Doug Emhoff doesn’t need to go promoting literacy or fighting explicit lyrics or Being Best (whatever that means).
As the husband of Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris and the highest-ranking husband in electoral history, Emhoff has the chance to do something bigger and further-reaching than any of the usual first and second lady causes.
He needs to champion something that can help nearly every household in America — normalcy.
“I want him to lay out how normal and boring being the husband of a powerful woman is,” said one of my longtime daddy friends, the husband of an outspoken, politically active lawyer. He has grown more than a little tired of well-meaning moms leaping in to help him with his kids or fawning over the fact that he’s the one volunteering in class.
“We need the first female president so we can have the second female president, so we can stop caring so much about all these firsts,” the dad said.
Harris’s historic place as the nation’s first female vice president is remarkable. She has proven herself to be a tough and capable prosecutor, state attorney general and fierce senator. It’s pretty clear that doing a job Dan Quayle could handle isn’t going to be a heavy lift for her.
But what her husband is going to do with his barrier-breaking role is an intriguing — and potentially impactful — first.
Supportive husbands content with being in the shadows of their prominent wives have existed before. You just don’t hear about them.
You know Annie Oakley, right? But what about Frank Butler, the sharpshooting star of a traveling Wild West show? He hit 24 of 25 targets when his extravaganza rolled into Oakley’s town in 1876. She got her gun and hit all 25. They married and Butler stepped out of her way as Oakley became the star of the show; her earnings supporting the two of them throughout their 50-year union.
Or what about Martin D. Ginsburg, husband to late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg? One of the two recent films about her life, On the Basis of Sex, is also a love letter to her husband and an instruction guide on how to be both supportive and personally successful in a marriage.
“Most closely,” RBG said, when she was nominated to the court by President Bill Clinton in 1993, “I have been aided by my life’s partner, Martin D. Ginsburg, who has been, since our teenage years, my best friend and biggest booster.”
Emhoff is well suited to be a great second gentleman. He’s divorced, but his ex-wife and Harris are friendly and have worked together in raising two kids, who are now adults. He left his job at a law firm this week to avoid a conflict of interest and to focus on his new role.
And — the factor that worked in the Democrats’ favor in this election — his last name isn’t Clinton.
I wrote this piece in my head in 2016, imagining Bill Clinton reprising his time in the White House in a total script flip as first gentleman. But I kept tripping over his baggage. Not ideal.
Neither was John Zaccaro, husband of Geraldine Ferraro, whose 1984 campaign for vice president was dogged by questions about her family’s finances. Zaccaro pleaded guilty to fraud charges right after the election. Nope, he wasn’t going to be the poster dude for supportive spouses either.
How about a man who actually did serve as a first dude (it has to be “dude” in Alaska) before his wife ran for vice president: Todd Palin?
When more than 3,000 pages of Todd’s emails went public a decade ago, it was clear he was all up in his state’s business, from judicial and state board appointments to contract negotiations with public employees. They called him an “unpaid adviser,” but he acted like more of a mansplaining, shadow governor.
There are congressional husbands who approach their spousal roles with traditional gusto. The Ladies of the Senate have rebranded themselves as the Senate Spouses club as Congress slowly becomes more female.
John Bessler “became the first man to be consistently involved in the Senate Spouses club,” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said of her husband while speaking at a National Journal event in 2014.
Bessler joined the meetings as soon as his wife got to Washington and immediately made an impact.
Klobuchar remembers driving to an event with former Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and seeing her husband walking across the lawn holding something.
“I yelled out the car window, and I said: ‘What are you doing with the pink box?’ He yelled back: ‘It is the Senate spouse club event. I am going to Jim Webb’s wife’s baby shower,’ “ Klobuchar said, in a farewell speech to McCaskill on the Senate floor. “Claire looked at my husband and said, in her typical, blunt way, ‘That is the sexiest thing I have ever seen.’ “
This is adorable, but it’s the kind of thing that frustrates the stay-at-home dad y’all met at the top of this column. I will admit I was totally guilty, too — cooing over how great he was when all he did was show up for preschool co-op duty, same as any mom.
But this is what our nation is increasingly looking like — what it needs to look like. We’ve got 41% of households with women as primary breadwinners and we still act like a dad picking a kid up from school or a husband moving for his wife’s career is a unicorn?
Ridiculous. And it doesn’t make dad feel like what he’s doing is normal.
“It’s still relatively uncommon,” Brad Harrington the executive director of the Boston College Center for Work and Family, told NPR about the number of stay-at-home dads. “Depending on whose numbers you believe, it’s somewhere between one out of 20 or maybe one out of 15 at-home parents now is a dad.”
Not common, but still normal.
As our society slowly, haltingly grinds toward gender parity in the workplace, we need to get it into our minds that equality also has to happen at home, in partnerships, in families.
And by advocating a platform that encourages men to share equally in households, to support their spouses’ ambition, to fight back against bosses who scoff at personal leave, to advocate for family leave and child care and to smash the crushing patriarchy that makes such rigid demands on them as well, Emhoff can make a lasting impact.
It’s a job perfect for a second gentleman. It’ll make him a first, too.