential spouses.
"I'm going to really take what I learned as I move into this role, but I'm also going to make it my own," he said. "I understand that I am the first gentleman to hold this role, and I certainly do not want to be last."
Written by: Hailey Fuchs
Photographs by: Ruth Fremson and Erin Schaff
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES