Updated at 4 p.m. Eastern time on Jan. 19.
When the United States elected its first female vice president in November, everyone started asking: What do we call Doug Emhoff?
“Second gentleman” seemed like the obvious title for the husband of Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris — a clear complement to “second lady,” as the wives of past vice presidents have been known. And on Jan. 19, Emhoff confirmed that’s the title he’ll be using in an op-ed for GQ.
But some historians still saw opportunity in this linguistic ambiguity: With no preordained title for Emhoff, there was always more opportunity for something more radical.
“The titles are ridiculous,” said historian Betty Caroli, author of “First Ladies.” “Nobody uses these terms anymore, except on toilets.”
The origin of the term “first lady” is a subject of contention among historians who study the presidents’ wives, said Caroli. Some say it was first used by Harriet Lane, niece of President James Buchanan, who assumed many of the social responsibilities of the office for her uncle, the only president who never married. Others link the term to the Civil War. Varina Davis, wife of confederacy president Jefferson Davis, was often called “the first lady of the confederacy.”
“Second lady” was born several decades later, said Lisa Graddy, curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s “First Ladies” exhibit. Jennie Hobart, wife of Vice President Garret Hobart, assumed the title while performing social duties for Ida McKinley, wife of President William McKinley, who was too sick to host all the requisite parties herself.
Early on, the presidential spouses were primarily homemakers and party planners, said Graddy. The first lady and second lady would do what was expected of “ladies” in the 19th century: decorate for Christmas, organize events, then show up in a beautiful dress.
But it’s 2020, and the roles have evolved. First ladies since Lady Bird Johnson have launched significant policy projects. Michelle Obama took on childhood obesity; Laura Bush tackled family literacy. Hillary Clinton was famously criticized for devoting herself to health-care reform, a departure from the relatively noncontroversial issues adopted by previous first ladies. Second ladies have expanded the parameters of their roles, too — both Jill Biden and Karen Pence continued to teach while their husbands served as vice president.
Biden said she plans to continue to work outside the White House while her husband is president.
“When I think of ‘first lady,’ I think of Dolley Madison or Martha Washington, devoted to the social aspect, the soft side of the White House,” said Kate Brower Brower, author of “First Women.”
Several prominent first ladies have chosen other, unofficial names for themselves, said Graddy. Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of President Abraham Lincoln, would call herself “Mrs. President,” while Jackie Kennedy Onassis, wife of President John F. Kennedy, instructed her staff to call her “Mrs. Kennedy,” famously saying that “first lady” sounded like a “saddle horse.”
Graddy has been thinking of alternative names for the “First Ladies” exhibit.
“The term should be abolished,” she said.
There is no need for spousal titles, said Graddy. In other countries, the president or prime minister’s spouse simply goes by their name, she said, eliminating the need for gendered adaptations if the world leader happens to be something other than a man in a heterosexual relationship. Newspapers referred to Margaret Thatcher’s husband as “Mr. Thatcher.”
The two terms — “second lady” and “first lady” — don’t necessarily have to change together. If Emhoff had decided against “second gentleman” while Jill Biden continued to go by “first lady,” it would’ve likely disappointed many, said Graddy.
“A lot of women feel like, ‘Now it’s your turn,’” she said. After watching a long line of first and second ladies be “boxed in” by antiquated expectations of “lady-ness,” Graddy said, many women feel that Emhoff should have to contend with what’s expected of a gentleman.
“It’s almost gleeful,” she said, “that feeling that now the shoe will be on the other foot.”
The White House would’ve had an easier time retiring “second lady” than “first lady,” said Brower, a more obscure term that carries significantly less emotional weight. There would be “backlash” to changing “first lady,” she said, especially for an administration that has promised a return to normalcy, after four years of President Trump. The decision to opt out of “second gentleman,” on the other hand, could slip by relatively unnoticed, she said.
Emhoff will challenge the stereotypes of first and second spouses no matter the title, said Graddy. He announced Tuesday that he would leave his job as a partner at a law firm before Harris takes office in January, preventing any potential conflict of interest and signaling his intention to put his career aside for his wife, as many previous White House wives have done for their husbands. Graddy expects that he will champion an issue that is personally significant, as Karen Pence did with art therapy, or as Jill Biden did with education.
The public will certainly not expect him to be “picking out floral arrangements,” said Caroli. But the spouse of the vice president has always had “more leeway” to do what they’d like, said Brower, attracting far less attention than the president’s wife.
The more significant changes are likely to come when a woman is finally elected president, said Caroli: What will the country call her spouse if that person is a man?
If Harris eventually runs again on the top of the ticket — as has been widely predicted — Emhoff might be part of that conversation, too.