The AtlanticThe Atlantic

Don’t Underrate the Political Spouse

By Liza Mundy

20 Apr 2021 · 10 min read

Of the many images that lingered after the January inauguration of President Joe Biden—the twinkling hand gestures of the poet Amanda Gorman, the rakish eyebrow-waggling of the second daughter, Ella Emhoff—one of the more subtly significant was the scene of Doug Emhoff trying to figure out which side of his wife, Vice President Kamala Harris, to stand on. As the first and second couples moved to ascend the Capitol steps, Emhoff stood to her left; changed his mind and dashed to her right; then sort of bobbled, hesitating, before settling at her left. In an otherwise scripted and sober ceremony, the shuffle injected a spontaneous note as the second gentleman sought his place—not sure quite what that place was.

Welcome to the club, any number of women might have told him. Emhoff joined a long line of female political spouses who have struggled, in a larger sense, to figure out where they should be and what they should do. With a key difference: For wives, the choices have almost always elicited harrumphing from some quarter or another—as the ruckus over Dr. Jill Biden’s use of her well-earned honorific served to remind us. Emhoff’s little side step of uncertainty got raves. “It’s just so cute!” exclaimed Jessica Jones, a viewer who entertainingly narrated the viral moment on TikTok. And she’s right—it was.

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