When US President-Elect Joe Biden is inaugurated in January, Dr Jill Biden will become the first spouse of a president to continue in paid work in the position’s 231-year history.
A lifelong educator and English professor, Dr Biden has said she will carry on teaching at North Virginia Community College during her husband’s time in office – just as she did while serving as ‘second lady’ under the Obama administration.
“I would love to. If we get to the White House, I’m going to continue to teach,” she told CBS in August. “It’s important. I want people to value teachers and know their contributions and to lift up the profession.”
Dr Biden holds four degrees – one bachelor’s degree, two master’s and a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware and has been an educator for over three decades.
In Joe Biden’s victory speech, he described himself, first and foremost, as “Jill’s husband”.
“Jill’s a mum—a military mum—and an educator. She has dedicated her life to education, but teaching isn’t just what she does—it’s who she is.
“For America’s educators, this is a great day for you all. You’re going to have one of your own in the White House, and Jill is going to make a great first lady, I’m so proud of her.”
In years past, the wives of presidents have not engaged in paid work, instead focusing on ceremonial duties and social causes. However, the role of the first lady is largely undefined, and each woman to take on the role has approached it differently.
Between 1993 and 2017, each of the first ladies were accomplished, well-educated women. Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton were lawyers who had previously spent years working in the profession. Clinton did break new ground when she continued practicing as a lawyer when Bill Clinton became the Governor of Arkansas. Laura Bush, meanwhile, had a bachelor’s degree in education, and a master’s in library science. She had previously worked as a teacher and as a university librarian.
“The beauty of (being first lady) is that you can define it however you want,” Dr Biden told Vogue in 2019.
“And that’s what I did as second lady – I defined that role the way I wanted it to be. I would still work on all the same issues. Education would be right up there, and military families. I’d travel all over this country trying to get free community college.”
In her years as second lady, Dr Biden worked closely with Michelle Obama, launching Joining Forces, an initiative to help military veterans and their families access education and employment programs. As first lady, she is widely expected to re-launch Joining Forces, and campaign on improving the education system in the US.
In her speech at the Democratic National Convention during the presidential campaign, Dr Biden stood in a classroom at a high school she had previously taught at, and spoke of the importance of family, the immense loss America is facing due to the pandemic, and her passion for education.
“This quiet is heavy,” she said, referring to the empty school she stood in. “You can hear the anxiety that echoes down empty hallways. There’s no scent of new notebooks or freshly waxed floors. The rooms are dark as the bright young faces that should fill them are now confined to boxes on a computer screen.”
“I hear it from so many of you — the frustration of parents juggling work while they support their children’s learning are afraid that their kids might get sick from school. The concern of every person working without enough protection.”
Teaching is not what I do. It’s who I am.— Dr. Jill Biden (@DrBiden) August 18, 2020
I’ll be giving my convention speech tonight from my former classroom.
Brandywine High School. Room 232. pic.twitter.com/NXx1EkqVGq
She also spoke of her family’s personal loss, specifically mentioning the death of her stepson Beau, who died of cancer in 2015.
“How do you make a broken family whole? The same way you make a nation whole: with love and understanding and with small acts of kindness. With bravery, with unwavering faith. We show up for each other in big ways and small ones again and again,” she said.
He will be a President for all of our families. pic.twitter.com/iGPKLMMIcK— Dr. Jill Biden (@DrBiden) November 7, 2020
Dr Biden said honest leadership was needed to recover from the pandemic, and prepare for what’s next.
“Leadership to reimagine what our nation will be. That’s Joe. He and Kamala will work as hard as you do every day to make this nation better. And if I have the honor of serving as your first lady, I will, too. And with Joe as president, these classrooms will ring out with laughter and possibility once again.”