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The relatable toughness of Jill Biden

“I’ll always be that girl from Philly”: The would-be first lady, explained.

Jill Biden speaking at a podium bearing a “Biden New Hampsire” sign.
Jill Biden speaks during a rally for her husband’s presidential campaign at the New Hampshire State House on November 8, 2019, in Concord, New Hampshire.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

At a February campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire, a protester tried to rush the podium where Joe Biden was speaking.

What happened next was captured in a video that quickly went viral: Jill Biden entered from the opposite side of the stage, blocked the protester with her own body, and ushered him away so her husband could continue.

The former second lady later joked about the event on Twitter, with a nod to the fighting spirit instilled by her Philadelphia-area upbringing.

The moment showed a lot about Jill Biden, at least as she’s presented herself publicly over the many years of her husband’s political career: She’s scrappy, independent, and willing to defend the ones she loves — physically, if necessary.

In a video introduction to her speech at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night, she recounted an incident from her childhood in which she found out about a bully at her sister’s school: She marched up to his house and “punched him right in the face.”

The speech itself showed a different facet of her personality: As she stood before the classroom where she once taught English — now empty due to Covid-19 — she spoke movingly of the tragedies American families have suffered and their fears about sending their children back to school amid a pandemic. “As a mother and a grandmother, as an American, I am heartbroken by the magnitude of this loss, by the failure to protect our communities, by every precious and irreplaceable life gone,” she said.

But here, too, her strengths were on display: her ability to relate to ordinary Americans and to link the personal challenges her family and others have faced to broader national issues. “Jill’s very present and relatable,” Erin Cassese, a political science professor at the University of Delaware, told Vox.

“She’ll go on a podcast and she’ll have a conversation about what it means to be a good mother,” she said. “She’ll slide that into questions about the administration, but it really helps people connect to her and connect to their broader story as a family.”

The next few months will test Jill Biden’s strengths as her husband faces off against Trump — and, potentially, a renewed round of questions about his past. But whatever happens, Jill seems determined to forge her path as a potential first lady: one in which she supports her husband without ever losing sight of her own identity.

An educator, Jill has always had her own career separate from her husband’s

Jill Biden was born in New Jersey in 1951 but grew up in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. She’s referenced her Philly roots a number of times on the campaign trail, tweeting earlier this week that she’ll “always be that girl from Philly.”

“If you’re from Philadelphia, you know what that means,” Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor at Rutgers University-Camden and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, told Vox. It means she’s down-to-earth, but also tough. “Philly’s known for throwing snowballs at Santa at the Eagles game,” she explained. “We’re not that precious.”

Jill Biden left Pennsylvania to attend the University of Delaware, and once there, she modeled for local advertisements, as Jada Yuan and Annie Linskey report at the Washington Post. Joe Biden, then a young senator who had lost his wife and baby daughter in a car crash some years before, saw one and apparently wanted to meet her. As luck would have it, his brother had her number.

Jill’s reaction to Joe Biden’s call, she tweeted recently, was, “How did you get this number?”

But the two began dating and married in 1977 after he had proposed to her five times (for the sake of Biden’s young sons, who had lost their mother, she has said, “I had to be sure it was forever”). Her teasing tweet is emblematic of her public approach to their marriage — like Michelle Obama, who used to joke about President Obama’s morning breath, she’s never been one to put her husband on a pedestal, Dittmar said.

Nor has she given up her own career to support his. Since early in their marriage, Jill Biden has worked as an educator, both at the high school and college level. She earned her doctorate in education in 2007 — a process that took 15 years as the Bidens raised three children, according to the Post — and has taught at Northern Virginia Community College since 2009. She kept teaching throughout her husband’s time as vice president, making her likely the first second lady to hold a paying job while her husband served.

She has also said that she will continue teaching if Joe is elected president, and though she’s taken time off during the campaign, she’s undergone training to teach remotely at her college during the pandemic, the Post reports.

And her long career as an educator is helping her connect with Americans, many say, at a time when teachers, families, and administrators are wrestling, often painfully, with what school should look like during a pandemic. In her speech on Tuesday, she spoke powerfully of “the anxiety that echoes down empty hallways” and “the frustration of parents juggling work while they support their children’s learning or are afraid that their kids might get sick from school.”

When Jill Biden talks about missing the “scent of new notebooks or freshly waxed floors” at the start of a new school year, it’s not just another politician talking about the problems of schools. She has “this gravity around these issues and part of it is based in her experience,” Cassese said.

Jill is an extremely effective surrogate for Joe

Overall, even when Joe Biden was vice president, Jill was known for “having her own independent career and perspective, and so not necessarily fitting the overall traditional norm” of the political spouse whose main job is supporting her husband, Dittmar said.

At the same time, Jill clearly does support Joe — sometimes to the extent of getting in physical altercations. She’s physically blocked a protester from reaching him not once but twice this campaign season, earning her the title of “protector-in-chief” from some media outlets.

And as the campaign progresses, “one of the things that she does really well is she drives home his positive traits.” Perceived personal traits — things like honesty and relatability — matter a lot to voters, Cassese said.

And for Jill and Biden, “one of the personal traits that she’s driving home is his empathy,” Cassese said. “All of his proxies are doing that, but she puts a very personal and close spin on it.”

That empathy, as Jill and others close to Biden have emphasized, is hard-won. A major tenet of his campaign is that his personal losses — the deaths of his first wife and baby daughter, and the death of his son Beau in 2015 from cancer — help him understand the struggles of ordinary Americans in a way someone like President Trump never can. Without ever mentioning Trump, Jill Biden made the connection between her family’s tragedy and the nation’s collective pain explicit in her speech on Tuesday.

“How do you make a broken family whole?” she asked. “The same way you make a nation whole: with love and understanding and with small acts of kindness.”

“I know that if we entrust this nation to Joe,” she continued, “he will do for your family what he did for ours: bring us together and make us whole, carry us forward in our time of need, keep the promise of America for all of us.”

This campaign is a new test for both Bidens, but Jill has a lot of preparation

Campaigning for Joe Biden isn’t just about speaking to his strength or empathy. Jill Biden has also been asked about some of her husband’s perceived negative traits, and may have to do so more as the campaign progresses.

The former vice president has faced allegations by multiple women that he kissed or touched them in ways that made them uncomfortable, and by one woman, Tara Reade, that he sexually assaulted her. Biden has denied the assault allegation and, in response to the others, said that while he was accustomed to offering a hug or a touch on the shoulder as “gestures of support and encouragement,” he would change his behavior in response to shifting “social norms.”

Jill Biden has not addressed the Reade allegation, but in response to the others, she said in a CBS interview, “I think it was a space issue,” adding, “Joe realized that and learned from it.”

The allegations have received less attention recently as some have raised questions about Reade’s account and “as the Democratic Party coalesces around Biden,” Cassese said. But Trump, who invited women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment and assault to a 2016 debate against Hillary Clinton (and who has himself been accused of sexual misconduct by more than 20 women), is likely to bring the issue up. “It’s certainly something that’s going to be unescapable once we get further into the debates,” Cassese said.

Of course, the allegations are against Joe Biden, not Jill, and the fact that she, running mate Kamala Harris, and other women involved with the campaign could be called to answer for them is a symptom of a broader problem with American politics and culture, as The Cut’s Rebecca Traister has noted: “The damage often inflicted by sexual power abuses extend far beyond those who have been abused to others who are reliant on those accused of abuse — whether as employees, dependent economically; family members, dependent emotionally and economically; or voters, dependent politically.”

Whether or not Joe Biden’s history with women becomes a major issue in the election, though, one thing is clear: Jill Biden has always carved out her own life and identity, in partnership with her husband but also independent from him and his career. That independence could, in some ways, make her a more effective surrogate.

Democratic voters — including men — are growing more concerned about the outsized power of white men in politics. And given that there’s a white man at the top of the Democratic ticket now, women elsewhere in the campaign, including Jill, are especially important. Having a potential first lady who can communicate “those qualities of independence and strength” could be a major asset, Dittmar said.

Having her own life could stand Jill in good stead, too, both personally and professionally, if her husband does win the White House. She has reportedly worked with the campaign on education policy, and it would be a natural fit, many say, for her to work on education issues in some capacity as first lady. At the same time, if she does continue her own teaching, she’ll have a role in educating America’s students during an unprecedented time, and one that’s not about her husband or his job. “She does have this role that she wants to keep playing and this job that she wants to keep doing,” Cassese said.

“I have always loved the sounds of a classroom,” Jill Biden said in her speech on Tuesday night. “The quiet that sparks with possibility just before students shuffle in, the murmur of ideas bouncing back and forth as we explore the world together, the laughter and tiny moments of surprise you find in materials you’ve taught a million times.”

In some ways, Jill has been where she stands now a million times before — when her husband ran for president before in 1988 and 2008, when the two campaigned with the Obamas, and when she served as second lady for eight years. And though the current challenge promises to bring surprises — not all of them good — she’d likely be the first to tell Americans that she’s strong enough to meet them.

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