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Doug Emhoff and the Second Gentleman Effect

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The list of barriers Vice President Kamala Harris has broken is thrillingly long — first Black vice president, first South Asian vice president, first female vice president — and you have to go pretty far down it to get to the fact that, thanks to her, we now have our nation’s first male vice-presidential spouse. So when social media exploded with joy last week at the presence of @SecondGentleman Doug Emhoff, I found myself apprehensive. Are we really going to give Mr. Emhoff, lovely as he seems to be, credit just for doing the support work that wives have been doing forever? (I’ve rolled my eyes too many times as my husband gets fawned over at the playground for that.) Are we really going to make this historic milestone for women even a little bit about a man?

Well, sort of.

Turns out that, as feminists have said for years, the world won’t change for women unless men change, too. And as we walk blinking and dazed out of four years of poisonous, if-I-don’t-win-I-lose masculinity, watching a white man step into a supporting role and (gasp!) enjoy it isn’t just a refreshing change of scenery. It’s a sign of progress, if ridiculously overdue.

So what could having a “wife guy,” as some headlines have called Mr. Emhoff, on the national stage get us?

Let’s be clear, first, that flipping the Second Spouse script won’t necessarily be easy. Nothing “where gender roles are inverted” ever is, warns former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. She should know: As the country’s first woman to serve in the role, she saw her own relationship with her partner, Tim Mathieson, dissected constantly in the press. (“Many of them weren’t very kind about it,” Ms. Gillard told me, understating things: She was quizzed about his sexuality in interviews, and the concept of a female leader having a relationship at all was considered so hilarious and unusual that there was even a popular sitcom that fictionalized her love life.)

Ms. Gillard, a co-author of the recent book “Women and Leadership,” sees relationships as just one more thing that women with authority get over-scrutinized for. “Female leaders have to make very nuanced choices every day — from their hair to their tone of voice — to fall into the ‘acceptability zone’ in the imagination of the public,” she said. “And the tightrope continues with the spouse. If he’s too active, people will think he’s telling her what to do. If he isn’t active, people will say, ‘We’re not getting value out of him.’ Every little footfall gets weighed.”

That’s enraging — and as we begin the Vice President Harris era, it’s worth remembering that no one judged Mike Pence by Karen Pence’s comings and goings. But whatever double standards lie ahead, Mr. Emhoff has already embraced his support role, quitting his law-firm job and studying the history of previous second spouses at the Library of Congress. “I’m not overly political,” he said affably in a Marie Claire interview. “I’m overly her husband.”

If this image of a man comfortable with supporting a woman’s vision seems like no big deal, consider how conflicted our culture still is about those “gender-inverted” roles. As one of the 41 percent of American moms who are the sole or primary breadwinner for their households, it has not escaped my notice that when you search “female breadwinner,” the top results — after the term’s definition and statistics — are “female breadwinner stress,” “ … divorce,” “ … resentment” and “ … burnout.” (Thanks, internet!) In reality, though, while stress is indeed part of the picture, so is pride, relief and the ability to finish this sentence while my spouse is at the doctor’s office with our kid. We need more normalization of these very normal relationships, more depictions of joy to counter the clichéd idea that unions in which men help support a partner’s career always end up miserable.

Some of that stereotype comes from the creaky old idea that caregiving — for a spouse, parent or child — just doesn’t come naturally to men. Five years ago, I was discussing paternity leave on a talk show when Piers Morgan, a fellow guest, pronounced that “most dads don’t want to do paid paternity leave” because “it isn’t the most exciting gig in town.” Those views are changing, but ever so slowly: Younger men are more willing to say they want to take on an equal share of caregiving (child-rearing, housework, etc.), but the numbers who actually do are still low. Over three-quarters of American fathers are back to work two weeks after their baby arrives, and only 7 percent of all stay-at-home parents are men.

Against that backdrop, role models matter. In 2018, Clarke Gayford, a New Zealand broadcaster, opted to stay home with his baby daughter after his partner, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, became the second elected head of government ever to give birth in office. Afterward, Ms. Ardern said the couple received letters from families in similar arrangements, thanking them for normalizing a partnership still seen as odd.

“We always tell girls, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see,’ but we need to understand that the same is true for boys,” said Liz Plank, who found that when she interviewed hundreds of men for her book “For the Love of Men,” many wanted to upend their fathers’ tired definition of masculinity but could not come up with public examples of men who had done so. “It’s just as important for them to see men in support positions as it is for girls to see women in leading positions,” she said.

That would be a win for anyone in a support role. Lacey Schwartz Delgado, an award-winning filmmaker who is also a congressional spouse, said she struggles with the reality that raising 7-year-old twins with her public-servant, scheduled-to-the-nines husband has meant her own career must often be adjusted. “We always celebrate stepping forward, so when you step back you can feel like a failure,” she said. “It’s too bad it takes this, but when you see men making that choice too — to take on child rearing, to make sacrifices at work, to give their time to their spouse, it’s powerful. It helps say that that choice is one to be proud of.”

It would help even more, of course, if our policies said so too. The United States trails the developed world in its cruel lack of family leave measures and subsidized child care — a status quo based on the antiquated assumption that an unpaid female caregiver is always on hand to care for a baby, sick child or parent. This combination of factors has been devastating during the pandemic, especially for Black and Latina mothers, who are more likely to be breadwinners than their white peers but who also have been driven out of the work force at higher rates — a dual whammy that underscores our crisis of care.

And here’s where I find myself dreaming about how else Mr. Emhoff could make a difference in his new role. Second spouses traditionally have portfolios of work. If he were to take on caregiving as an issue, he would upend gender norms even further by embracing a subject that affects all of us yet is almost exclusively discussed by women. And who better than the man in the “girl dad” sweatshirt to lobby for paid family leave?

In doing that, he’d also demonstrate allyship. Jamia Wilson, an activist and the former publisher of the Feminist Press, relishes the significance of a white man stepping back to support the career and vision of a Black, South Asian, second-generation-American woman. “Part of being an ally — which I’ve experienced myself in my marriage to a white man — is, how are you going to not just love me, but show up for my community?” she said. “I go back to how Kamala always says she will be first but not last. So what is he going to do to make sure she is not the last?” Supporting the next generation of milestone makers, she said, would be a beautiful thing.

It would. But of course, Mr. Emhoff is not the protagonist here — that would be the vice president, and whatever she needs from him will define his role. “Nobody can do the job of vice president or president without having someone to cry to, vent to, laugh with,” said Kati Marton, whose book “Hidden Power” surveyed 12 presidential marriages. “His main role is to be what so many wives have been over the millennia: a really great support to his spouse.”

Accomplishing that would be enough. Showing other men how it’s done — even better.

Cindi Leive (@cindi_leive) is a co-founder of the media collective The Meteor and a former editor in chief of Glamour and Self.

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