The second gentleman could be a model for supportive men.
It was Inauguration Day, and, let’s be honest, few eyes were on Doug Emhoff.
The former entertainment lawyer was there to support his wife, Kamala Harris, the first woman, first Black American, and first South Asian American to become vice president of the United States. He was there to celebrate the inauguration of President Joe Biden, the first president who is not Donald Trump in four very long years. He was there alongside luminaries from the Obamas to inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, and his and Harris’s blended family, including his daughter Ella Emhoff in sparkling Miu Miu tweeds and adorable great-nieces Amara and Leela Ajagu, who wore matching leopard coats in an homage to Harris and her sister Maya.
Emhoff wore an overcoat and a gray suit. Ralph Lauren, if you were wondering.
It’s okay if you weren’t. Emhoff has made clear that he’s comfortable being a supporting player; his Twitter in recent days has been full of sweet shoutouts to Harris, making Emhoff the subject of countless “wife guy” jokes. (While the meme originated to describe husbands trying to gain fame by talking about their spouses, it’s evolved to encompass guys who, like Emhoff, just really like their wives.)
— Doug Emhoff (@DouglasEmhoff) January 18, 2021
The day before the inauguration, Emhoff wrote at GQ about the experience of joining the Biden-Harris campaign: “Virtually overnight, I went from being a lawyer to being a member of a team fighting for justice and trying to turn the page on a dark chapter in our nation’s history.”
But he must have known this day might come from the moment he met the woman who is now his wife. After all, on their first date, Harris was already attorney general of California and widely seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party. Indeed, theirs is a kind of political marriage Americans haven’t seen before, at least at this level of government.
It’s an example of “professionals who have come together later on in life and are there to support one another,” Farida Jalalzai, a political science professor who studies women leaders, told Vox.
For Emhoff, that’s meant researching former second ladies to figure out how to approach his role. And for America, it’s going to mean watching a professionally successful white man step back from his career during his peak earning years to help his wife achieve her goals — and, at least according to his recent statements, to devote himself to public service. Doug Emhoff isn’t the center of attention right now, and in a way, that’s important too.
When they met, Harris was already a powerful politician
Emhoff and Harris first met in 2013, set up on a blind date by a mutual friend. Harris had been serving as attorney general for two years, after spending six as the district attorney of San Francisco. She was already well known on the national stage, discussed as a potential replacement for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and drawing praise from then-President Barack Obama (who caught some flak for calling her “the best-looking attorney general”).
Emhoff was successful in his own right, a partner at the law firm DLA Piper. His past clients included, amusingly, the ad agency behind the Taco Bell chihuahua and, less amusingly, a club owner accused of sexual battery and a company that sold AK-47s. Divorced since 2009, he had two children, Cole and Ella, then in their teens.
He must have known from the very beginning that a relationship with the attorney general of his state would lead to intense scrutiny of his personal and professional life. But by his account, he was all in.
The two married in 2014 and have, reportedly, been very happy. “Doug and Kamala together are like almost vomit-inducingly cute and coupley,” Cole Emhoff recently told the New York Times. “I’m like, ‘When is this going to wear off?’”
They’re also a different kind of political couple from the Obamas, Bushes, or Clintons, all of whom married relatively young when the men in question were still building their political careers. (Donald and Melania Trump married when she was 35 and he was a 59-year-old reality TV host.)
Norms are changing: Michelle and Barack Obama met when she was his mentor at a law firm, and she maintained her own highly successful career for many years, quitting only when her husband entered the White House. Hillary Clinton, of course, became a senator and secretary of state after her husband’s presidency. Still, there’s an expectation that politicians’ family lives should follow a kind of 1950s model — early marriage, 2.5 kids, everybody supporting the politician’s career. And usually, that politician is Dad.
Harris and Emhoff, by contrast, were both about 50 when they married. Harris did not have children. They formed a blended family, with kids who now call her “Momala.” Both spouses kept their respective last names.
“This is a snapshot of America,” Jalalzai said. “We don’t all look the same.”
Now Emhoff could be a new role model for men
And for Emhoff, being married to Harris has meant stepping back so his wife can shine. He took a leave of absence from DLA Piper in August, to help with the campaign and, presumably, to avoid concerns about conflicts of interest. He left the firm in November and has said he will teach at Georgetown Law School this spring. That will make two teachers in the executive branch, as Jill Biden has said she will continue her education career as first lady.
And while Jill Biden is breaking down some barriers by keeping her job while previous first ladies have quit theirs, Emhoff is also breaking new ground by scaling back his career for his wife’s.
In his GQ essay, he makes clear that her campaign for the vice presidency was a team effort in which he was happy to play his part. “It quickly became clear that this wasn’t just about my love for my wife, but also about my love for this country,” he writes. “Stepping back from my career as an entertainment lawyer was a decision that we made together—this was about something bigger than either of us.”
He reportedly threw himself into campaigning, becoming a major asset for his ability to adapt to a variety of environments. “Of all people, Doug was like randomly born for this,” Cole Emhoff told the Times.
And while Emhoff and Harris may be a team, she’s the one who just became vice president — and he has been graceful about his supporting status. It extends to jokes about his title. “Look at where we are right now,” he said in September. “It’s gonna be a lot of work for President Biden, Vice President Harris, First Lady Jill Biden and whatever-my-title-will-be Douglas Emhoff.”
Since announcing that he’ll use the title second gentleman, he’s rolled with the fact that “first second gentleman” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. “You can call me Doug,” he reassured CBS Sunday Morning’s Jane Pauley in a recent interview.
And rather than in any way disparage the contributions of second ladies who came before him, he’s taken time to learn about them, visiting the Library of Congress to research second spouses of the past.
I’m so incredibly honored and humbled to be the first @SecondGentleman of the United States. As we countdown to Inauguration Day, I’ve been doing my homework—and looking to the past for inspiration. pic.twitter.com/bhE7SvCls2
— Doug Emhoff (@DouglasEmhoff) January 16, 2021
Emhoff has said he hopes his time in the role will be a model for his family and for the country. He wants his kids “to grow up in a world where it isn’t news that a loving partner—of any gender—supports them in everything they do,” he wrote at GQ. And, he concluded, “I may be the first Second Gentleman, but I know I won’t be the last.”
Harris and Emhoff’s marriage challenges not just the stereotype that a wife has to take a supporting role to her husband, but the idea that one person in a marriage has to dominate in career pursuits, Jalalzai said. Of course, Harris continues to be in the spotlight, now as vice president, but her marriage appears to be a partnership of equals. That was true of the Obamas to a large degree as well, Jalalzai noted, but “over the last four years, we haven’t had that kind of healthy relationship being modeled” in the executive branch.
Only time will tell how well Emhoff inhabits his new position. If previous administrations have taught us anything, it’s that we don’t always know what’s going on in the private lives of public figures. But for now, he and Harris are setting a new standard.
America still struggles with the assumption that it’s emasculating for men to be with powerful women — even the jokes about Bill Clinton potentially becoming “first dude” in 2016 are testament to this fact. Emhoff, if nothing else, is showing the whole country what it’s like to be a man who goes on a date with a female attorney general and, far from being scared off, sends her his calendar for the next four months. In defining the role of second gentleman, he’s off to a good start.