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Opinion | Doug Emhoff and the Second Gentleman Effect

“We always tell girls, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see,’ but we need to understand that the same is true for boys,” said Liz Plank, who found that when she interviewed hundreds of men for her book “For the Love of Men,” many wanted to upend their fathers’ tired definition of masculinity but could not come up with public examples of men who had done so. “It’s just as important for them to see men in support positions as it is for girls to see women in leading positions,” she said.

That would be a win for anyone in a support role. Lacey Schwartz Delgado, an award-winning filmmaker who is also a congressional spouse, said she struggles with the reality that raising 7-year-old twins with her public-servant, scheduled-to-the-nines husband has meant her own career must often be adjusted. “We always celebrate stepping forward, so when you step back you can feel like a failure,” she said. “It’s too bad it takes this, but when you see men making that choice too — to take on child rearing, to make sacrifices at work, to give their time to their spouse, it’s powerful. It helps say that that choice is one to be proud of.”

It would help even more, of course, if our policies said so too. The United States trails the developed world in its cruel lack of family leave measures and subsidized child care — a status quo based on the antiquated assumption that an unpaid female caregiver is always on hand to care for a baby, sick child or parent. This combination of factors has been devastating during the pandemic, especially for Black and Latina mothers, who are more likely to be breadwinners than their white peers but who also have been driven out of the work force at higher rates — a dual whammy that underscores our crisis of care.

And here’s where I find myself dreaming about how else Mr. Emhoff could make a difference in his new role. Second spouses traditionally have portfolios of work. If he were to take on caregiving as an issue, he would upend gender norms even further by embracing a subject that affects all of us yet is almost exclusively discussed by women. And who better than the man in the “girl dad” sweatshirt to lobby for paid family leave?

In doing that, he’d also demonstrate allyship. Jamia Wilson, an activist and the former publisher of the Feminist Press, relishes the significance of a white man stepping back to support the career and vision of a Black, South Asian, second-generation-American woman. “Part of being an ally — which I’ve experienced myself in my marriage to a white man — is, how are you going to not just love me, but show up for my community?” she said. “I go back to how Kamala always says she will be first but not last. So what is he going to do to make sure she is not the last?” Supporting the next generation of milestone makers, she said, would be a beautiful thing.

It would. But of course, Mr. Emhoff is not the protagonist here — that would be the vice president, and whatever she needs from him will define his role. “Nobody can do the job of vice president or president without having someone to cry to, vent to, laugh with,” said Kati Marton, whose book “Hidden Power” surveyed 12 presidential marriages. “His main role is to be what so many wives have been over the millennia: a really great support to his spouse.”

Accomplishing that would be enough. Showing other men how it’s done — even better.

Cindi Leive (@cindi_leive) is a co-founder of the media collective The Meteor and a former editor in chief of Glamour and Self.

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