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What we know of Emhoff so far is that he’s an adoring political spouse who revels in helping a woman rightfully praised for her ambition. Conversations about Emhoff often yield somewhat stultifying descriptions of how supportive he is and little else. From John Bessler: “Doug was very supportive on the campaign trail. He very frequently would wear the campaign T-shirt.” From Sheila Nix, who served as Jill Biden’s chief of staff: “He cares about being a supportive team player and the process. I think that’s why people are kind of excited about it: because it’s like they know Doug, right? They know somebody like Doug.” Or Nell Irvin Painter: “We can just stand back and clap our hands. We should pause and be grateful for a man who says, ‘My job is to support my wife.’ ”
There are those who find Emhoff on a pedestal galling. “Everyone is applauding his decision to do something that women have done forever,” Brower says. “It’s kind of infuriating.” Emhoff himself is aware of the paradox at play. After an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in December called on Jill Biden to drop the “Dr.” from her name, Emhoff tweeted, “This story would never have been written about a man.” And his position may well evolve into a high-powered role; we don’t yet know.
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Regardless, in this moment Emhoff does feel like a radical character. “We still live in a pretty sexist country,” says Chasten Buttigieg. “The idea that it’s okay if women set aside their careers and ambitions because their men have dreams and goals, but for a man to do it is surprising—I hope that’s shifting.” After all, “this is not the only successful married couple in the country,” as Anita McBride puts it. Perhaps it is Emhoff’s “job,” Weingarten says, “to show the world how perfectly normal this is.”
Not everyone is yet on board with this contemporary, progressive iteration of masculinity, so deeply nontoxic. As Painter said to me, “Don’t forget there’s a whole world out there, call it Trump country, call it upstate New York, in which being a supportive man is not necessarily seen as a great role model.” And this is true for other facets he’ll help to usher in. Painter recalls friends of hers complaining about how big airport banners advertising Black History Month commercialized the month of recognition. “I see it as becoming American mainstream, because that’s what we do. How we become American is to be commercialized.” She drew a parallel to seeing a multiracial couple like Emhoff and Harris on the national stage. “How we become American is to be seen.”