Kamala Harris’ husband is leaving his job, Joe Biden’s wife is keeping hers. What it says about gender roles

January 3, 2017: Kamala Harris takes the oath of office as United States Senator with Vice President Joe Biden (right) and Douglas Emhoff (center). Photo by United States Senate, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Doug Emhoff is a 56-year-old LA entertainment lawyer who married Kamala Harris in 2014 during her tenure as California attorney general. He’s never held elected office and hasn’t been overtly political. He’ll be the first “second gentleman” when Harris takes office as U.S. vice president. He’s going to quit his job and become a full-time supporter of his wife.

“He really is the interesting part in this whole election,” says Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak. “Kamala Harris made history, certainly as the first woman, as the first biracial woman, there are lots of firsts, and lots of leaps forward that we should have made years ago. But frankly, she's been doing the job in the Senate, she can do this job, that's not going to be a big stretch. What's going to be groundbreaking is to see how this spouse handles this script flip.” 

Emhoff is unabashedly Harris’ biggest fan, and it doesn't seem like he resents her power or celebrity. Dvorak says that makes him an important figure.

“The first lady, the second lady, they always have causes, right? We have breast cancer literacy, healthy eating, art therapy. … The spouses will always have these causes. And I think that's where Doug Emhoff can really make history and make huge strides in our society — if he takes up the cause of simply being normal, that he is a husband supporting his wife, that his career is taking a backseat for her career, and it's something that we see daily couples and households struggle with.” 

Dvorak says she wants Emhoff to give speeches and talk to men about taking up child care, family leave, and medical expenses.

Dvorak says he is the ideal advocate for men because, well, the other option for the U.S.’ first second gentleman was Sarah Palin’s former husband Todd Palin. “It was revealed not long after she resigned from the governorship … Todd Palin was basically a shadow governor. He was all up in everything, policy and all kinds of minutia in the government. He was running it. And that would have been a really kind of unseemly precedent for a first second gentleman.” 

She says one of the “one of the beauties” in Emhoff is that he comes into this “second gentleman” position with few entanglements. “He's not in politics. He's not pulling any strings behind her back. She was pretty powerful and pretty successful when they met.” 

Meanwhile, soon-to-be first lady Jill Biden plans to keep teaching English at a community college in Virginia. That means the college will have more security and enrollees, Dvorak says.   

“The beauty of these jobs are they’re basically whatever the spouse makes them. And I think one of Jill Biden's platforms has always been education. And by her being still in the mix and still in the classroom, that's where she's most comfortable and she’ll probably make a big impact too,” Dvorak says.   

With Doug Emhoff putting off his career and Jill Biden continuing working, Dvorak says it’s a wonderful moment. “They are flipping the script, both of them. … What we really want is normalcy.”

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski