The incoming administration is historic for a number of reasons. Among them is that the soon-to-be first lady of the United States has already established a decidedly different approach to her new role.
Unlike her predecessors, signs indicate that Jill Biden plans to continue working her day job while in the White House, marking a momentous departure from the position of past first ladies.
Biden, who is a long-standing English professor at Northern Virginia Community College and holds several degrees including a doctorate, plans to continue teaching while serving the country as first lady.
Of the women who will have preceded her, none have maintained a professional and full-time career while in the White House.
“They confined their activities to being first lady,” said Myra Gutin, a first lady historian and professor of communication at Rider University. “So, this is very special. It’s very different.”
There is no official job description for the first lady, Gutin explained, adding that each woman defines the role uniquely. Typically, the first lady covers three central areas in her work: ceremonial, political and advocacy.
But unlike those before her, Biden will be splitting her time between her responsibilities as an educator and the first lady. (Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a regular column for years, including during her time in the White House, but that work wasn’t full-time, says Gutin. And any money Roosevelt earned was donated.)
“She is very much reflective of the 21st century,” Gutin said. “And whenever the presidential spouse does something like this, it’s always going to open up new possibilities.”
American working women agreed.
“I think this is par for the course for this ticket, because it’s just another glass ceiling that we’ve broken,” said Natalie Chernicoff, 28, a Brooklyn-based stage manager who works in theater. “I think it’s great that Jill is keeping her agency and continuing to do her job. Being the first lady should not hamper her.”
Heather Gibson, a 51-year-old business owner in Ohio and mother of two, agrees.
“Women are the best multitaskers in the world,” Gibson said. “I believe she is capable of doing everything that we need her to do for us, but also everything she needs to do for herself as a woman.”
Connie Esparza Cruz, 64, a retired paralegal in California, expressed concern that Biden wouldn’t be able to manage the dual demands.
“I think that Dr. Biden should take a sabbatical while in the White House because it’s going to take a lot to clean up the mess our country is in,” Cruz said. “To be effective, my feeling is that she needs to give 100 percent of her attention to this. She is going to have a lot of work to do.”
But Biden has demonstrated her ability to juggle between two roles in the past. While her husband served as vice president for eight years, Biden, now 69, maintained a full-time teaching job at Northern Virginia Community College, where she has worked since 2009. She broke the mold back then, too, as the only second lady ever to work outside the White House.
An enduring educator, Biden’s decision to pause her teaching work during her husband’s campaign was the first time she took a break from her job since 1981, when their daughter, Ashley, was born. Now that the tumultuous campaign season has drawn to a close and the couple is primed to move into the White House in January, Biden intends to get back to work.
“I don’t have any concern at all,” Gutin said. “Jill Biden has been a wife in politics since she got married. This woman knows how to segment her time, and she has already shown as second lady that she can manage the dual burdens of being the wife of the vice president and being a professor.”
Plus, “the first lady does not do this job by herself. She will have a rather nice-sized staff, and I have no doubt she will pick very qualified people to help her,” she said.
Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, a political science professor and chair of gender studies at the University of Southern California, said Biden’s decision to continue working is emblematic of most women in America.
“We have typically seen very accomplished women who take a leave from their jobs or quit their jobs entirely when their husbands become president,” Alfaro said. “It serves as a powerful symbol and a signal that reflects what most families look like right now, in terms of needing two incomes.”
“The Bidens will resonate with the majority of women in the workforce because they are a dual-career couple,” said Joan Kuhl, a corporate equality advocate and author. “More than ever before, women want to support and advocate for each other in the workforce. Jill Biden’s visibility will uplift working women.”
Dorothy Portiera, 40, a working mom in Chicago, said she understands why Biden wants to continue teaching alongside her duties as first lady.
“As a teacher, I feel that teaching is not just a job, it’s a calling. And I think she can do both. She can lead us in our country while also leading her students,” Portiera said.
As the mother of a 10-year-old daughter, Portiera is hopeful that Biden’s decision to continue working will motivate future generations of women.
“My mom worked two jobs since I was 5 years old. She is the hardest-working person I know. I want to be an inspiration to my daughter the way my mom was an inspiration to me,” she said. “Jill Biden is an inspiration for all our girls.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story’s headline implied Jill Biden will definitely continue working. She has said she plans to continue working. We have updated the language to reflect this.