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Douglas Emhoff is America’s first second gentleman. Why his groundbreaking role is 'threatening' to 'outdated' gender norms

Erin Donnelly
·6 min read
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Wednesday’s inauguration ushered in a wave of firsts — including the introduction of America’s very first second gentleman, Douglas Emhoff, spouse to Vice President Kamala Harris. Having announced in November his plans to leave his job at the law firm DLA Piper in order to support the Biden administration full-time, the 56-year-old father of two is already throwing himself into his new role as the first man and Jewish person to be married to a vice president.

Douglas Emhoff (pictured with Vice President Kamala Harris in late November) will take the title of second gentleman. (Photo: REUTERS/Hannah Mckay)
Douglas Emhoff (pictured with Vice President Kamala Harris in late November) will take the title of second gentleman. (Photo: REUTERS/Hannah Mckay)

Last week Emhoff — who married Harris, then-attorney general of California, in 2014 — unveiled his new Twitter handle, @SecondGentleman. While many applauded his support of Harris and his embrace of his stereotype-defying title, Emhoff also found himself being mocked by critics who called it “absolutely emasculating.”

That criticism sparked its own backlash, with many rushing to Emhoff’s defense.

“The little insecure men saying that ‘second gentleman’ is emasculating prove just how much we all need to see and normalize — GASP! — men supporting powerful women,” wrote Harris’s niece, Phenomenal Woman CEO Meena Harris.

Caroline Heldman, chair of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles and the co-author of Sex and Gender in the 2016 Presidential Election, tells Yahoo Life that she’s “not at all surprised” by the jokes at Emhoff’s expense, which she attributes in part to “toxic masculinity.”

“I would define toxic masculinity as the common norms and rules of manhood that are harmful to boys and men ... including the expectation that they will be assertive and in control, in positions of leadership [and] not emotional,” she explains, adding that such expectations can “really box them in and have profound consequences in their lives.”

In a culture in which toxic masculinity runs rampant, Emhoff’s support of a secondary role that defies gender conventions is seen not as progress, but as a regression.

“Even though it’s 2021, we still imagine that the politician is male and that the spouse is female, and anything that runs counter to that is threatening to folks who want to cling to those outdated traditional gender roles,” Heldman says.

“I think that we like to think that we’ve come a long way in terms of gender roles, but at the end of the day, male politicians are still seen as the default natural leaders,” she says, adding that, by contrast, “female leaders are judged by much harsher standards.

“We let male politicians be assertive and ambitious and all of these things that Kamala Harris was criticized for during her run for the presidency and the vice presidency,” she continues. “But when it comes to political spouses, we have, for forever, assumed that these are women and we assume that they are domestic and subordinate. So Emhoff is coming up against these very outdated gender conceptions of leadership in first partners or second partners. His mere presence in that role is a challenge to it, and the fact that he adopted the title that he has and embraced this idea that he is a political spouse runs counter to the grain of a lot of folks who are desperately clinging to traditional gender roles even though they don’t really fit anymore.”

By contrast, Todd Palin, the then-husband of Sen. John McCain’s 2008 running mate Sarah Palin, adopted the term “first dude” while his wife served as governor of Alaska. Had he gone on to become the first male spouse of a vice president, he would have presumably gone by the nickname “second dude.” Heldman says that the more informal and, arguably, more macho term was “a way to reassert his masculinity in light of really sexist assumptions about political spouses being women.”

Heldman links this to the pushback the new first lady has received by going by Dr. Jill Biden, having received a doctoral degree in education.

“Jill Biden is breaking the unwritten sexist rules that assume that political partners are women, they’re domestic and they’re subordinate,” she notes. “And Douglas Emhoff is breaking those same unwritten rules ... simply by being male and by not getting into that position and trying to make it more masculine. It’s fascinating to watch the 1950s gender roles play out in the 2020 election.”

She adds, “I think it’s really important for Doug Emhoff and Dr. Biden to challenge preconceived notions and constraints on these roles, and the more men we see as high-profile first partners and second partners, the more that will become normal.”

But she thinks that it will take many more women holding positions of power before people more readily accept the break of rigid gender norms.

“I think it will take a long time to actually shift our thinking about gender roles because they’re so ingrained and it’s not just in politics,” Heldman says. “I think we have a long way to go until, for example, we see women as natural leaders. It’s helpful that more women are in these roles, but we are decades away from truly embracing women as natural leaders.”

Emhoff, meanwhile, reflected on his historic role in an essay for GQ published Tuesday.

“Now, much has been made about the new title I will be taking,” he wrote.

“I am honored to be the first male spouse of an American president or vice president,” the former lawyer continued. “But here’s the truth: Generations of women before me have used this platform to advocate for causes they believe in and build trust in our institutions at home and abroad — often without much accolade or acknowledgment. It’s on their shoulders I stand. And it’s their legacy of progress I will try to build on as second gentleman.”

Hie signed off with: “I may be the first second gentleman, but I know I won’t be the last.”

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