“There are some things you just can’t replace, and I can’t wait to get back in the classroom,” she recently told Good Housekeeping magazine. The first lady has been anxious to see her students in person after more than a year of virtual teaching brought on by a pandemic that continues to challenge the Biden administration.
After months of teaching writing and English to community college students in boxes on a computer screen, the first lady resumes teaching in person Tuesday from a classroom at Northern Virginia Community College, where she has worked since 2009. She is the first first lady to leave the White House and log hours at a full-time job. A working first lady is a “big deal,” said Tammy Vigil, a Boston University communications professor who wrote a book about first ladies Michelle Obama and Melania Trump.
The nation’s early first ladies did not work outside the home, especially when home was the White House. They supported their husbands, raised children and performed the role of hostess. Some first ladies acted as special ambassadors for their husbands. Eleanor Roosevelt was especially active, traveling around the U.S. and reporting back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose activities were limited by polio. She advocated for the poor, minorities and other disadvantaged people, and began writing a nationally syndicated newspaper column from the White House.
More recent first ladies, like Laura Bush, who was an elementary school teacher and librarian, had stopped working outside the home after having children and were not employed when their husbands were elected. Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama were working mothers who decided against continuing their careers in the White House. Jill Biden, 70, is forging a new path for herself and her successors. The first lady has said she always wanted to be a career woman. She taught at the Virginia community college during the eight years that her husband was vice president and was not about to let the added responsibility of being first lady force her to give up a career she so closely identifies with.
“Teaching isn’t just what I do. It’s who I am,” she says. Women made up nearly half, or 47%, of the U.S. labor force in 2019, according to Catalyst, a women’s workplace advocacy group. Leaders of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions are pleased that one of their own is now in a position to help influence the administration’s education policies and raise the profile of a profession in which many have long felt unappreciated.
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