Meet Doug Emhoff, the first ‘Second Gentleman’ in US history

Doug Emhoff joins his wife, Vice President Kamala Harris, in breaking stereotypes.

With Kamala Harris as US Vice President, her husband Doug Emhoff becomes the first 'Second Gentleman' in US history [File: Michael Perez/AP]

Kamala Harris has shattered the glass ceiling, becoming the first woman, and first Black person of South Asian descent to be elected US vice president.

Her husband Doug Emhoff also joins her in breaking stereotypes as the first “Second Gentleman” in US history as well as becoming the first Jewish spouse of a vice president.

Until now, the US has only seen women as spouses, or first and second ladies to the president and vice president.

Following Joe Biden’s win in the presidential election in November, the media had grappled for some time as to what they should call Emhoff.

This week the administration created the Twitter handle @SecondGentleman, making the title official.

“I understand I am the first gentleman to hold this role and I certainly do not want to be the last,” Emhoff said in a recent video.

“I do want to set an example for those in the future who can look back at the way I approached it and hopefully that will help them as well.”

Joel Goldstein, a retired constitutional law professor who has written extensively about the presidency and vice presidency, told Al Jazeera these firsts in the new administration all “reflect that America’s basic ideals include a commitment to pluralism and inclusiveness”.

“[Emhoff’s] status [as first Jewish spouse] further reflects a step towards bringing America a little closer to its ideal as a place where minorities can achieve such positions,” Goldstein said.

After Biden and Harris had won the election, Emhoff, a successful lawyer, announced he would be leaving his job at the Los Angeles law firm DLA Piper.

He will be teaching law this semester at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, bringing 30 years of experience in intellectual property, entertainment and media law.

As second gentleman, Emhoff has said he plans to advocate on behalf of legal justice reform, helping people to gain fair access to the legal system.

US Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff visit the Downtown Holiday Market in Washington [File: Hannah Mckay/Reuters]

Lonce Bailey, a professor at Pennsylvania’s Shippensburg University, told Al Jazeera that Emhoff has a certain set of skills that he imagines the White House would use strategically.

“He has a very large network in the attorney, entertainment and business world. He’s described as this great liaison, this person you could send to almost any group or constituency, and he’ll connect,” Bailey said. “His skill set is more advanced than many.”

While the role of spouse to vice-president has been relatively insignificant, Bailey said Emhoff “will be the most significant spouse to a vice president since Abigail Adams”.

In 1789 Abigail was the first “second lady” while John Adams was vice-president to George Washington, and was known to be a founding mother for the country, Bailey said.

A “dynamic” second lady, the volumes of letters, advice and political conversation held between her and her husband, John Adams – who eventually became president – was significant.

Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a car rally at East High School in Denver, Colorado during the election campaign in October 2020 [File: David Zalubowski/AP]

‘An amazingly positive example’

Also making history is first lady Jill Biden, who will continue her professional career working as a professor when she moves into the White House, becoming the first first lady to have a day job.

Bailey said that Emhoff’s new position has also brought to the surface issues surrounding sexism.

In December, many had slammed an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal when author Joseph Epstein wrote that Jill should think about dropping the “Dr” title from her name as she was not a medical doctor.

“‘Dr. Jill Biden’ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic,” he wrote.

Jill had earned her doctorate of education at the University of Delaware and the op-ed was slammed by many as sexist and misogynist.

Many took notice of how Emhoff responded on Twitter: “Dr. Biden earned her degrees through hard work and pure grit. She is an inspiration to me, to her students, and to Americans across this country. This story would never have been written about a man.”

“He has highlighted the fact that the reaction to him having this role brings out the sexism that usually comes with dismissing spouses as insignificant, or not as accomplished, or not as relevant,” Bailey said.

From what the public has seen so far of Emhoff, many seem impressed.

“I love the confidence & openness with which Douglas Emhoff is approaching this. What an amazingly positive example for boys & girls (and adults) everywhere,” wrote Mimi Rocah, a former SDNY prosecutor on Twitter.

Harris and Emhoff have shown what a successful couple could look like, a refreshing scene for the public after four years of Donald and Melania Trump who at times could barely hold hands in public.

His love and support for his wife every step of the way along the campaign trail even spawned a hashtag #DougHive.

Goldstein said that Emhoff, as the first male to be a first or second spouse, reflects “another step in America recognising that men, as well as women, can be in supportive roles of their spouse’s career success”.

“Vice President Harris’s status will send an important message to little girls and women, and little boys and men, that our country is stronger when it is open to talented women in leadership positions and Mr Emhoff’s status will send a message that it’s appropriate and admirable for males to support women in their lives in their career aspirations, too,” Goldstein said.

Source: Al Jazeera