When Kamala Harris is sworn in as vice-president, on Wednesday, she will represent many firsts in the United States. First woman vice-president. First black woman. First woman of Indian descent.
But there is another milestone that will be on display: that of her family. As Harris ascends to this barrier-breaking role, with her loved ones looking on, the millions of people watching around the world will see a more expansive version of the American family staring back at them – one that could broaden rigid ideas of politically palatable family dynamics or gender roles.
Harris's family is ready for the moment. Her niece, Meena Harris, has been sporting a "Vice President Aunty" T-shirt in the lead-up. Her stepdaughter, Ella Emhoff, an art student in New York, planned to knit a suit for the occasion. (She opted for a dress.) Kerstin Emhoff, the mother of Harris's stepchildren – yes, Harris and her husband's ex are friends – may tuck a sprig of sage in her purse; she is quite sure the US Capitol could use a smudging.
And, of course, Harris's husband, Doug Emhoff, will be there: the proud partner and supportive vice-presidential spouse is likely to be snapping photos of his wife as he begins his new role as the United States' first second gentleman (and now with the Twitter handle to prove it).
People have more choices. That's a society-wide change, but it's often not as visible in positions of power
Family has long been a cornerstone of American values; one of the few things most people can agree on, says the historian Nancy F Cott. It is important in politics, too. First ladies have been found, by sheer likability alone, to have the capacity to boost the popularity of politicians, according to research by the political scientist Laurel Elder.
Political spouses are often described as “humanising” a candidate. And the extended family is powerful, too – with the potential to normalise and even overturn tropes. “You’ve got to remember, people look up to these institutions,” says Chasten Buttigieg, husband of Pete Buttigieg, who became close with Harris’s husband early in the Democratic primary race. “They model so much more than policy.” Buttigieg notes that, as a partner, he can talk about what makes his spouse “funny or charming or loving or special” in a way that others cannot.
For women, a public family life has often been important in a more fraught way: It is a way to offset the perception of “toughness” that female politicians tend to carry with them. As Susan Douglas, a communications professor at the University of Michigan, explains it, emphasising motherhood can “soften the image” of a politician who needs to talk about, say, war or prosecuting people in order to do her job.
These expectations can mean there is not much room to stray from a narrow definition of family – which makes the Harris-Emhoff family all the more significant. “It’s striking,” says Ralph Richard Banks, a law professor at Stanford who has written about race, gender and family patterns. “In some ways they are at the frontier of different aspects of American families and how they’re changing.” Some might say they are reflective of where Americans already are. Today, the number of couples who are in an interracial marriage in the US is around one in six, a figure that, along with the number of interfaith marriages, has been increasing since 1967, according to Pew.
Harris, the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, was raised with both Christian and Hindu practices, while her husband, who is white, grew up attending Jewish summer camp. (At their wedding, Harris took part in the Jewish ritual of smashing a glass.)
She was in her 40s when they married; older than the median age of first marriage for women in America, though that number continues to rise. Emhoff was divorced, with two children from his previous marriage, making his kids among the one in four who do not live with both biological parents, according to the US Census Bureau. Harris did not have children. Many Americans do not, as fertility rates have reached a record low in recent years. She has often said that being “Momala” to her stepchildren is the role that means the most to her.
“People have more choices,” Banks says. “That’s a society-wide change, but it’s often not as visible in positions of power.”
A big, blended family
In her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in August, Harris spoke about her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, an immigrant who emigrated to California as a teenager with dreams of becoming a cancer researcher, and raised Kamala and her sister, Maya, after she and their father divorced. For most of Harris's life, it was the three of them. When Maya became pregnant at 17 with her daughter, Meena, it became four.
“My grandmother and my aunt were second mothers to me,” says Meena Harris (36), who shares a birthday with her aunt. (Maya Harris, along with Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff, declined to be interviewed for this article.) In that speech, Harris noted that family is not only blood, but “the family you choose.” Hers includes her best friend, Chrisette Hudlin, at whose wedding she announced her bid for San Francisco district attorney, and to whose children she is godmother. It was Hudlin who introduced her to the “funny, self-deprecating” entertainment lawyer who would become her husband.
Emhoff was born in New York and raised in New Jersey and suburban Los Angeles, the son of Barb and Mike, a stay-at-home mom and a shoe designer who, more recently, were the founders of a Grandparents for Biden Facebook group. For 16 years he was married to Kerstin Emhoff, with whom he shares Cole (26), and Ella (21), named for John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald. As Kerstin Emhoff tells it, the Emhoffs had a pretty traditional marriage: Doug handled the finances, she did the domestic stuff. Both worked full-time. "That was part of our connection; we were both passionate career people," says Kerstin Emhoff.
The children were in elementary and middle school when their parents split, and Doug Emhoff moved into an apartment nearby. They alternated weeks at their dad’s house – calling themselves the “Palazzo Crew” after the name of his apartment complex, learning to manage for themselves the things that their mother had long taken care of.
Host to the nation
Doug Emhoff is poised to become the first male member of the very small group of White House spouses – a role that has no job description, no salary and no formal duties. Traditionally, first and second ladies have played the role of hostess: decorating for the holidays, presiding over luncheons, submitting family recipes to a magazine's annual first-lady cookie contest. There have been plenty of first and second ladies who have focused on more robust work, and specific policy, too. In recent years, they have turned their attention to childhood literacy (Laura Bush), healthy eating (Michelle Obama) and military families (Jill Biden). Melania Trump started a Be Best campaign aimed at tackling bullying.
But unspoken rules have remained. Namely: Stay in your lane. Eleanor Roosevelt, instrumental to brokering New Deal policy, was famously told she should "stick to her knitting", and that sentiment has endured. Elder, a professor of political science at Hartwick College and coauthor of the book American Presidential Candidate Spouses, calls it the "new traditionalism": the idea that Americans prefer spouses who are active and visible in support of their partners (the new part) but who don't veer outside of their supporting roles (the traditional part). "Even though women are now doing everything, people's expectations for presidential and vice-presidential spouses are very traditional," she says. "Americans are very split on whether they should even have a career – and they really don't want them being a policy adviser."
She will whip her head around. She's like, 'My name is Auntie, and I will not have you calling me Kamala!'
Both Jill Biden and Karen Pence continued to teach while their husbands served as vice president – and, as first lady, Jill Biden will become the first one to maintain a full-time job. Her vice-presidential counterpart, Emhoff, has given up his professional work – taking a permanent leave from his job as an entertainment lawyer. It's slightly more complicated than a purely feminist act – there were questions about whether his job might present a conflict of interest – but it can simultaneously be read as either utterly conformist or absolutely radical, Elder says. "To see a man take on the role is surprising, thrilling, and a little bit disorienting since it challenges long-held assumptions."
When the "big, blended" Harris-Emhoff family, as Ella Emhoff has described them, gathers this week, it will be the first time they've all seen each other in more than two months. The last time was the week of the election, gathered at a house in Delaware, where the news was on every screen, and Harris kept saying – at least in the beginning: "This is great, right? Don't you love being here? Don't you love all being together?"
They passed the time with games, karaoke and food – and waited, anxiously, for the official results of an election that would catapult this family unit to a greater level of visibility. "There was one night that just turned into a dance party," Cole Emhoff says.
In other words, just a family hanging out – hoping for history to be made. The life they knew before will cease to exist in just a few short days, but they will try to maintain some normalcy. Doug Emhoff and Kamala Harris are the only members of the immediate family who will live in Washington full-time. Sunday dinners – a family tradition that now takes place over Zoom – will continue, though Harris may have slightly less time to make her famous chiles rellenos in her new role.
Doug Emhoff will remain "Doug" to his kids – a habit they picked up when they were young and has gone on too long to stop now. Harris is still "Momala" to her stepchildren and "Auntie" to her nieces, nephews and godchildren. And Meena Harris has learned not to experiment with calling her aunt "Kamala." "She will whip her head around. She's like, 'My name is Auntie, and I will not have you calling me Kamala!'" She's got a new name, anyway, Meena Harris says: Madam VP Auntie. – New York Times