With elbow bumps and masked greetings, Doug Emhoff convened a roundtable discussion on gender equity in the workplace at the headquarters of a construction company outside of St Louis on Wednesday.
Seated behind a placard that with his official title, “second gentleman”, Emhoff was also the only gentleman at the event, marking Equal Pay Day. In a nod to his own barrier-breaking role as husband to Kamala Harris – the nation’s first female, first Black and first South Asian vice-president – Lyda Krewson, mayor of St Louis, said his presence at the session was a welcome sign of change.
“As the first woman mayor of the city of St Louis, about to introduce the first second gentleman of the United States,” she said, “it’s clear that while we have made tremendous progress, we still do have a lot more work to do.”
Over the course of the next hour, Emhoff listened earnestly as the panelists explained the compounding challenges women face juggling a family and a career, especially during the pandemic. He jotted down notes and nodded in agreement. When the meeting ended, he promised to relay what they had shared with him to his spouse.
“When I see her tonight, we’re certainly going to talk about all of this,” he said.
The visit to St Louis was the final stop on a six-state “Help Is Here” tour to promote the $1.9tn coronavirus relief package that Joe Biden signed into law this month. It was also something of a national debut for Emhoff, who reprised the cheerleader-in-chief role he played for Harris during the 2020 presidential campaign – this time in service of the new administration’s agenda.
Emhoff started his travels in Las Vegas with Harris, before venturing on his own to visit vaccination clinics, food banks and health centers across New Mexico, Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri. On Tuesday, he will continue the tour with a visit to a community health center in Silver Spring, Maryland.
“He was very charming and very engaged,” Scott Frederickson, the senior pastor at First Lutheran church in Blair, Nebraska, said, after Emhoff visited earlier this week.
Frederickson, who has turned his church into a vaccination site, said he had been prepared to like the second gentleman – he and his wife have a bobblehead of the vice-president at home. But he was nevertheless impressed.
“He stopped and spoke to the people who were providing the vaccinations and seemed to genuinely care about what they were doing,” he said.
Frederickson said many of his parishioners were excited, if somewhat bemused, that Harris’s husband had chosen to visit Blair, a small city north of Omaha in a reliably conservative corner of the state.
Yet for some, Emhoff remained a curiosity. He recalled that one of the church’s custodians spent several minutes peppering a secret service agent with questions about the second gentleman – is that really his title and what exactly is his job?
The first question is easier to answer. He is America’s first second gentleman, an honorific often abbreviated to Sgotus. But, with few official duties, the role is amorphous, more often defined by the occupant than the office.
“There is absolutely nothing that a vice-presidential spouse has to do,” said the journalist and author Kate Andersen Brower, who has written extensively about first ladies and the White House. “They always kind of pick up the slack,” she added. “The plane isn’t as nice. They are sometimes not recognized in public.”
The role was not something Emhoff ever anticipated. In 2013, he was a divorced father of two with a successful career as an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. But a blind date with California’s then attorney general changed everything.
In a joint interview, Harris said it was “practically love at first sight”. They were married a year later at a ceremony officiated by her sister, Maya.
Together they are challenging the traditional perceptions of the American political family, proudly showcasing their “big, modern family” that blends race, culture and religion.
Harris is the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica; Emhoff is white and Jewish. At their wedding, Harris placed a flower garland around his neck, in honor of her Indian heritage. They concluded the ceremony with the breaking of glass, a Jewish ritual. Emhoff’s adult children, Cole and Ella, call Harris “Momala” – a title that she has said “means the most” to her.
Observers say Emhoff has mostly approached his duties in a similar manner as his predecessors, who helped shape and modernize the role over generations.
After the election, Emhoff decided to permanently leave his law firm, amid questions that his work could pose potential conflicts for the administration. In January, he began teaching at Georgetown Law, following in the footsteps of Jill Biden, who taught English at Northern Virginia Community College during her husband’s tenure as vice-president – the first person in her role to work full time.
Karen Pence also returned to teaching as second lady, drawing criticism when she accepted a part-time position at a private Christian school that required applicants to disavow gay marriage.
“It’s odd – the second gentleman is their teacher,” Emhoff told reporters this month. “But we kind of dispensed with that. It was maybe five minutes in the first class.”
He said he missed his work but reveled in the opportunity to support the administration – and, of course, his wife.
Before the inauguration, he visited the Library of Congress to study the history of second spouses. “I’m taking it very seriously,” he said of his new role. “I understand that I am the first gentleman to hold this role and I certainly do not want to be last.”
Jennifer Lawless, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, said it was notable that the White House enlisted both Jill Biden and Emhoff on its Help is Here tour.
“Generally speaking, after Hillary Clinton was placed in charge of healthcare in 1993, we haven’t really seen first ladies or second ladies given any sort of role that’s directly linked to policy,” she said. Yet both spouses were dispatched across the country “to make the case for what will ultimately be one of the administration’s biggest legislative accomplishments – and that’s policy-rich.”
The White House declined to say whether Emhoff plans to champion a specific cause or issue, as past second spouses have done. He has discussed “access to justice” as a possible focus, while many of his official visits have sought to address food insecurity.
During the presidential campaign, he proved to be an effective – and eager – surrogate for his wife, but few describe him as deeply ideological or political. At public events, he often gives the impression that’s he’s just happy to be there.
“The Doug you saw on the trail – that’s Doug, that’s who he is,” said Nathan Barankin, a former chief of staff to Harris when she served as California attorney general and in the US Senate. “He didn’t change for purposes of the campaign.”
That gushing devotion to his wife inspired a dedicated online following known as the #DougHive – a complement to the #KHive, Harris’s most devoted supporters. The fan club consists mostly of women who find it refreshing to watch a white man happily play the role of supportive spouse to a boundary-breaking, glass ceiling-shattering politician.
“I’m not overly political,” he told Marie Claire in an interview before the November election. “I’m overly her husband.”
As Emhoff embraces his new role, he has a cast of political spouses to turn to for advice, starting with the first lady, with whom he shares genuine rapport.
Biden’s newly assembled cabinet includes a number of historic firsts who have broken political barriers on the basis of their gender, race or sexual orientation. Emhoff’s recent coffee date with Chasten Buttigieg, the husband of Pete, the transportation secretary and first openly gay cabinet member, generated a buzz of excitement online.
On International Women’s Day, Emhoff posed for a selfie in front of a crocheted mural of his wife and he recently joined the city’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, on a tour of a neighborhood bar that became a distribution site for meals and care kits to local hospitality workers who lost jobs during the pandemic.
On Thursday, Emhoff hosted the White House’s inaugural virtual Passover seder. As they celebrated this ancient tradition, Emhoff observed that it was also a “moment of many firsts”.
“I’m excited to join you as the first-ever second gentleman, married to the first woman to serve as vice-president of the United States,” he said. “And as the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice-president.”
Harris joined him at the end of the livestream. Turning toward her husband, who beamed with pride, she said: “I’m so glad to see the second gentleman in his element.”