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America might be ready for Kamala Harris' husband to be second gentleman

Supporters greet Senator Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and husband

Supporters greet Senator Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and husband Doug Emhoff outside the California Democratic Party's convention in San Francisco in June 2019. Credit: The Washington Post/Melina Mara

Doug Emhoff, entertainment litigator, father of two and husband of Sen. Kamala Harris, may well be our country's first "second gentleman."

Only the fourth man to be spouse of a major-party presidential or vice-presidential candidate, Emhoff's role in the campaign so far demonstrates how much has changed in recent decades about gender roles in politics, and how much progress remains to be made.

Although women are running for and being elected to office in increasing numbers — including record numbers of diverse women winning seats in Congress in 2018 — sexist tropes still play a major role in how these women — and often their spouses — are considered. Before Harris' selection for vice president, the public debated whether she was too aggressive or ambitious to be Joe Biden's running mate.

Further, assumptions about the gendered role of the political spouse almost instantly sparked quips about cookie recipes after her selection. "Hey @douglasemhoff," Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty tweeted, "Family Circle magazine is going to want to know your best cookie recipe." The tweet referenced a cookie recipe competition between the spouses of presidential candidates in the now-defunct women's magazine from 1992 to 2016. Emhoff himself leans into his familial roles — his Instagram bio is simply "Dad. @kamalaharris Hubby. Lawyer." And he embraces his role as Harris' "biggest cheerleader."

Yet Emhoff being pushed to emphasize his domestic and supportive roles points to still-unresolved tensions surrounding women in power. Male politicians, still the default, are allowed to be assertive and ambitious, while such behavior is suspect in their female counterparts. And the script for the political spouse, long assumed to be a wife, assumes domesticity and subordination. In 2020, we are still bound by binary gender roles. Seeing how 2020′s political spouses navigate them, however, may blur these binaries and produce changes down the line.

Political husbands have existed on the national stage since Winnifred S. Huck became the first married woman elected to Congress in 1920. Yet they took on new importance in the era of women's liberation, as a greater number of women ran on independent professional reputations.

By the early 1970s, political husbands represented not only changes in Washington, but also larger, long-term cultural transformations: increasing numbers of two-career families, more working mothers and a growing ideal of egalitarian heterosexual marriages. Women politicians and their husbands represented how feminism was radically reshaping American life.

Women in politics faced a double standard, as they had to defend against charges that they were abandoning their proper domestic sphere by running for office. When she got to the House of Representatives in 1969, several of Shirley Chisholm's new colleagues asked what her husband, Conrad, thought of her new position.

While political wives featured prominently in Washington and home districts as helpmeets, few husbands reoriented their lives around their wives' positions — or were expected to.

Rep. Pat Schroeder's husband, Jim, garnered much media attention as an anomaly who gave up his Denver law practice to follow his wife to Washington when she was elected to the first of 12 terms in 1972. Reporters treated him as a curiosity, unsure whether he would remain an outlier or usher in a new norm.

Both Schroeders responded to recurring questions about their marriage with jokes about how the kids really didn't miss her bad cooking anyway, and how he had taken on the role of the wife. Humor helped deflect the tension caused by a challenge to long-dominant gender roles. But the fact that he was called a "wife" for performing domestic work also underscored that domesticity was considered a feminine attribute.

Feminist politicians and their spouses fought the dual stereotypes of the masculinized public woman and her emasculated husband by presenting a model of egalitarian marriage to the world.

One word came up repeatedly: ego. Jim Schroeder had "no ego hang-ups" and was totally supportive, Pat told a reporter in 1974. Rep. Bella Abzug insisted that her husband wasn't threatened by her assertive style and Rep. Yvonne Burke said she was lucky to have one of the few husbands who understood the demands of her career. In fact, one reporter seemed surprised to find her husband Bill's ego "marvelously intact."

This focus on the ego of political husbands was part of fostering a new culture that eased the transition to a society where women were gaining power. Women weren't expected to have identities separate from their husbands, but men were supposed to remain independent and dominant. By displaying that their egos were intact, political spouses demonstrated that they were not weak or emasculated — and by extension, neither were the spouses of other career women — but confident enough to take a step back and allow their wives an independent identity.

Yet, it wasn't that simple. When spouses at the highest levels of politics tried to maintain independent professional lives and identities, instead of embracing domesticity, it led to questions about conflicts of interest and backlash.

Jim Schroeder took pains to demonstrate that, as he shifted his professional life to Washington, he would not accept any clients whose business might come under the purview of his wife's authority. 1984 Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro's husband, John Zaccaro, faced repeated tough questions about his finances and New York real estate business. Ultimately Zaccaro's dealings made him a liability for his famous spouse.

And when Hillary Clinton — an accomplished lawyer — first emerged on the national stage as political spouse in 1992 and tried to maintain her independence and a role as adviser to her husband, she was seen as an illegitimate partner and power-hungry radical — cookies notwithstanding. The cookie contest, in fact, began, because Clinton touted her career over staying home and baking cookies. Yet she participated in the sexist contest, because her independence threatened accepted stereotypes for a political spouse.

Later when she ran for president, there was chatter and joking about Bill becoming the First "Gentleman." Before that, Republicans put their first woman on the ticket, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008. During her vice-presidential campaign, many looked to her then-husband, Todd, who became known as Alaska's "First Dude." These jokes revealed discomfort and uncertainly about how to consider politicians and their spouses who didn't fit the traditional mold.

These tropes still lurk. In March 2019, Jimmy Kimmel joked with Harris, to audience laughter, that he wasn't sure "we're ready for a first lady named Doug." Politicians are still assumed to be men, and their spouses are assumed to be wives who fit certain gender roles.

Harris' response was pure Pat Schroeder: she laughed good-naturedly, let the implied sexism roll off her back and then warmly assured Kimmel: "Oh, he's the most fully actualized person you've ever met, and in fact he's very much enjoying being the 'spouse of.' He's very secure." In other words, his ego could handle it.

Rather than demolishing the old tropes, then, Emhoff is making use of them, while turning the idea of a helpmeet political spouse on its head by inverting gender roles. In giving us a glimpse of Harris's family life, he softens her tough prosecutorial image. But in demonstrating that he is not threatened by his wife's success, he shows that he is not subordinated, lest Harris appear domineering or threatening. It is a fine line to walk, particularly for the spouse of a prominent Black woman fighting the stereotype that she is, in the words of the president, "mean," "angry" or "nasty." 

With more women winning office and more high-profile political husbands than ever before, there can be no one mold for political spouses — regardless of gender. Given Joe Biden's self-framing as a genial uncle-type who has welcomed Harris and Emhoff into his political family and Dr. Jill Biden's well developed role as an educator with an independent career, which she leaned into in her Democratic Convention address on Tuesday from her former school, we may see an unprecedented team effort in which the spouses are recognized as partners rather than helpmeets. Together, Jill and Doug may break the old scripts and create new ways of thinking about gender, marriage and politics. At least they won't have to bake any cookies.

Sarah B. Rowley, an assistant professor of history at DePauw University, is the author of "Married Congresswomen and the New Breed of Political Husbands in 1970s Political Culture." She wrote this piece for The Washington Post.

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