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President-Elect Joe Biden will be sworn in on Inauguration Day, Wednesday, January 10th, 2021 in Washington DC to become the 46th President of the United States. When he is, his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, will become the First Lady. Dr. Biden has become used to a designation like this, as she was the Second Lady of the United States for 8 years, from 2009-2017. Dr. Biden is a professor of English, and was a full-time teacher during her previous stint in the White House, a job she plans to continue when she returns, this time as First Lady.
The First Lady: A Brief History
While there is no designation for a "First Lady" in the Constitution, the role of the woman closest to the President has been recognized since the days of Martha Washington. Most often a wife, but sometimes a daughter or other close female relative, the original role of the First Lady was as a hostess, managing the social life of the President. Since the term of "President" is an elected title, not an inherited one like "Duke" or "Baron," the wife of the President did not have a designated title to go with it, like "Duchess" or "Baroness." Martha Washington was referred to as "Lady Washington" as a sign of respect and an acknowledgment of her husband's authority and the tradition stuck.
The role and responsibilities of the First Lady changed with the times, based on what was considered acceptable for a female public figure to do, and the woman herself who held the title. First Ladies generated a lot of attention and respect, so they were sought after by charities and other organizations which needed funding or political support. First Ladies would also champion causes that aligned with their husbands' political agenda, though with a humanitarian goal. Because of this, the First Lady is considered to be an extension of the President in the eyes of the government, so her staffing needs come out of the yearly budget intended to run the White House.
In recent years, the goals and projects undertaken by the First Lady have reflected less on what her husband does and more on her. As Second Lady, Dr. Biden was a huge champion of community colleges, since, as a professor at a community college, she knew how essential community colleges can be for young people looking to earn a degree. As First Lady, Dr. Biden will have even more resources to advance a pro-education agenda in the White House. While Dr. Biden's decision to keep her job while her husband is in office is historic, even Michelle Obama put her career on hold and threw herself into First Lady duties full time, Dr. Biden is actually the tenth teacher to hold the title of First Lady. Let's take a look at some of the other First Ladies who had a career in education.
Abigail Filmore: The First Teacher
Wife of Millard Filmore, Abigail was a teacher at both public and private schools for over a decade before she married her husband. Notably, she kept teaching after they married, which at the time was uncommon, until their first child was born. Abigial was only First Lady for 3 years, but in that time, she was able to expand the White House Library with a curated collection of books.
Grace Coolidge: The Teacher Who Raised Awareness
Though known to history for her enthusiastic participation in social events at the White House, Grace Coolidge chose not to be the champion of any one cause, and famously did not give public interviews. Instead, she made the White House itself her passion project, overseeing a restoration and a refurnishing to both modernize and bring historical significance to the building. Thanks to Grace, the White House is thought of as both the President's residence and office as well as a living museum. As a teacher, Grace worked with deaf children, and at the time, there was a fierce debate among educators whether learning sign language or lip reading was the superior method. Grace, a proponent of lip reading, did not want to use her political influence to affect this debate. Because of her decision, American Sign Language is still a vital part of deaf education in the United States today. Plus, her status as a public figure meant that deaf education as a whole received national attention without any controversy.
Laura Bush: The Front-and-Center Teacher
Before becoming a wife and mother, Laura Bush was a teacher and a librarian. When her husband, George W. Bush, entered public office, Laura Bush used her status to advance the cause of education, particularly reading education, however she could. As First Lady of Texas and then as First Lady of the US, she devoted much of her time to creating programs and advocating for education reform. During her 8 years in the White House, she launched the "Ready to Read, Ready to Learn" early education initiative, founded the National Book Festival, and became an honorary ambassador for the United Nations, meeting students all over the world and encouraging the education of women and girls to multiple governments. She also raised awareness for many humanitarian efforts to elevate the status of women and girls around the world.
Thanks to these women and many others, the role of the First Lady can be both very challenging and extremely rewarding. The educators of Best Brains believe that "Dr. B," as her students affectionately call her, is ready to add to the legacy of the role!