By Arré Bench Jan. 25, 2021
The norm has always been for women, however accomplished they may be, to play second fiddle to more powerful men in their lives. Now, a new, if somewhat rare, breed of man has emerged, willing to step into those shoes and subvert this gender imbalance.
After last week’s inauguration of US President Joe Biden, America has also found itself with the first-ever woman Vice-President, Indian-American Kamala Harris. Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, penned an article in GQ reflecting on the momentousness of being the person to originate the post of Second Gentleman. Emhoff describes what it was like to leave behind his career as an entertainment lawyer – Harris herself was a prosecutor – when his wife decided to accept Biden’s invitation to join his ticket as Vice-President.
By contrast, the President’s wife Jill plans to continue with her job as teacher, a precedent that she set when Biden was Vice-President and she kept up her own career as Second Lady. Emhoff represents the other side of a coin that has only been minted recently, of the men who stand behind successful women. As more women in the public eye take on leadership positions and demanding careers, a few notable male partners have become vocal about supporting their wives. So unusual is the phenomenon, though, that Emhoff has his own fan following called the #DougHive, who stan him for being an equal partner in his marriage.
While it is heartwarming to see the Bidens and the Harris-Emhoffs in the White House as two couples who actually appear to love each other and try their best to achieve their goals together, it’s not common for women to get the same kind of plaudits for being good spouses. A notable exception is former First Lady Michelle Obama, whom President Barack Obama would regularly credit with helping him build his career and making it possible for him to assume the highest office in the land. Both have candidly admitted that she was against his run for office, thinking of the toll it would take on their young family. Because she carved out her own space and identity apart from her husband, Michelle has since become a popular figure in her own right.
But this is a feat that more ambitious women, from Hillary Clinton to Sonia Gandhi, have found difficult. Although the US has not yet seen a woman head of state, the last general election saw former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nominated against Donald Trump. It was a race that Clinton would eventually lose, despite her decades of experience in public service and government. Like many women who grow in politics, Clinton became prominent through her family connections – namely her husband, embattled former president Bill Clinton. She has since spoken out about having to play the role of a supportive First Lady who baked cookies, instead of stepping forward as an intelligent and forceful – or “intimidating” – policymaker. When her husband was embroiled in a sexual misconduct scandal, she stood by him in public as a pillar of strength and duty.
In India, women are still expected to be responsible for the household and family, no matter how illustrious their career may be.
As the new Second Gentleman makes clear, times have changed since the ’90s — but for Clinton, being perpetually placed in the context of “wife” might have cost her the election four years ago. The norm has always been for women, however accomplished they may be, to play second fiddle to more powerful men in their lives, and this power-by-proxy has often been the only way for them to make use of their talents and affect change. Now, a new, if somewhat rare, breed of man has emerged, willing to step into those shoes and subvert this gender imbalance.
Abroad, women leaders like Harris and Jacinda Ardern have male partners who very publicly put them first. In India, women are still expected to be responsible for the household and family, no matter how illustrious their career may be; Indra Nooyi famously came home to announce her promotion to CEO of Pepsi, and was unceremoniously sent out to buy milk. Women still do the lion’s share of housework if they have similar working hours and breadwinner status with their husbands.
But men like Virat Kohli are paving the way for changed mindsets. The Indian cricket captain faced heavy criticism for taking paternity leave when the Boys in Blue were scheduled to face Australia in a Test series, and had the team not pulled off a spectacular victory, he would surely be facing much worse. Regardless of his responsibilities at work, Kohli was firm about making his family and wife, actor Anushka Sharma, a priority and being an equal partner and parent. He has always spoken out about his deep respect and admiration for Sharma’s work, but is also walking the talk. Like all cricketers, Kohli is a national icon who sets a strong example for all Indian men.
If more men had Kohli and Emhoff’s attitude towards truly embracing their wives’ aspirations, we would surely see a lot more women achieving the success their male counterparts have been afforded for years. Thanks to their efforts, society has pulled back the curtain on male ambition, revealing that it’s really the joint effort of both spouses. We can now hope that Vice-President Harris will also be bolstered in every triumph and failure by her dutiful husband.