Dr. Jill Biden is making history as the first first lady to have a full-time job in addition to her role in the White House.
“I think this is an opportunity to bring the role of first lady into the 21st century,” Ohio University professor of history Katherine Jellison said.
Jellison at Ohio University studies first ladies’ influence on gender ideology and how experiences of first ladies inform America's idea of U.S. family life.
“We have a first lady who’s living a life more like the average American woman," Jellison said. "Who in our society in the year 2020-2021 balances her family life and her work life."
Biden is an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College. Even though the pandemic has brought new challenges to teaching, she says she will continue her full-time job as an educator while standing alongside her husband in the White House next year.
“She has said on many occasions ‘being a teacher isn’t what I do, it’s who I am,'” Jellison said.
Kim Churches is the CEO of American Association for University Women. AAUW is an organization that works to advance gender equity for women and girls.
“By seeing that Dr. Jill Biden is not only passionate about being a teacher, but really embraces it as part of her whole self, will really change the way that we think about women’s roles in all of society,” Churches said.
Churches says Dr. Jill Biden is serving as a prime role model for young girls who want to create and sustain change.
“For 231 years, we have seen a first lady as stepping back behind the president – her husband – in all of these roles," Churches said. "But now we’re in a time when women make up half of the workforce, and by Dr. Biden really emulating and showing that a woman’s place is in the family, and the woman’s place can be in the workforce – and she can choose both – is really allowing women to see themselves and how they’re operating in their families today.”
Traditionally, when the position of first lady developed, her role was described as the pinnacle of advanced home making. Much of her attention was put toward fashion and entertaining guests. For the past few decades, Jellison says there’s been less focus on appearance, and more focus on substance like the professional strides she takes and her influence on politics.
“Someone like an Eleanor Roosevelt, a Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama have been real players in terms of advising their husbands on policies and also being major players in their own right," Jellison said. "Going out and championing important causes.”
Considering Dr. Biden is an educator and a mother, Churches says she’s optimistic about her time in office.
“I really hope that as Dr. Biden embarks on working and on her bold agenda as first lady, that we can also begin to center the incredible need for care giving and valuing caregiving in our nation," Churches said, "Flexible work schedules – look, women make up half the labor force, but many of them are having to choose between family or paychecks right now because of all the uncertainties the COVID pandemic has laid bare.”
Whether working a full-time job or not, both Jellison and Churches say they would like to see first ladies in the future given more freedom to be themselves.