The Role Model Boys Need

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Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff (Image: The White House)

Since we observed International Women’s Day on March 8 and all of March is Women’s History Month, I’ve been heartened not just by noting the progress of women but by the ways in which men are stepping up.

Just eight days after the Biden-Harris Inauguration, I received a White House press advisory like none I had ever seen before. Here it is:

Doug Emhoff adopted the title “second gentleman” to navigate the uncharted waters of his role as spouse to the first woman in U.S. history elected vice president, Kamala Harris. There never was a real title for the many women who preceded him as a vice presidential spouse. Generally they ended up being called the “second lady.” (Somehow “vice lady” never quite sounded appropriate.)

It is a position with no official portfolio, like that of the First Lady, and different occupants have carved their own paths. Dr. Jill Biden focused on supporting military families and promoting community colleges and breast cancer awareness during the eight years she and Joe lived in the Vice President’s residence at the Naval Observatory. She also was the first vice presidential spouse to hold a regular paid job and is taking the same groundbreaking step as First Lady.

Lynne Cheney focused on sharing her love of studying history and wrote several books. Tipper Gore used her platform as second lady to advocate for issues like mental health and homelessness. Marilyn Quayle had hoped to continue to work as a lawyer, but in that era (1989-1993) she was told it wouldn’t work and instead she ended up playing a more traditional low-key role.

Emhoff, also a lawyer, stepped aside from his practice to embrace the role of Second Gentleman but will be teaching law at Georgetown University. He appears to be happily accepting the role of supportive spouse in ways similar to his female predecessors. For example, on March 8 he joined D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser at Hook Hall Helps, a COVID-19 relief effort. The objective was to highlight the importance of the Biden-Harris American Rescue Plan.

To me, the most important role Emhoff may be embracing is that of role model. Isn’t it great to imagine young boys seeing a man helping his spouse in this way — of frankly playing second fiddle? Maybe more boys will grow up to become men willing to break gender norms and fully support the ambition and careers of the women in their lives.

Emhoff is not alone in starting to change gender norms. For example, consider stay-at-home dads. Slowly the number of men staying at home to be the primary care giver for children has been increasing, especially among younger dads. The Pew Research Center reports that dads made up 17% of all stay-at-home parents in 2016, up from 10% in 1989. It goes on to say: “Among Millennials (those ages 20 to 35 in 2016), 6% of dads were at home with their kids. By comparison, 3% of Gen X dads were at home with their kids when they were the same age.”

In a trend that seems related, the number of women who are their family’s main breadwinner has been steadily growing. Another Pew Research study found that: “A record 40% of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family.”

These are positive trends to celebrate during a month focused on the progress of women. At the same time, I’m not ready to go crazy with joy. We are far from achieving gender equality on every front from pay parity to the housework gender gap to the number of women in powerful positions from C-Suites to the halls of Congress. On most of these issues the needle is starting to go in the right direction. That is something worth talking about during Women’s History Month, and I feel encouraged by the example of Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more boys grew up to be like him?

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Linda Kramer Jenning is an independent journalist who moved to Bainbridge Island after several decades reporting from Washington, D.C. She taught journalism at Georgetown University and is former Washington editor of Glamour.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I’m reading Dan Morain’s biography “Kamala’s Way” and was charmed by the glimses of our VP’s husband in the book. He is front-and-center proof that supporting your wife’s career, even at some sacrifice of his own, is inspiring, admirable and a testament to character.

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