Substance over style: how will we define the second gentleman? 

by WSNXT Team

 

“You may be the first, but you better not be the last”, the words Kamala Harris recalls her mother telling her, are also the words Doug Emhoff has taken very much to heart as he settles into his new role as Second Gentleman. In an article he wrote for GQ, published the day before Harris was inaugurated as VP, Emhoff said “I want that to be true of me, too. I may be the first Second Gentleman, but I know I won’t be the last.” His confidence in his wife’s legacy is steadfast. His own work, a sign of things to come as more men follow in his footsteps. 

This position, for so long held by women only, will be Emhoff’s to define in his own way and it asks the question, what will we see him do? Will we see Emhoff’s fashion choices crown him as the stylish ‘SG’? Will we get up to the minute commentary on his footwear? Or will no one care what he wears? Let’s hope not.  

There are many questions. The largest of which revolves around the notion that women are so frequently seen as ‘second’ or in the background of many public-facing roles that when it is reversed, the narrative stops short, unsure where to go, perhaps. Emhoff’s sartorial choices probably won’t be picked up on, although his dad dancing did get a light ribbing back in 2019. Oh, do leave the man alone! 

 

Dr Jill Biden, on the other hand, had her own doctorate brought to the fore and highlighted during the election campaign, when she felt the need to defend her title after an op-ed piece questioned its validity (she’s a Doctor, and so uses Dr, naturally). Not one soul has questioned Emhoff’s work as an entertainment lawyer. His dad dancing though, that’ll hit him where it hurts. 

Emhoff, a Brooklyn native has already stepped down from his job at DLA Piper Law Firm, where he was a litigator and partner and, moving forward, will teach as a professor at Georgetown University Law Centre. But, his duties won’t end there and something tells us that this second gentleman will relish every opportunity to fulfil his role in the wings, as Madam Vic President settles into her Historic appointment as VP. 

 

Flying the flag of support means changing the narrative 

A famously supportive spouse, Emhoff is not shy in showing his support, the rhetoric of which has been gift tagged by the world as a ‘supportive husband’. His Twitter feed is awash with Harris and her work so far. If we need to start setting examples, this is a good start.  

Then there are the other second gentlemen. Not just on the political stage, where there are many to note, but as a collective, in business, entertainment, tech, what do these gentlemen do and how is their work defined around the leading lady in the relationship? We so rarely ask the question or require an explanation for what they do or don’t do, it seems now, we will get the chance to see an example set on the world stage.  

Without wishing to trivialize the conversation, there are so many examples of the second gentleman, struggling with female power, fictionally speaking, that it will be refreshing to see a real-life persona, approach the role with an open perspective. We’re reminded of Erin Brockovich, yes, the woman made famous by Julia Roberts in the award-winning film. Erin, a single mother with the epitome of a can-do attitude starts work for a law firm, the hours of which and the dedication she puts into it, leaves a somewhat bitter taste for stay-at-home boyfriend, Aaron Eckhart. (Can you tell I’ve recently watched this?). Then there is the Nancy Meyers written and produced, The Intern, in which Anne Hathaway plays Jules, whose success within her own e-commerce business leads her husband and his inferiority complex to cast a shadow over Jules’ achievements, seeking to get his kicks elsewhere. Meyers writes so brilliantly for women and with such warmth and humour, this script goes to highlight the awkward dynamic of the second gentleman, among many other things. In film, it needed depicting, in real life, it needs resetting, and this is where Emhoff steps in.  

And it’s not just the role of the husband/partner as the second in command, but reflecting a level playing field when everyone is the first spouse, that doesn’t pit one person's career over another. Former Zalando boss, Rubin Ritter, who was co-chief executive of Europe’s largest online fashion site, made waves as he stepped down from his role, declaring that his wife’s professional ambitions were now the priority. Ritter himself will be dedicating more time to his family. It could be interpreted that Ritter had to step back for his wife, a judge, to be able to take a leap forward but let’s not be cynical here. When two people in any relationship are leaders in their respective fields, a certain amount of career ping pong is likely to ensue with the demands of family life at the centre. It is worth noting that Mrs Ritter’s name is nowhere to be seen, but then this may be intentional due to her career. One does wonder though.

 

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Team spirit: working towards the bigger picture 

In the campaign prior to the election, Emhoff reflected that he asked the question “how can I help the team?” And this is so significant. The role of the second gentleman in this huge context is not about defining one's own agenda but helping to fortify the team. His work getting to understand what was required of him shows an understanding and appreciation of Harris’ power and position. Not to be overshadowed, but supported. 

Jacinda Ardern, Angela Merkel, Oprah Winfrey, Queen Lizzy (I can call her that, I’m British), Ursula von der Leyen, what do they all have in common? Aside from making Forbes ‘power list’ they are leading women, numero uno, leading in their fields, championing causes, running countries, founding businesses. They are changing the game. There is also a second gentleman, sat, in the wings. We rarely see them, but we know they’re there. 

We’ll have to wait to see if Mr Kamala Harris becomes a fashion icon for men around the world, or the poster boy for charities he chooses to champion, along with the education he’ll be offering out in his new post at Georgetown.

Are we now confronted by our own hypocrisy as we assume what Doug Emhoff will and won’t be required to do? We shall see. One thing is for sure, he is the first ‘second gentlemen’ of many more to come.