An election of "firsts"
This 2020 US Presidential Election will be an election of “firsts.”
This is the first time a woman is elected as the United States vice-president.
And that means Kamala Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, will also make history by becoming the first male spouse of a vice president and the first Jewish spouse of a vice president.
An issue in nomenclature
But there is a problem. What do we call him? It has never happened before that a president or vice-president's spouse has been a man in the US, so we're breaking new ground here. “No one has told me! I don’t know”, Mr Edhoff said to Marie Claire in October. Other countries have similar naming conventions to "first lady" and "first gentleman" such as "primera dama" in Columbia and "first gentleman" in Ireland. Guesses on how to call him ranged from “second dude” to “vice spouse” to “second minister”. But, according to The Associate Press, starting from January, Doug Emhoff will be referred to as “second gentleman” since, traditionally, vice-presidents’ wives have been referred to as “second ladies”.
Emhoff is making history in his own, a reflection of the nation's changing political and gender norms. It is a significant moment for a presidency that has been characterised by gender and masculinity. In swapping what has been assumed to be a dominant role for the male partner and a support role for the female partner, we are experiencing the disrupting of some of these gendered expectations of presidential office-holders.
“We’ve been waiting for this sort of gender switch for decades now. There is a lot of symbolism from a man stepping back from his high-powered career in order to support his wife’s career.” – said professor Kim Nalder, professor of Political Science at Sacramento University.
Who is the second gentleman?
So.. Who is Doug Emhoff? Mr Emhoff is the fourth husband of an American presidential or vice-presidential candidate (after Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton). But he is the first one to make it to the White House. He is an entertainment lawyer and has played an active role throughout the Harris' campaign by joining the campaign trail and leading fundraisers. From senate races to presidential races, Emhoff has always been by Harris' side. In the upcoming months, he is unlikely to continue his own career due to potential conflicts of interest. He will also be collaborating with the incoming first lady, Jill Biden, who held the position of second lady during the Obama-Biden administration. Previous first and second ladies have typically adopted uncontroversial agendas, complementary to their husbands’ administration. Michelle Obama, for example, promoted exercise and healthy eating when President Barack Obama was campaigning health care.
Traditionally second ladies have worked on “soft power” issues such as healthcare, literacy and nutrition, but Emhoff has reportedly said he wants to focus on justice-related issues. However, one must also say that any difference with a man in the role will stem more from public expectations rather than any change to the job itself. It will be interesting to see how the US will treat Doug Emhoff. Will the difference in gender allow him to do more?