Modern First Ladies: Dr. Jill Biden and the Company She May Keep
Updated: Sep 2
Though she is not elected nor paid a salary, the modern first lady is crucial to optics. During campaigns and in the White House, her role is deeply intertwined with the humanity of the president, and essential to its public manifestation (4). She is typically tasked with domestic and traditionally feminine roles, such as decorating and serving as a hostess in the White House. First Ladies are known to create initiatives in support of normally non-partisan, family-friendly issues. However, each recent First Lady has put her own unique spin on the role, and many have found opportunities to speak out, popularize their stances, and push the boundaries of the job (5).
Dr. Jill Biden
At this year’s DNC, Dr. Jill Biden introduced herself to viewers from a Brandywine High School classroom. In a no-frills green coat-dress, she soberly lamented the virus’s disastrous impact on the impending school year. Appealing to the public as a mother and a teacher, she reprimanded the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis and laid bare her own struggles with the virus in a deeply empathetic way: “Like so many of you, I’m left asking, how do I keep my family safe?” (1).
Formerly Jill Jacobs, the then-community college English teacher entered the Biden family in the wake of a tragedy. In 1972, Joe Biden’s first wife and daughter were killed in a car accident, leaving the two Biden boys without a mother and sister. Jill met Joe on a blind date in 1975 (3). Dr. Biden’s DNC speech paints a picture of this humble family overcoming loss with unity: “thanksgivings and state championships, birthdays, and weddings… reading stories piled on the couch, rowdy Sunday dinners and silly arguments, listening to the faint sounds of laughter that would float downstairs as Joe put the kids to bed every night” (1).
She implores the American public to put faith in her and her husband as the next first family; seeking to navigate the country out of tragedy in the same way they did their own family: “with love and understanding” (1).
In response to a comment about her legal career, Hillary Clinton famously remarked, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession” (6).
A foil to the image of the traditional, domestic First Lady, Hillary Clinton entered the White House as an accomplished and ambitious lawyer. Her heavy involvement in health care policy was received with resentment by the public, who deemed her headstrong. The first and only First Lady to have an office in the West Wing, Clinton pushed healthcare onto the agenda, attempting to reform the system singlehandedly (7). While she didn’t shy away from politics, she ensured that her role wouldn’t be a complete departure from the warm and motherly FLOTUS characters that preceded her. She made clear that she prioritized her daughter’s upbringing and, however begrudgingly, submitted her cookie recipe to Family Circle Magazine (6).
Unlike Clinton, Laura Bush seemed to only tolerate the political, though she seemed to gradually warm up to optics and diplomacy throughout her stint in the White House. She promoted women's rights and education in the Middle East, but still stayed out of the West Wing (8).
Like Hillary, Michelle Obama found multiple outlets for her intellect and professional experience whilst in the White House. Though she refrained from participating too heavily in West Wing matters, she championed sympathetic causes such as ending childhood obesity and helping military families (9). She became known as an outspoken and powerful orator while attaining an image that struck between humble and glamorous: she certainly made her mark as a fashion icon.
Working completely independently from the West Wing, Melania maintains more mystery than other modern First Ladies. She has not taken on any large or substantive public service projects, which are often expected of First Ladies. Her campaign to improve online safety for children, Be best, has fallen short of most of its proposed objectives (11). Her lack of public involvement in the administration allows her perception to be filled in with people’s existing beliefs about the President (12).
It's clear that Dr. Biden intends to carve out her own identity in the White House, reshaping the role of the First Lady into one that suits her character and background. Whether or not she chooses to become involved in policy, Dr. Biden will continue to advocate for American families, as she plans to continue her role as a teacher while serving as First Lady. Jill already seems to reject the glamour associated with First Ladies Michelle Obama or Melania Trump, whose designer wardrobe items often sell out the minute the women are photographed in them. Her simple DNC coat-dress has not been name-checked (4).
Though we await her impact in the White House, Dr. Jill Biden’s intentions are underscored by empathy, humility, and relatability. A down-to-earth mother and teacher weathered by tragedy, she is more than ready to step in as a powerful yet nurturing force to lead us out of this dark period.