Biden's Barrier-Breaking Cabinet Brings a Historic New Group of Political Spouses to D.C.

"Men are doing what women have always done, just as women are doing what men have always done," says Dan Mulhern, husband to new Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm

Vice President Kamala Harris embraces her husband Mr. Doug Emhoff Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, during her first visit to her West Wing Office at the White House
From left: Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and Vice President Kamala Harris . Photo: Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

With the appointment of a barrier-breaking new Cabinet comes a new class of political spouses in Washington, D.C. — some of the most visible of whom are men.

A recent New York Times piece focuses on these husbands, who are taking on what has historically been a role for women.

Among them is Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, married to Vice President Kamala Harris, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg's husband, Chasten Buttigieg.

While male spouses of female politicians are far from new, they are arguably more visible than ever before, thanks to Emhoff's role as the first-ever second gentleman and the sheer number of historic hires in the Biden administration, starting with Harris, the first woman vice president as well as the first Black or Asian person in the role.

In spite of the spotlight from their husbands' and wives' new jobs, the incoming crop of political spouses seems altogether ... ordinary. Chasten, for instance, is furnishing the couple's new D.C. home with Facebook Marketplace finds, according to the Times.

The normalcy isn't all that surprising, say some male political spouses, when you consider their partners.

"It's really pretty simple,” Dan Mulhern, husband to new Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, told the Times. “Men are doing what women have always done, just as women are doing what men have always done."

Connie Schultz, a celebrated columnist whose husband is Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, had this perspective: "We're having these conversations now because men are becoming recognized in their spouse role. Which is also frustrating when you're a woman and have been doing this for quite some time."

Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and husband Dan Mulhern
From left: Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and husband Dan Mulhern. Shutterstock

Mulhern, 63, is no stranger to the role of political spouse — both confidante and cheerleader — having served as Michigan's first first gentleman during his wife's tenure as the 47th governor.

In a post on the Michigan website while his wife was in office, Mulhern explained why he chose the "First Gentleman" moniker.

"I chose this title for a few reasons. First, other male spouses had already claimed the fun names: first hunk, first dude, and first coach," Mulhern wrote, adding, "Seriously, I learned from my Irish grandmother's repeated instructions, that gentleman meant something, and most important it meant that you showed respect to ladies, and a special fidelity to your lady."

Mulhern continued: "I am proud and humbled to serve my wife. As 'first lady' connotes a respect for her husband and her governor, it seems like 'first gentleman' is an appropriate mirror image that conveys respect to the leader of the state."

Pete Buttigieg and Chasten Glezman
Pete (left) and Chasten Buttigieg. KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty

Chasten, 31, first came to prominence when his husband, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, launched a presidential campaign in the 2020 race. Pete went on to win the Democratic Iowa caucuses, becoming the first openly gay candidate to do so.

The two met on a dating app in 2015.

"I think a lot of the articles are like, 'They met on Hinge, fell in love. Chasten is the teacher, Pete's the politician,' " Chasten, who had taught middle school, told PEOPLE last year. "There's a lot in there about the heartaches that led me to Pete."

"It wasn't like, Well there are rainbows and butterflies," he continued. "It was acknowledging to someone: 'I think I'm kind of broken in all these different ways.' Peter helped me put the pieces back together."

Chasten became his own presence on the campaign trail, often stumping for his husband and subsequently releasing a memoir, I Have Something to Tell You, last September.

Now in D.C., he's considering his future and growing wistful, it sounds, for his previous role — telling the Times he's trying to "figure out if [teaching] is something I can return to."

Chasten is also aware of the attention: "I don't know that it's necessarily available for me to just disappear."

He's settling into his life in Washington with help from Emhoff, a friend. The two were recently spotted grabbing coffee in D.C.'s Lincoln Park neighborhood.

"Sometimes," Chasten told the Times, "you just need to get out of the house and check in with somebody."

Emhoff, a former entertainment attorney who left his firm ahead of the presidential inauguration, has seemingly been adjusting to his new role in stride.

In recent remarks to reporters during an appearance to tout President Joe Biden's COVID-19 economic relief plan, Emhoff said much of his new role as second gentleman has been to educate himself.

"So it's not just going to the library and the national galleries — it's also taking advantage of the experts in administration, learning issues, so when I'm out here advocating, I know I'm up on the issues. So I'm taking it very seriously, I'm putting a lot of time into it," Emhoff, 56, said at a March appearance.

He has also added a new title to his resume: educator. In December, he was announced as a new instructor at the Georgetown University Law Center, where he is teaching a two-credit course for the spring semester titled "Entertainment Law Disputes."

Earlier this month, Emhoff admitted to reporters that some of his students think it's a little strange that their professor is married to the vice president.

"Look: It's odd the second gentleman is their teacher. But we kind of dispensed with that ... maybe five minutes in the first class," he said.

Kamala Harris and Douglas Emhoff
From left: Kamala Harris, husband Doug Emhoff and Joe Biden. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

He has also told reporters that he and Harris chat about their days over dinner each night. The fact that both are attorneys makes it easy to discuss things like his job at Georgetown.

"We at dinner [will ask each other], 'How was your day?' ... We talk about it. I talk about how it's going, how I'm trying to reach the students and how they're responding to me," Emhoff said earlier this month.

As second gentleman, Emhoff has been busy making official stops to highlight policies of the new administration or to simply show his wife support. (He recently honored International Women's Day by making a stop at a giant crocheted mural depicting his wife's face.)

But he's made clear his hope to remain largely on the fringes when it comes to actual policy-making, fulfilling the same sort of role that second ladies before him have.

"I am honored to be the first male spouse of an American President or Vice President," Emhoff wrote on Twitter shortly after his wife took office. "But I'll always remember generations of women have served in this role before me—often without much accolade or acknowledgment. It's their legacy of progress I will build on as Second Gentleman."

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