Vice-president-elect Kamala Harris isn’t the only one making history in her household, as her husband will be the nation’s first ‘second gentleman.’
Doug Emhoff was the dutiful political spouse when wife Kamala Harris was seeking the Democratic nomination. He plans on playing much the same role when she takes the oath of office as vice president Wednesday.
Emhoff, a 56-year-old entertainment lawyer at international firm DLA Piper, has quit his law practice to avoid a conflict of interest. And by leaving corporate America – where the careers of white men like him often take priority – to take on the duties of second gentleman, he’s flipping gender norms at a level the nation has never before seen. What’s more, he’ll be playing a supporting role to the nation’s first Black and South Asian woman vice president.
“This gives us a model, and it is a fabulous model,” Ella L.J. Bell Smith, a professor of business administration at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, told USA TODAY.
“Mr. Harris,” she said, referring to Emhoff, “is totally comfortable stepping back so his wife can show her brilliance, grace, grit and power because he wants her to succeed.”
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As such, he could set a powerful example for workplaces and executive suites across America, says Michael Useem, director of the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management at the University of Pennsylvania.
“His position is going to be extremely visible and his behavior is going to send a message,” Useem said.
Emhoff seems to have heeded the advice President-elect Joe Biden gave him during the first joint appearance with Harris as his running mate: “Doug, you’re going to have to learn what it means to be a barrier-breaker yourself.”
The second gentleman is not the only White House spouse making history: New first lady Jill Biden has said she plans to continue teaching at a community college after her husband is sworn in as the 46th president, just as she did during his eight years as vice president.
Both are making history at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has set back the careers of working mothers.
According to the National Women’s Law Center, roughly 156,000 women exited the labor force in December while men gained 16,000jobs, meaning all of the jobs lost were held by women. By that point, therewere nearly 2.1 million fewer women in the labor force than there were in February 2020, just before the pandemic started.
Women who remained employed were more than three times as likely as their male partners to be handling the bulk of household and child care duties, according to a report by LeanIn.org that looked at over 40,000 workers.
“Particularly at a time when Americans are having really difficult discussions about a division of … chores, of child care duties in their home because of the pandemic, I think this example is so important,” said Andy Challenger, senior vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement company which helps with job searches, executive coaching and corporate restructuring.
Harris and Emhoff will also be a high-profile example of a relationship dynamic that is more typical than some may realize.
“There are so many couples where the woman is the breadwinner today, but you don’t see it in public life that often, particularly in our political life,” Challenger said. “Seeing that day in and day out over the next four years or more, it’s just going to normalize that version of a relationship.’’
Emhoff and Harris met on a blind date in 2013 after being set up by a friend and married the following year. Harris became “Momala” to his two adult children, Cole and Ella from his first marriage.
So what will the country’s first-ever second gentleman focus on during his time in Washington?
“Everyone’s got an opinion on this, which is nice to hear,” Emhoff said during a September fundraiser. “Which means people are actually excited about the prospect of someone like me in this role – and I get that.”
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During the fundraiser, Emhoff expressed interest in using his platform to expand “access to justice.”
He recalled being shocked, as a young lawyer going to Los Angeles’ Superior Court, by all the people lining the halls in need of legal help.
“Just tugging at my – at that time, double-breasted jacket – to say, ‘Help. Help,’ ” he said. “It was just so impactful.”
But his main focus seems to be that of second gentleman.
Just before the election, when asked by a 9-year-old in Fatherly’s online “Ask a Grown-up” session what he would do if Biden and Harris won, Emhoff replied: “Well, first I’d say ‘Yay!’ And then I’m just gonna do what I always do, Atticus. I’m going to support her because it’s really important for men and even young boys to support the strong and wonderful women in their lives, and I’m going to do that, and I hope you do that, too.”
Contributing: Maureen Groppe
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