When Kamala Harris is installed as Vice President of the United States, she will represent many “first” women: first woman vice president, first black woman, first of indigenous origin. But there is another landmark that will be exposed: that of your family.
As Harris steps into this unprecedented role, watched by those closest to him, millions of Americans will see an expanded version of the American family looking back on them – one that could expand rigid ideas about family dynamics or gender roles. politically acceptable.
Harris’ family is ready for this moment. Her niece, Meena Harris, already wears an “Auntie Vice President” t-shirt. Her stepdaughter, Ella Emhoff, who studies art in New York City, intended to knit a costume for the occasion (she opted for a dress). Kerstin Emhoff, the mother of Harris’ stepchildren – yes, Harris and her husband’s ex are friends – might carry a bunch of sage in her purse: she’s sure the Capitol needs a cigarette.
And, of course, Harris’ husband Doug Emhoff will be there – a proud and supportive husband, the vice-presidential wife will likely take photos of the woman, making her debut as the country’s first second gentleman (and now on Twitter’s profile to prove it).
For women, public family life is often important in a more crowded way: it is a way to compensate for the perception of “hardness” that female politicians tend to carry. As Susan Douglas, professor of communications at the University of Michigan, explains, emphasizing motherhood can “soften the image” of a policy that must talk about, say, war or suing people to do so. his work.
These expectations may mean that there isn’t much room to escape a narrow definition of family – which makes the Harris family – Emhoff even more meaningful.
“It’s remarkable,” said Ralph Richard Banks, a law professor at Stanford University who has written on race, gender and family norms. “In some ways, they are at the forefront of different aspects of American families and their evolution.”
Some might say they reflect the situation of Americans. Today, the number of couples who have an interracial union is about 1 in 6, a number that, along with interfaith marriages, has been increasing since 1967, according to the Pew Institute.
Harris, the daughter of an Indian and a Jamaican immigrant, was brought up with Christian and Hindu practices, while her husband, who is white, attended a Jewish summer camp – during her wedding, Harris a participated in the Jewish ritual of breaking a cup.
She was over 40 when they married – older than the average age of first marriage for women nationwide, although the number continues to rise.
Emhoff divorced, with two children from the previous marriage, which placed them among the 25% who do not live with both biological parents, according to the Census Bureau. Harris had no children. Many Americans do not, as fertility rates have hit an all-time low in recent years. She has said on several occasions that being “Momala” for her stepchildren was her “most important” role.
“People have more options,” Banks said. “It is a change for the whole of society, but it is often not so visible in positions of power.”
Large and mixed family
In her acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention in August, Harris spoke about her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, an immigrant who came to California as a teenager with the dream of being a cancer researcher and raised Kamala. and her sister, Maya, after she left, divorces the girls’ father. For most of Harris’ life there were only three. When Maya got pregnant at 17 and had her daughter, Meena, he was four years old.
“My grandmother and aunt were second mothers to me,” said Meena Harris, 36, who celebrates her birthday on the same day as her aunt. (Maya Harris, like Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff, declined to be interviewed for this report.)
In that speech, Harris said that family is not just blood, but “the family you choose”. It includes her best friend, Chrisette Hudlin, at whose wedding she announced her candidacy for the post of Secretary of Justice and of which she is a godmother. It was Hudlin who introduced her to the “funny and nice” entertainment lawyer who would become her husband.
Doug Emhoff was born in New York and raised in New Jersey and a suburb of Los Angeles, sons of Barb and Mike, a housewife and shoe designer who recently founded the group “Grandparents for Biden” on Facebook.
For 16 years he was married to Kerstin Emhoff, with whom he had Cole, 26, and Ella, 21, whose names pay homage to John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald.
As Kerstin Emhoff says, marriage was pretty traditional: Doug took care of the finances, she did the housework. Both worked full time. “It was part of our bond – we were two passionate professionals,” Kerstin said.
The kids were in elementary and middle school when their parents separated and Doug Emhoff moved to a nearby apartment. They alternated for weeks at their father’s house – calling themselves “Palazzo Team” because of the condo’s name, learning to do the things their mother always took care of for themselves.
Doug Emhoff is expected to become the first male member of the White House’s reduced spouses group – a role that has no job description, salary or formal duties.
Traditionally, the first and second ladies played the role of hostesses: decorating the house for the holidays, organizing lunches, sending family recipes annually to a magazine for the “First Lady’s Cookie Contest”.
Many First and Second Ladies have also focused on more robust work and specific policies: in recent years, they have turned to children’s literacy (Laura Bush), healthy eating (Michelle Obama) and families of children. military (Jill Biden). Melania Trump has launched a “Be Better” campaign aimed at curbing bullying.
But the unwritten rules remain, like “stay within reach”. Eleanor Roosevelt, who was instrumental in the New Deal negotiations, heard that she should “limit herself to knitting”, and that sentiment persisted.
Laurel Elder, professor of political science at Hartwick College and co-author of the book “American Presidential Candidate Spouses”, called it “the new traditionalism”: the idea that Americans prefer wives active and visible by supporting their partners (the new part), but who do not deviate from their secondary roles (the traditional part).
“Although women do everything today, people’s expectations of the president’s and vice-president’s wives are very traditional,” she said. “Americans are very divided over whether to have a profession – and they really don’t want them to be political advisers.”
Jill Biden and Karen Pence continued to teach while their husbands were vice presidents – and as first lady, Jill Biden will be the first to hold a full-time job.
His vice-presidential colleague, Doug Emhoff, gave up his professional career as an artist’s lawyer. It’s a bit more complicated than a purely feminist act – we wondered if your work could present conflicts of interest – but at the same time it can be seen as either totally conformist or absolutely radical, according to Elder.
“To see a man take on this role is surprising, exciting and a bit disorienting because it challenges very old ideas,” she said.
When the Harris-Emhoff “big mixed family”, as Ella Emhoff has described it, reunites this week, it will be everyone’s first reunion in over two months.
The last time was election week, at a Delaware home where the news was all over the screen, and Harris repeated – at least at first, “That’s great, isn’t it? You don’t like being here “Don’t you like being here all together?”
They were distracted by games, karaoke, food – and eagerly awaited the official results of an election that would project their family unit to a higher level of visibility. “One night it became a party, everyone danced,” said Cole Emhoff.
In other words, one family together – waiting for the story to happen.
The life they previously knew will cease to exist on Wednesday (20), but they will try to maintain some normalcy. Doug Emhoff and Kamala Harris are the only immediate family members who will be living in Washington at all times. Sunday lunches – a family tradition that happens today thanks to Zoom – will continue, but in the new Harris feature, you might have less time to prepare your famous stuffed peppers.
Doug Emhoff will continue to be “Doug” to his children – a habit they learned when they were young that would be hard to change now.
Harris is still “Momala” to his step-sons and “aunt” to his nieces, nephews and godchildren. And Meena Harris has learned not to try to call her aunt “Kamala”.
“She turns her head quickly and says,” My name is my aunt, I won’t admit you calling me Kamala! “”
Either way, she has a new name, according to Meena Harris: “Ms. VP Auntie”.