A passionate educator and advocate for social issues, as well as a trusted political adviser to husband Joe, Dr Jill Biden will be the first White House wife to hold on to a paid job — the contrast with her predecessor could hardly be greater
After four years of the mayhem of the Trump administration, a period of relative calm and sobriety in the White House can’t come quick enough.
In Melania Trump, we had a First Lady like no other: she had rumoured lookalikes; she would go viral simply by swatting away her husband’s hand in public; and she was caught on tape bitching about one of her primary duties: decorating the White House for Christmas.
Historically, the First Lady of the US has been cast as the docile, devoted wind beneath the president’s wings; a role that’s more protector and facilitator than anything else. Yet the truth tells a different story, and the White House has seen more than its fair share of redoubtable, powerful women. And Jill Biden is set to continue this fine tradition.
Former Second Lady, and soon to be First Lady of the US, Jill is cut from cloth more similar to other First Ladies than her direct predecessor. In fact, she and Michelle Obama have long shared a bond. “Jill is not just brilliant, but she is kind. She is very funny, and she is one of the strongest people I know,” Obama is quoted as saying. “And I love and admire her with all my heart.”
In a recent Instagram post, Michelle paid tribute to her “partner-in-crime”, saying: “There’s not a doubt in my mind that Jill will make a wonderful First Lady.”
Canny, energetic and low-key, Jill was a constant companion by her husband’s side on the campaign trail, and thought to be one of his secret weapons in the win over Donald Trump. Jill Biden has also been described time and time again as one of her husband Joe’s most trusted political advisers; he often refers to himself as “Jill Biden’s husband”.
But rest assured, Jill Biden the First Lady is set to become a breath of fresh air, and quite the palate cleanser, in the coming months and years. Her two grand-daughters, Natalie and Naomi, have described her as a “prankster”, and “not your average grandmother”. Certainly, when you scratch the surface, it becomes clear that Jill Biden’s life has been anything but average.
Jill Biden is breaking with First Lady tradition in a significant way, for a start. Just as she did when her husband was Vice-President for eight years during the Obama administration, Jill will continue her professional career while in the role.
Where others before her have become subsumed by their husband’s office and been happy (or perhaps not so happy) to be defined by their husband’s new role, she will be the first First Lady to hold onto a paid job while living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
As she taught English composition at Northern Virginia Community College, Jill was reportedly so intent on keeping a low profile that she demanded that the secret service agents who were to shadow her at work come dressed as regular students.
Evidently, this one caveat could well be the reason that Jill Biden made a volte face about her husband’s political ambitions.
In an interview with Vogue last year, Jill noted how she was so dead set against the idea of his running for the White House in 2004 that she walked into a room simply wearing a bikini, with the word ‘no’ emblazoned on her stomach.
For many people, Jill Biden first came into the spotlight when she rushed to protect her husband after vegan protestors invaded the stage as he celebrated his Super Tuesday win at a Los Angeles rally.
And there was clearly something about Jill’s protectiveness — and the solidity of their marriage overall — that endeared the Bidens to voters. After the first televised presidential debate, Jill went viral as she was snapped affectionately embracing her husband after a job well done: a noted contrast to the stilted froideur of Donald and Melania Trump elsewhere on the stage.
New Jersey-born Jill grew up the eldest of five girls; her father worked in a bank, and her mother was a housewife. From the outset, she had a strong work ethic, working as a waitress while she was a somewhat rebellious high school student.
She and Joe were famously introduced on a blind date by Joe’s brother Frank in 1975. According to lore, Jill went home and told her mother, “Mom, I finally met a gentleman”. Two years later, they married — both, for the second time.
In 1972, Joe’s first wife Neilia and their infant daughter Naomi were tragically killed in a car crash, leaving Joe to raise his sons — Beau (3) and Hunter (4) — single-handedly.
Jill, meanwhile, had been divorced from former college football player Bill Stephenson by the time she was 24. The divorce was acrimonious, and Jill was initially reluctant to even think about a second marriage. Jill went on to raise Hunter and Beau as her own, and the couple also had a daughter, Ashley, in 1981.
The couple have endured more tragedy throughout their 43-year marriage: in 2015, Beau died from brain cancer at the age of 46. More recently, Hunter has battled alcohol and drug addiction, something he has openly spoken about to the press.
All the while, Jill didn’t let her passion for education get away from her, earning three degrees while raising her children (including a Master’s in Education while she was pregnant with Ashley, and a doctorate in educational leadership in 2015).
Last week, a Wall Street Journal article beseeched Jill to drop the ‘Dr’ from her name, resulting in the hashtag #MyTitleisDr to trend soon after. Former First Lady and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tweeted: “Her name is Dr Jill Biden. Get used to it.”
In May 2019, her memoir Where the Light Enters: Building a Family, Discovering Myself was published. In it, she detailed how public speaking is not something she enjoys. “Just the thought of doing so [makes] me so nervous I felt sick,” she wrote. “The role I have always felt most at home in is being ‘Dr B’.”
In many ways, Jill has already honoured First Lady protocol by becoming an advocate for several issues. She is the founder of the Biden Breast Health Initiative non-profit organisation, a co-founder of the Book Buddies programme, and a co-founder of the Biden Foundation. She is active in the Delaware Books on the Ground organisation. She also launched the Joining Forces initiative with Michelle Obama, which included helping military veterans and their families access education programmes and employment resources.
In 2012, she published a children’s book called Don’t Forget, God Bless Our Troops, based on her grand-daughter’s experience of being in a military family.
Literacy and education are likely to be front and centre of Jill’s advocacy work as First lady.
“Just think of your favourite educator who gave you the confidence to believe in yourself — that’s the kind of First Lady Jill will be,” Joe told a global audience in his first appearance as the Democratic presidential nominee. No doubt the world is ready for just that.