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On the second floor of a walk-up in Queens, New York, on a Tuesday in early July, 15 girls were building their own toolboxes, safety goggles on and power tools in hand. Ranging in age from 6 to 15, they were there for the second day of camp at Tools & Tiaras, a nonprofit designed to encourage girls’ interest in construction-related trades. A special guest was on his way to learn to rivet sheet metal alongside them. They may not have known him by name, but they definitely knew who he was married to.
“His wife is the first woman vice president in this country,” 12-year-old Kaitlyn Reid said.
“I think he’s going to have a lot of fun with us,” said 9-year-old Parker James. “I feel really excited and really nervous.” When asked why she felt that way, James said, “He’s the first ever! He’s actually the first ever second gentleman.”
The visit was Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff’s latest event bolstering his unofficial platform within the Biden administration: gender equity and, even more specifically, men supporting women.
At the camp, Emhoff listened attentively as the girls introduced themselves, nodding and smiling as they spoke, jumping in with the occasional follow-up question. He walked over to the youngest camper, a shy 6-year-old, to let her whisper her introduction. He asked campers if choosing silver contact paper to decorate his tool box was “too matchy-matchy.” (He ultimately chose pink.) He wore safety goggles that said “girl power” on their sides. He participated in a call-and-repeat “secret chant” to empower the campers on their road to “world domination.”
And when he finally got his rivet through his sheet metal, he shouted, “We did it, Joe!”
It’s not surprising that his go-to exclamation is something borrowed from his wife, her now-viral words after she found out that she and Joe Biden had won the 2020 election. After all, he wouldn’t be in this position if the country hadn’t elected the first woman vice president.
The way Emhoff looks at it, “My main job is to support her in any way that I can.”
Emhoff is the first second gentleman to the first woman vice president, and for him, tackling gender inequality in ways big and small felt like a natural, and critical, component of creating this role. He is actively attempting to model for others what it means to be an ally in actions, not just words.
“I found where I can really make a difference is just trying to use my voice to lift women in leadership up,” Emhoff said.
In the year and a half he has served as second gentleman, Emhoff has made the rounds in public engagements that directly call attention to the issue of gender equity. He held a listening session on Equal Pay Day with Wendy Chun-Hoon, the director of the Women’s Bureau in the U.S. Department of Labor. He attended a celebrity-heavy conference to talk about being a supportive spouse to a powerful woman. Emhoff met with Japan’s minister of women’s empowerment and hosted a roundtable with France’s minister for gender equality, diversity and equal opportunities. On Transgender Day of Visibility in April, Emhoff convened a discussion at the White House with eight transgender youth and their guardians. In late July, he was part of a meeting between the White House and the Department of Justice about potential legal actions to help protect people seeking abortions from criminalization.
Chun-Hoon, who also visited Tools & Tiaras, told The 19th that it became evident to her from her first conversation with Emhoff that he was interested in talking about gender equity — and doing so “as a White man who has had a very successful career in the entertainment industry.”
“He’s been so clear all the way through that he’s actively looking for ways to support gender equity [as someone who] has had a lot of privilege, which is something he will say himself,” she said.
Despite the amount of attention, not all positive, that Emhoff has gotten for being so publicly supportive of his wife — wearing Kamala T-shirts on the campaign trail, blowing kisses from the floor at the State of the Union address, jumping onto the stage when she was rushed by an activist — in person, Emhoff reads less as over-the-top Wife Guy and more like the seasoned entertainment law partner he was before stepping away when Biden announced Harris as his 2020 running mate. Though engaging and accessible, Emhoff is also clearly laser-focused on the task at hand, quickly reading a room and figuring out what needs to be done — not calculating but competent.
For the past 18 months, the primary task has been to define for himself and the public what exactly a second gentleman should be. Former Second, now First, Lady Dr. Jill Biden is the best source of counsel for how to be in the position, Emhoff said.
“She gave me some great and true advice at the beginning. ‘There’s nothing I’m going to be able to tell you that will make sense to you until you’re in the role … There’s not much I can tell you except just support her and be yourself and be authentic to who you are,’” Emhoff recalled. “That’s the best advice I’ve gotten, really, and that’s what I’ve tried really hard to do.”
He paused and took a deep breath. “I’m trying really hard to remain who I am and not change even though my circumstances have changed,” Emhoff continued. “That’s the mantra I really live by. Especially since I’m a father, first and foremost, to adult children who still need parents” — Ella and Cole, from his first marriage — “and then I want to make sure I’m a good son. And I’m also a brother and a husband, so I can’t afford to let this change me or change who I am. I also wouldn’t be good at this if I wasn’t authentic to who I am and myself.”
As he explained to the campers at Tools & Tiaras, in 2013 he was set up with Harris by her best friend, who was his client. “It was love at first sight,” he told the campers. She was California’s attorney general at the time. “I kind of knew who she was,” he said. “We’ve been together ever since.”
Though he has started teaching some at Georgetown University’s law school since his wife became vice president, he is no longer a practicing lawyer. But his career in law is a natural stepping stone into the role of second gentleman, said John Bessler, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and at Georgetown University Law Center — and the husband of Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Bessler and Emhoff struck up a friendship when Harris was first elected to the Senate.
“Life as a lawyer brings a lot of unexpected twists and turns,” Bessler told The 19th. “It prepares you for this role, which is unique. Something may come up suddenly in a legal case, and politics is like that too. Things happen and you readjust your schedule and respond. Doug has that flexibility in him to respond in real-time to events as they happen.”
“He has a good spirit,” Bessler said of Emhoff. “He’s so supportive, he’s so protective.” He’s also doing critical work, Bessler added, of “normalizing the idea of women in politics. We need to get more women involved in politics, and Doug being a model of someone who is supportive of his wife is really important.”
Emhoff stressed to the campers at Tools & Tiaras that, despite the many versions of glass ceilings, opportunities can and do exist for women. Women make up half the workforce but only 4 percent of job-holders in construction-related fields. He also talked about his own profession, saying women and men enter the legal field in equal numbers, but less than 10 percent of women end up as senior partners at law firms.
“Having more women in the workplace lifts up the economy,” he told the campers. He pointed to his own family as an example, noting how he left his job so his wife could best do hers. “Now I work for my wife!”
One camper asked Emhoff what he can do as second gentleman to make more professions and career paths available, accessible and welcoming to girls and women.
“I think just by stepping away from my career that I love and I was actually very good at so I could support my wife — who was the first woman to become vice president — it was a no-brainer,” he replied. He explained that he assumed any man would do the same, but his own research into gender equity told a very different story. “With this big platform that I have and all the microphones and media and working in this great administration with all of these resources, I really decided to lean in on this issue of men supporting women, professionally and personally, so they can succeed, even if that means stepping away from my own career.”
In a question-and-answer session with the campers, he relayed a message from his wife: “You don’t need permission to be a leader.” He told them that she has a “funny saying” that she says more than anything else: “I eat no for breakfast.”
“She doesn’t let anyone tell her what she can do, and she’s been the first at so many things,” he said. “She would tell you that when you’re at a table like this, you’re also representing thousands, if not millions, of other little girls around the country who may not have the opportunity to talk to the second gentleman. She always says she thinks of herself as sitting at the table with so many others.”
Sitting down to talk one-on-one after his day with the girls, Emhoff is just as warm if less goofy — the dad jokes are noticeably pared down. He turns serious when he brings up the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned the federal right to abortion guaranteed by Roe v. Wade. He said right now he feels “laser-focused” on “reproductive rights and the health care crisis.”
“I’m enraged about the decision. The vice president is enraged about the decision,” Emhoff said of the Dobbs ruling. He found out about the ruling from Harris, who called him from Air Force Two moments after learning of it herself.
“I could feel the rage in her voice, and the anger, and I immediately felt that way, too,” he said. “As lawyers, we know what a terrible, ridiculous, un-American decision this is to overturn settled precedent of 50 years, of something that is a fundamental right.”
But Emhoff said he wants to do more than just be angry. He has met with Jennifer Klein, co-chair and executive director of the White House’s Gender Policy Council, as well as doctors’ groups, and has spent “hours upon hours talking to the vice president and my team about figuring out what is the best way for me — given who I am as a husband, father, lawyer and second gentleman — to help.”
Emhoff said he realizes the importance his own gender plays in this conversation, the way it adds to the conversation that reproductive rights is not simply a “women’s issue.”
“The virtue of just me as a man speaking up about this issue and speaking loudly to other men that they need to care about this issue because, as the vice president said very eloquently, this is not just about reproductive rights,” Emhoff said. “This is all based on a right to privacy, which is fundamental to the abortion issue. It is fundamental to interracial marriage,” he paused and pointed to himself, a White man married to a Black and South Asian woman. “It’s fundamental to the right to contraception. It’s fundamental to gay marriage. It’s fundamental to so many freedoms that people have taken for granted and they cannot take for granted now because of this ridiculous decision by these judges that does not reflect where the vast majority of Americans are on this issue. So now it’s about using my voice to get men and others to pay attention to this.”
Klein said she and Emhoff have discussed ways he might help recruit and engage volunteer lawyers to deal with the morass of legal issues that have developed in the weeks since the Dobbs decision. Emhoff has also told Klein’s office about his particular interest in working with faith leaders on reproductive justice issues as a Jewish person who has built up experience during the administration on interfaith work. Emhoff was recently named to help lead the White House’s efforts working with outside attorneys to protect those who cross state lines to seek an abortion.
“I always bristle at the idea of men as allies because men are active participants. He avoids the pitfalls many men fall into — ‘I care because I’m a husband, I’m a father, I have a mother,’” Klein told The 19th. “He just cares because he is a human being and a participant in society and is watching a fundamental constitutional right being ripped away. He brings his perspective to things because that’s who he is as the husband of the first female vice president, but he doesn’t make his commitment to issues dependent on the circumstances of his life.”
Klein said that as someone who sees her work primarily focus on shifting long-accepted cultural standards, having a second gentleman is meaningful.
“Something I really appreciate about him is that without my raising it, he thinks about norm change, attitude change, culture change on both individuals lives and on the policy-making process. We’ve absolutely talked about what he chooses to engage in and why that matters, because he is in the process of defining this new role,” Klein said.
Coming off their Tools & Tiaras trip, Chun-Hoon said, “It becomes culturally ingrained in us at a very young age about what is off-limits to you as a future career and what you’re expected to do in terms of caregiving.” Having someone whose full-time job is being the husband of the vice president telling a group of self-described “warrior princess” campers handling power tools that their opportunities in the workforce can defy stereotypes is a very direct way to help undo some of those narratives.
Though he happily inhabits a supporting role, there is one thing he wants credit for: as videographer on that November 2020 day when Harris took a call and said, “We did it, Joe!”
Many people have echoed those words when something good happens — including Harris herself, with Emhoff, as well as other staff in the White House.
“It’s a pretty iconic video — that I took,” Emhoff stressed, laughing as he pointed out his long unheralded role in the making of a meme.
What he wants out of his legacy, though, is less viral. When asked how he hopes people see his role, Emhoff responds: “First and foremost, it’s a man who was supporting his wife who was the first woman vice president.”