On Wednesday, January 20, Dr. Jill Biden became the new first lady of the United States.
A longtime community college instructor, Dr. Biden has made it clear that she believes a college education should be accessible to all. What could this mean for UNC Greensboro and its constituents?
“Given our student body at UNCG, I think we should all be happy that we have an advocate in the White House,” said Dr. Elizabeth “Jody” Natalle, a UNCG professor of communication studies. “She’s on our side. Her advocacy should reinforce the mission of UNCG.”
Natalle has been researching women on the public platform – particularly the persuasive skills of first ladies – since the 1990s. Here, she reflects on what we can expect to see during Jill Biden’s tenure as first lady.
A symbol of American womanhood
The role of first lady does not come with a job description – or a salary for that matter. Still, the position holds tremendous persuasive pull, which is why it is of interest to historians, journalists, and communication scholars like Natalle.
“The first lady holds the most important symbolic position of motherhood and womanhood in the United States,” she said. “That symbolic position has been there since Martha Washington.”
Natalle’s research particularly focuses on their public agendas and rhetorical skills. For these reasons, first lady scholarship has been quiet during the Trump administration; Melania Trump’s Be Best campaign and her work on the opioid crisis did not move far beyond several public appearances. Moreover, her staff was small – half the size of her predecessors, Michelle Obama and Laura Bush.
“Melania Trump is what you would call a silent First Lady,” she said.
Jill Biden, however, has spent a great deal of time on the public platform as second lady. Her active participation in that role and campaigns like Joining Forces means we can expect a productive agenda during the next four years.
“I’m very excited that we’re going to jumpstart first lady scholarship again,” said Natalle.
Her focus on education
Jill Biden teaches English for Northern Virginia Community College, where she’s known as “Dr. B” among her students. Reportedly, she even plans to continue teaching while in the White House.
“Dr. Biden has made it clear that she will have an agenda that encompasses education, military families, and cancer,” Natalle said.
The community college system was founded on the principle that every American should be within driving distance to post-secondary education. Community colleges focus on minimizing barriers and maximizing access, a mission that aligns with UNC Greensboro’s.
“Here is Jill Biden, a representative of a system of education that is designed to reach all Americans,” said Natalle. “She supports first-generation college students, community college to four-year university transfers, and minority education. There’s every reason to believe she will be advocating for a more widespread set of opportunities for young people to go to college.”
In terms of public agenda, the Biden-Harris Administration has already made clear its plan to roll back cuts to public education made by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Moreover, both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have talked about ways to ease college student loan debt.
Yet how much can the first lady affect public policy herself? The U.S. Constitution does not grant first ladies any governmental power, but Natalle explains that they often circumvent this limitation by partnering with someone who can.
“I call this being a co-rhetor, where a first lady will team up with somebody in government,” she said. “They increase each other’s ethos and work together to get the job done.”
Using this strategy, previous first ladies have been able to accomplish a great deal of actual change. Natalle points to the Joining Forces campaign that Michelle Obama and Jill Biden worked on together, a campaign that combined their interests in education and support for military families.
Ordinarily, when moving from one state to another, getting re-certified as a teacher takes quite a bit of time. With Joining Forces, the first and second lady collaborated to enact certification agreements for military families across all 50 states, so that when families moved from one state to another, their board certifications automatically transferred.
The campaign by the first and second ladies made a real impact. The Military Times reported that by 2016, 1.25 million veterans and spouses had been employed, or were a beneficiary, of these certification transfers.
So it is clear that first ladies can indeed enact real change, despite their lack of a job description or legislative power. Natalle anticipates that Jill Biden will be just as active as first lady … though she may have to lessen her teaching load.
“I don’t see how she could physically continue to teach full time – maybe one course a semester.”
Story by Elizabeth Keri, College of Arts & Sciences
Jody Natalle portrait by Jiyoung Park, University Communications
Additional photography, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons