The Choice to Work: Jill Biden’s Biography Examines How the First Lady’s Teaching Career Redefines Her Office
In continuing to work outside the White House, the first lady establishes a household that better reflects that of many American families. Historians say it’s about time.
First Lady Jill Biden broke new ground as the first person in her role to have continued to work outside the home while her husband has served as president. It’s a decision tied to Biden’s identity and ambitions, something her biographers, Darlene Superville and Julie Pace, noted as they spent over a year interviewing the first lady and her friends and family.
“For the first lady, her career is her identity. She sees herself as a teacher — more perhaps than she sees herself as a first lady,” Superville said. Superville and Pace’s book, “Jill: A Biography of the First Lady,” examines how Biden’s commitment to her work has defined the first family as much as her husband’s own political career and ambitions. Biden currently teaches two days a week at Northern Virginia Community College.
“She’s been a teacher for most of her adult life. Teaching is not what she does, it’s who she is,” said Superville, who covers the White House for the Associated Press. (Her co-author, Pace, is the Associated Press’s senior vice president and executive editor.) “I think all of her identity is wrapped up in being a teacher, and centered in being a teacher — and because that’s so central to who she is, it runs over and bleeds into the family life and Joe’s career considerations.”
Having a first lady whose identity is so tied to her own work outside of the home when that home is the White House is not insignificant — especially given that Jill Biden is the very first person in the role to do so. “She wanted to continue to be ‘Dr. B.’ and be first lady,” Superville said.
And that meant changing the role – pushing it forward permanently by using a role rooted in so much history and tradition to show that working outside the home can be a form of service, too, by better reflecting the lives of most American families.]
“She has combined what has been seen as a traditional role while serving as a model of being an independent person with her own agenda and own career,” Anita McBride, the executive-in-residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies in the School of Public Affairs at American University and former chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush, told The 19th. “We were slowly inching to that direction for years but now we’re finally here.”
Katherine Jellison, a professor of history at Ohio University whose research includes the history of first ladies, says it’s about time.
“We live in a society where that’s been the norm for quite some time — women balance family life and work life.” Jellison added that first families often reflect back the average American family of their times — but that in recent history, more American women had joined the workforce and two-income households had become the norm while the families in the White House put the first lady’s career on pause. “For the first time, we have a first lady whose own experience reflects the common reality. I think Jill Biden is setting an important precedent.”
One thing that sets Biden apart: Her most recent predecessors as first lady all had children at home during their family’s time in the White House. Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton all had children who used the White House as their home base; the Bidens are already grandparents.
Jellison added that when it comes to first ladies, the American public’s expectations of them “always lag a bit behind the realities for the common woman of American society.” She pointed to the public response in America to when Betty Ford went on “60 Minutes” to talk about abortion, extramarital sex and marijuana in 1975. Ford called the Roe ruling “the best thing in the world,” said she thought more premarital sex would probably yield “less divorce,” and said that she’s sure her children “all probably tried marijuana.”
“Those activities were the norm, but for a first lady to talk about it was shocking,” Jellison said.
When it comes to what Americans have historically expected out of their first ladies is “to be a beautiful spouse and to be supportive of their husband, the president.” From the Kennedy administration onward, Jellison said, first ladies were also expected to take on a public interest project “as a way to give back to the nation.” Michelle Obama took on childhood obesity and care for military families. Melania Trump launched her anti-bullying “Be Best” campaign.
While Biden has continued in the work she was engaged in with Obama on support for military families and has regularly used her platform to call attention to the needs of teachers in the United States, Superville said that it’s fair to say Biden sees her continued commitment to working outside of her role as first lady to be a form of public interest project. “It is showing what is possible,” said Superville. “It shows that the role of first lady is continually evolving and she is the latest first lady to help it evolve just a little bit more.”
Jellison speculated that there’s so much public goodwill around Dr. Biden’s continuing in her work in addition to serving as first lady because of the fact that “her chosen profession is that of educator, because that is seen as a public service profession” and something coded as female. “If Mrs. Clinton or Mrs. Obama had continued to be practicing attorneys, that probably wouldn’t have been viewed as so compatible with public service. The fact that Jill Biden embraces a profession that is seen as a service to society is in her favor.”
McBride said that Biden’s choice also is an important cue to the American electorate that politicians do in fact have aspects of their identities that are not always on full display. Through Biden, McBride said, Americans are learning that “public figures have private lives and they work really hard to balance and manage all the public expectations with their own life and interests.”
What is particularly notable about Biden, McBride said, is how she and President Joe Biden have worked together to pursue their career ambitions.
“There’s no question that this is a couple that has spent their entire married lives as partners and partners in each other’s work — he has supported her desire to be a teacher, to get an advanced degree, to continue teaching as second lady and now as first lady,” McBride said. “She has claimed to never be politically interested and she’s adapted and adopted the role of political spouse and maintained her own relationship in that framework. It’s a partnership on all levels and I think that’s very visible.”
Superville pointed to the Biden family tradition of “family meetings” before any campaign Joe Biden launched. “I think they always approached things as a family, more or less, not someone making a decision and then the rest of the family goes along.”
While there have been a number of first ladies and presidents throughout history who have operated as political partners — “I think about the Roosevelts, Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson, the Obamas,” Jellison said — Jill Biden’s commitment to her own career denotes a very specific kind of shift in what the idea of political partnership at this level of office can mean. “Their being equal partners seems to be the case in all aspects of the Bidens’ lives together,” Jellison said. “Not just like, ‘We’re in a partnership promoting his political career,’ but a partnership in all kinds of family decisions made.”
Superville said Jill Biden is someone who places a great deal of “importance on her own life, on having a career separate from her husband.”
“The women of Jill Biden’s generation really struggled with that pressure of having to choose one thing over another, a career versus a family,” McBride said. “I think the implication of having someone like Jill Biden as first lady is here’s a person with a love of life, a love of her own passions and interests that she can pursue while having a successful, loving marriage and family and support her husband’s work while he supports her. That’s a great example of not having to put aside your own interests.”
McBride continued, “I remember at the very end of the [George W.] Bush administration, Laura Bush being asked about the future of the role. She said that there will soon be a person who comes into this position, who will have another career and will want to pursue that — and it’s true.” McBride said she finds Biden’s work to be especially significant coming so close on the heels of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s time as first lady — and choice to step away from her work, a huge part of her identity, while her husband was in office. (Clinton did return to her own career, and political pursuits, after leaving the White House; she ran for senator of New York at the end of her husband’s final term in office, serving for eight years before running for president and eventually serving as secretary of state under her former presidential primary opponent Barack Obama.)
“Jill Biden is the manifestation of this prediction. Society moves and adapts and changes and a position like this will too; it’s a very undefined position that can be defined by each individual actor in it and that’s what makes this position so extraordinary and so interesting,” said McBride. “It will be years before the Bidens will be evaluated fully, but their place in history is secure in establishing this role for what a first lady can be.”