In a way, an obnoxious and misogynist Wall Street Journal column may have done our next First Lady a favor when it mocked her preference for being addressed as “Dr. Jill Biden.”
The column (not linked because I don’t want to give it more play) unleashed a well-deserved backlash and, in the process, highlighted the impressive accomplishments of Dr. Biden with articles and tweets and Facebook posts rushing to praise her as a hard-working teacher who earned her doctorate in education while raising three children, teaching, and handling the requirements of a politician’s wife.
To recap: Jill Biden began teaching after earning her bachelor’s degree in 1975 from the University of Delaware. She taught in high school, including teaching history to emotionally disturbed teenagers. With some breaks for raising Beau, Hunter and Ashley, she went on to earn two master’s degrees. She then finished her doctorate in 2007 and became a professor of English at Delaware Technical and Community College. During the eight years her husband served as Vice President, she taught English at Northern Virginia Community College where she was known as “Dr. B.”
She was the first “second lady” to hold a regular paying job. She now plans to make history by continuing to hold a job outside the home, in this case home being the White House.
In their first joint interview since the election, Dr. Jill and President-elect Joe Biden talked with Stephen Colbert on Dec. 17. Colbert addressed her as “Dr. Biden” and then had this exchange:
Colbert: “You once said in your own memoir the role I have always felt most at home in is Dr. Biden. Some people have recently taken it upon themselves to question that title of yours.
Dr. Biden: That was such a surprise. It was really the tone of it, he called me kiddo. One of the things I’m most proud of is my doctorate. I worked so hard for it, and Joe came when I defended my thesis.
When I asked my Post Alley colleagues about use of the honorific, those who also have doctorates said they use “Dr.” sometimes for professional purposes but not in their personal lives. In articles across multiple platforms, other holders of doctoral degrees have been weighing in, often noting that it is women who more generally are attacked for using their “Dr.” title. It’s a debate that precedes Dr. Biden. Remember “Dr. Kissinger?”
In the Dec. 17 interview, Colbert joked with Jill Biden asking: “Do you think it might be a bit of a compliment that people were trying to think of something to criticize you about, like I got it?”
Colbert has a good point there. It would be a struggle to find something substantive about Jill Biden’s life story and her years in the spotlight as a political spouse that merited criticism.
When I worked in Washington, D.C., I had a few chances to see her at events she hosted at the Naval Observatory, the official residence of the Vice President. The kind of events she held said a lot about the issues close to her heart. One annual event always focused on breast cancer, and it wasn’t the usual big-name type D.C. gathering. She invited breast cancer survivors and those who cared for them – their spouses, their oncologists, their chemo nurses.
Another time I attended a small luncheon she held for families of wounded warriors. These parents and spouses had been holed up near Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital often for months on end while their wounded service members went through treatment. Lunch with Jill Biden (and sometimes a guest appearance by Joe) at the Naval Observatory was a rare break for them.
Luncheons like that were one of the many quiet ways she worked with Michelle Obama in their “Joining Forces” initiative to help military members and their families. As a military mom herself, Jill Biden knew that support was needed.
Jill Biden met Joe on a blind date in 1975. Joe Biden lost his first wife and infant daughter in a 1972 car crash, leaving him a widower with two young sons, Beau and Hunter. Jill and Joe married in 1977, making her the wife of a U.S. senator and stepmom to Beau and Hunter. Later, she and Joe had a daughter, Ashley.
“She put us back together. She gave me back my life. She gave us back a family,” Joe Biden said in a video about Jill that aired during the Democratic National Convention in August.
Political spouses often talk about how it’s not what they signed on for when they married. Laura Bush joked that George had promised she would never have to give a political speech. Michelle Obama was perhaps even more outspoken about politics not being the life she envisioned when she married “Barry.” Hillary Rodham Clinton had a good inkling that politics were on the menu. Jill Biden knew from day one that she was marrying a politician.
That’s why it is impressive to see how she never let being a political spouse limit her own passion for teaching. It may have taken her a while to finish that doctorate, but she persisted. She earned it and the right to use the title “Dr.”
We ask a lot of political spouses. They fall in love with someone who might at the time be a doctor or lawyer or teacher. Then a political campaign ensues and they find themselves being examined under a microscope by the media and voters. They are expected to gaze adoringly at their husband as he gives the same campaign spiel over and over again. They are expected to always look chic and to never be controversial. Historically we are talking about spouses who are women, but more men are finding themselves in the same position. Dennis Thatcher became rather iconic as a political spouse. Now we in America are watching as Doug Emhoff figures out his role as “second gentleman” to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
So first comes love, then comes marriage, and then comes the White House and a job that was never meant to be a job – the office of First Lady. It’s a role that has morphed with each occupant. Some wielded major clout behind the scenes, like Nancy Reagan (staffers knew better than to cross Nancy). Some found the office a bully pulpit for advancing social causes like Eleanor Roosevelt. Some sought roles in policy making like Hillary Clinton with her husband’s first term health care initiative. Some found they needed to become the “comforter in chief” like Laura Bush after the September 11 attacks.
No matter their personal passions and causes, they also found themselves overseeing the complex arrangements each year for the White House Christmas decorations and holiday parties. They would host the spouses of visiting foreign leaders for tea. They would redecorate, and redecorate, the White House.
Yes, it is a life of immense privilege. But it also is a life lived in a fishbowl that none of us would ever choose for ourselves or our loved ones. Jill Biden can expect to have every corner of her life probed by a voracious media, from her fashion choices to her use of “Dr.”
But after 43 years as a political spouse, she knows how to handle it. By not giving up her own career, not only will Dr. Biden set a precedent as First Lady (and hopefully one day “First Gentleman”), she will be a role model and inspiration to all the girls and young women out there that they don’t need to give up their dreams. That if you work hard enough to earn a doctorate, it’s okay to then use it and be known to the world as “Dr. B.”