Last week the writer Joseph Epstein embarrassed himself by publishing a Wall Street Journal column denigrating incoming first lady Jill Biden for using the “Dr” title she earned with her doctorate. He wrote: “Madame First Lady — Mrs. Biden — Jill — kiddo. Any chance you might drop the ‘Dr.’ before your name? ‘Dr. Jill Biden’ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.”
The backlash was swift. The president-elect’s communications director, Kate Bedingfield, tweeted: “What patronizing, sexist, elitist drivel”. The daughter of Martin Luther King Jr tweeted in support of Jill Biden, reminding people that her father used the title Dr, despite not being a medical doctor. She added “And his work benefited humanity greatly, yours does, too.” And the first lady to be replied herself in a tweet on Sunday, saying: “Together, we will build a world where the accomplishments of our daughters will be celebrated, rather than diminished.”
Epstein’s article exposed the cultural powder-keg Biden was always destined to ignite. She maintained her professional career teaching community college while serving as second lady and intends to continue working as first lady. While some of us are thrilled with that, others, like Epstein are threatened.
First ladies have often been expected to sacrifice their careers to perform ceremonial tasks. I can’t imagine what it was like for Michelle Obama, a Harvard-trained lawyer like her spouse, to be expected to oversee a White House garden and Christmas decorations while her husband ran the free world.
Of course, Obama had much less flexibility in defining the first lady role than her predecessors. Because of the unfair stereotypes that caricature African American women, the bar for her to succeed was set incredibly high. Unfortunately, that meant mimicking the least threatening first ladies who preceded her. At the time plenty of Americans would have been unlikely to describe a nearly 6ft-tall, Ivy league-educated, brown-skinned black woman as non-threatening. So instead she transformed into a pearls-and-sweater set hugger-in chief. No one is threatened by a hugger-in-chief.
For Melania Trump, the transformation was far less pronounced. With her modeling days behind her, before her husband’s election she had settled comfortably into the role of trophy wife turned socialite. Essentially her full-time job was being the charming spouse of her powerful husband, which is ultimately what the role of first lady has been. While audio tapes recorded by her former friend and aide Stephanie Winston Wolkoff denote a darker, less charming side of Trump, she fundamentally did what most first ladies do. She hosted state dinners, did some volunteering, and remodeled various parts of the White House grounds. Again, she leaves a fairly non-threatening legacy, like the first ladies who most recently preceded her.
But Biden announced from the get-go that she would continue her career as a community college professor, regardless of whether her husband was elected president. She had already broken the mold by maintaining her career while he was vice president. Though this is not particularly unusual in some of our allied countries (Cherie Blair, for example, maintained a career in academia while her husband Tony was British prime minister), it is highly unusual for America.
Biden will soon become the least traditional first lady in recent history. The last time an American first lady charted a nontraditional path it didn’t go so well. Remember when Hillary Clinton was leading the charge on healthcare reform back in 1993? She probably wishes that you didn’t. Years later Clinton is looked back on as a pioneer – yet the blowback she received at the time was brutal. Some of it was driven by the legitimate gripe that when you elect a president you are not electing his spouse to do policy. Fair enough. But some of the opposition and vitriol was clearly driven by something more disturbing and enduring: the idea that many Americans want a traditional and non-threatening first lady – a first wife, first mother, first hostess, first cookie-baker, first-hugger, but not a first career woman and certainly not an ambitious woman.
The fact that Biden is a woman whose professional ambitions are important enough to her to continue them despite being married to the country’s most powerful man is what really troubles Epstein. He makes that clear in his column’s conclusion, in which he writes, “Forget the small thrill of being Dr Jill, and settle for the larger thrill of living for the next four years in the best public housing in the world as first lady Jill Biden.” He is oblivious to the fact that marrying a powerful man may not be what Biden, or any modern woman, would consider her greatest thrill today.
Thanks to the example set by vice president-elect Kamala Harris, and her husband Doug, perhaps soon more men will become comfortable seeking out the thrill of marrying a powerful woman.
Keli Goff was nominated for two Emmy awards for her work as a producer on the Netflix documentary Reversing Roe. She is a contributor to NPR/KCRW’s Left, Right & Center