As America’s First Working First Lady, Jill Biden Redefines the Role

The longtime educator is leaning on her experience to inform the administration’s thinking.

On the first full day of Joe Biden’s presidency, First Lady Jill Biden, a longtime educator, hosted the presidents of the country’s two teachers unions at the White House and reiterated her promise during the campaign that teachers would “always have a seat at the table” in the Biden administration.

“I could not wait one more day to have this meeting, because I have never felt prouder of our profession,” Biden said.

Biden can ensure educators always have a seat at the proverbial table in part because she is one. She is the first first lady who, as she continues to teach at Northern Virginia Community College, will work outside the White House in a continuation of her own career. 

The union leaders at the event were clear that they are happy to have one of their own in the White House. Biden is a longtime member of the National Education Association (NEA).

NEA President Becky Pringle said she knew the first lady, and the administration, would work with educators to “transform” public education with a focus on racial equity. 

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said she would use “Dr.” to address Biden, who has a doctoral degree in education, because it “shows our respect for her,” in a nod to a widely criticized Wall Street Journal op-ed that mocked Biden’s use of the honorific. 

Biden acknowledged that teachers have faced daunting hurdles this year during the COVID-19 pandemic that shuttered classrooms and pushed learning online. She promised the administration would prioritize safely reopening a majority of primary-school classrooms during its first 100 days. Comprehensive data is still being collected, but as of late March, roughly half of all public schools were open for in-person learning. 

“Educators, you have done it all,” Biden said. 

“On behalf of a grateful nation, thank you. … I know how hard it is; I am teaching hybrid this semester myself,” she added. 

The event highlighted education as a policy area that Biden intends to emphasize as part of her official portfolio during her time as first lady, and a reality that will also redefine the role of the person married to the country’s commander-in-chief.

Biden, 69, is not the first presidential spouse who was working when their husband campaigned for the nation’s highest office. Michelle Obama, who has a law degree, was the vice president for community affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals system. Hillary Clinton continued practicing law as Arkansas’ first lady but stepped back from her own career during her husband’s presidential administration, where she focused on efforts to pass health care legislation. 

First ladies have always been subject to the public’s perception about what it means to be a spouse in the political sphere and the gendered expectations that go along with it, according to Ohio University’s Katherine Jellison, a history professor who has studied first ladies.

Clinton and Obama already broke the presidential spouse mold by having “high-profile careers” in their own right and faced scrutiny for it, she said. They were also raising young children in the White House. During the Clinton administration, merely being a working mother was seen by many as a political statement. The path they cleared, and the Bidens’ lack of children at home, make the choice less politically tricky for Biden than for Clinton or Obama, Jellison said. 

“I think probably, the time wasn’t right [for Clinton and Obama to continue working], to be honest with you,” Jellison said. 

Biden is “more off the hook. She’s an educator, and this is a profession that has long been considered, since the 1840s, a caregiving profession, so may be seen … in the popular imagination as ‘appropriate women’s work’ in a way that being a high-powered attorney was not,” Jellison added, making clear that she was describing public perception and not her own opinions about women and work. 

Biden has been an educator for nearly 50 years with only short breaks. She received an undergraduate degree in English in 1975 from the University of Delaware, then kicked off her career as a substitute teacher before teaching English at a private high school in Wilmington. She got two master’s degrees during the 1980s as she continued teaching, including for five years in a psychiatric hospital’s teen program. In the 1990s, she went on to work at Delaware Technical and Community College, and in 2007 wrote a doctoral dissertation on meeting the needs of community college students. 

Biden said during her husband’s first presidential bid, in 1988, that she would continue teaching if he was elected, laying down a marker for the type of first lady she would eventually become. When she was second lady, Biden began teaching at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), and scaled back only briefly during her husband’s 2020 presidential campaign. She continues to teach classes there two days a week. 

While Biden’s experience as an educator informs her work as first lady — she accompanied Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on his first official out-of-state trip to Connecticut and Pennsylvania to discuss school reopenings, and last week, they visited Sauk Valley Community College in Illinois to highlight the role such institutions play in providing economic opportunities — she prefers to leave her stature as first lady at the classroom door. 

“Most people now call me First Lady, but to one group of students at Northern Virginia Community College, I am — first, foremost and forever— their writing professor, Dr. B,” she said during last week’s visit. 

Jim McClellan, the dean of NOVA’s liberal arts program and a history professor, said they have “a great teacher who happens to be a first lady, rather than a first lady who happens to be a teacher.”

“When she is working with us, she is one of our faculty, and that is the role in which we see her — that role has not changed since she joined us in 2009,” he said.

Those in the first lady’s orbit agree that Biden is using her role to elevate education as a policy issue within her husband’s administration. Every modern-day first lady has a portfolio of issues they focus on — Melania Trump had an anti-bullying campaign; Obama introduced a “Let’s Move!” effort to combat childhood obesity; Biden will focus on supporting military families and fighting cancer, in addition to education. But actively working in the policy area Biden is highlighting will have an impact, they said. 

Weingarten said Biden took “some very strategic steps” by centering some of her first official trips on education. 

The Biden administration’s American Families Plan, released ahead of the president’s first address to Congress on Wednesday, called for $109 billion to finance two years of free community college for first-time students or workers seeking to learn new skills — something the first lady has long advocated for. 

“Jill is a community college professor who teaches today as first lady. She’s long said — if I heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times — ‘Joe, any country that out-educates us is going to outcompete us.’ She’ll be deeply involved in leading this effort. Thank you, Jill,” the president said Wednesday night.

Weingarten said “the White House hasn’t changed her, she informs the work that the president does by the work that she has done.”

And, in the process, Biden is changing what it means to be a first lady. 

“The point that she has made, by saying she is going to continue teaching, is that that’s an important value to her,” Weingarten said. “The fact that she’s been able to do it, and there has been no contention or controversy — that shows growth in America.”

Originally published by The 19th

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