Despite being the United States’ Second Lady for eight years, Dr Jill Biden has managed to keep a fairly low profile. Donna Fleming takes a look at the new First Lady and what makes her tick.
It’s not the sort of behaviour you’d expect from a woman who has ended up becoming the First Lady of the United States.
Back when Dr Jill Biden’s husband Joe was vice president, she was early to board Air Force Two to fly to an event in California, and as she walked down the aisle of the empty plane, she decided to have a bit of fun.
A keen prankster since childhood, she squeezed herself into one of the overhead lockers. Thanks to being small, slight and flexible (years of ballet barre classes paid off) she was able to scrunch herself into the space and pull the door closed. Then she waited patiently for the team of White House staffers to board.
“When the first person opened the bin to stow his roller bag, I popped halfway out and screamed, ‘Boo!’ – although it was hard to get it out through my laughter,” recalls Jill. “Still, my surprise had the intended effect; this poor soul let out a high-pitched shriek and stumbled backwards into his seat, a look of utter shock on his face. The others burst out laughing as I very ungracefully tumbled the rest of the way out of the bin.”
This is typical of 69-year-old Jill, say her family and friends. She takes her role as a politician’s wife – and her work as an English professor – extremely seriously but, when appropriate, likes to inject a bit of humour into life. Other pranks have included leaving a plastic rat on the podium when Joe was speaking at a rally in 2008 and sneaking into his office to paint love hearts on the windows one Valentine’s Day.
“I’ve always believed you’ve got to steal joyful moments when you can,” she writes in her autobiography Where the Light Enters. “Life is difficult, and if you sit around waiting for fun to show up, you’ll find yourself going without it more often than not. If I can make Joe laugh by something as silly as hiding under the bed and popping out when the lights are off, why not?”
I’ve always believed you’ve got to steal joyful moments when you can
Despite being married for 43 years to a very high-profile man, up until now Jill has achieved the remarkable feat of mostly staying under the radar. That’s largely due to the fact she’s a self-confessed introvert who has admitted that, given a choice, she would prefer not to be in the public eye. She was so successful in maintaining a low profile when she was second lady, and still teaching English composition at a community college, that most of her students had no idea she was married to the second most powerful man in the land.
Her Secret Service agents dressed like students and blended into the background; her name wasn’t on the teaching list and on the first day of class she’d tell her students to call her “Dr B.” Once, a student sidled up to her and whispered, “I know who you are, and no one else here does.”
Jill replied, “That’s right. And we’re going to keep it that way.”
What most people do know about Jill is that she is Joe Biden’s second wife. His first, Neilia, was killed in a car accident along with their 13-month-old daughter, Naomi. Their sons Beau, then three, and Hunter, two, survived.
Joe has said that Jill, “gave me back my life. She made me start to think my family might be whole again.”
It’s also common knowledge that Jill has four degrees – a Bachelor of Arts, two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education.
The Wall Street Journal caused a furore in December when it published an opinion piece in which author Joseph Epstein said Jill should drop her doctor title because it sounded “fraudulent, not to say a touch comic”.
He went on, “A wise man once said no one should call himself ‘Dr’ unless he has delivered a child. Think about it, Dr Jill, and forthwith drop the doc.” He also called her “kiddo”.
While her supporters raged about the author’s misogyny and disrespect, Jill made her point more subtly, tweeting, “Together, we will build a world where the accomplishments of our daughters will be celebrated, rather than diminished.”
And in an interview with TV host Stephen Colbert, she said she was surprised by the tone of the article, and being called “kiddo”. “One of the things I’m most proud of is my doctorate. I mean, I worked so hard for it.”
The public is now getting more of an insight into Dr Jill Biden, and those who know her well say she is a strong, smart woman who will make an exemplary first lady.
“She has a backbone like a ramrod,” says her husband. “She is the glue that holds our family together.”
And while her sense of fun is a big part of who she is, Jill is also known for being feisty. Fiercely devoted to her family, she never hesitates to stand up for her loved ones, and woe betide anyone who upsets them. “I remember every slight committed against the people that I love,” she says.
When protesters stormed the stage during a campaign rally in Los Angeles last year, she jumped in front of her husband to fend them off, with no consideration for her own safety. “You’ve got to protect those you love, right?” she later said.
And while she might be naturally quiet, when it’s necessary she will make her opinion heard – or, in one case, seen.
She wasn’t happy when, in 2003, senior members of the Democratic Party turned up at their home to try to talk Joe into running for president against George W. Bush. The Bidens had already decided the time wasn’t right and Jill was furious that Joe was being pressured to change his mind.
“They sat themselves down in our living room and spoke to Joe for hours about how he was the only one who could take on President Bush. Meanwhile I was sitting at the pool in my swimsuit, fuming. My temper got the best of me. I decided I needed to contribute to the conversation. As I walked through the kitchen, a Sharpie caught my eye.
“I drew ‘no’ on my stomach in big letters and marched through the room in my bikini. Needless to say, they got the message.”
Jill’s had this stroppy streak since childhood. At 13, the oldest of five sisters once punched a boy in the face because he bullied one of her siblings.
Jill (née Jacobs) grew up in Pennsylvania, born to parents who came from opposite sides of the tracks. Her dad Donald grew up in a poor working-class Italian family and became a bank teller; her mum Bonny was the daughter of a pharmacist who owned a drugstore. Bonny’s mother wasn’t happy when they married – she was hoping for a better match for her daughter than the son of immigrants.
When Jill was born her maternal grandmother couldn’t hide her disappointment, possibly because her birth was tangible proof Donald and Bonny were in it for the long haul. She berated young Jill with cutting remarks and never showed affection. Jill’s paternal grandmother, however, was a warm and loving woman who was devoted to her family, and Jill has always aspired to be like her.
She was a rebellious teenager who started smoking at 15 (she gave up in college) and used to sneak out of the house at 3am on hot summer nights to break into an exclusive swimming pool complex with a friend and splash around in the dark.
Jill says she’s never grown out of the stubborn determination she developed as a girl. “I still hate being told I can’t do something, though I’ve learned over the years how to stand up for myself rather than lash out in anger.”
I still hate being told I can’t do something, though I’ve learned over the years how to stand up for myself rather than lash out in anger
She studied English at university and, at just 18, married college football player Bill Stevenson. He opened a student bar that became very successful, but within a couple of years they drifted apart and eventually divorced.
Ironically, it was Bill who had brought Joe Biden to her attention. He was a keen supporter of the young lawyer who was running in 1972 to be the junior senator for Delaware, where they were living at the time. Jill, meanwhile, just wanted the big pile of flyers promoting “Joe Biden for Senator” moved off their kitchen table.
When Joe won the election, Bill talked Jill into attending the victory celebration, and although she didn’t have any interaction with the man she’d later marry, she did meet his gracious and beautiful wife, Neilia, and remembers thinking the family had the world at their feet.
A month later, she was driving to her final exams when she heard on the radio that Neilia and baby Naomi had been killed. Jill writes in Where the Light Enters that she pulled into a parking lot and sat there in shock.
“It was profoundly unfair… Joe Biden had had everything, and in a second, it was gone. Even after Joe and I were married, I couldn’t imagine the devastation he had endured, losing so much and still finding a way to keep going. I marvelled at his strength.”
It wasn’t until early 1975 that their paths crossed. Joe, who felt ready for another relationship, saw a photo of a pretty blonde on a billboard at Wilmington airport in Delaware. He pointed it out to his brother Frank, who was there to pick him up, and said, “That’s the kind of girl I’d like to date.”
The blonde was Jill, by then a teacher and occasional model. And as it happened, Frank Biden vaguely knew Jill from university, and passed on her number.
When Joe rang Jill to ask her out, she wasn’t sure about the clean-cut, suit-wearing senator – most of her dates were students who wore bell-bottoms and big sideburns. Plus he was a politician, nine years her senior and the father of two small boys. But she was intrigued, so she cancelled a date she already had planned and went to the movies with him.
A romance developed quite quickly, and despite falling in love with Joe, Jill turned down four marriage proposals before finally saying yes to the fifth. Being married to him would not only mean a life in the spotlight, but becoming a mother to his sons.
She’d also grown to love Hunter and Beau, but was worried that if their relationship didn’t work out – like her first marriage – it would be traumatic for the boys.
“They had endured the loss of one mother already and I couldn’t risk having them lose another. I had to be 100% sure.” But she finally took Joe up on his offer after proposal number five, when he said he wouldn’t ask again.
“I loved Joe. I adored the boys. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing them. Saying yes meant changing the entire trajectory of my life at age 25. On the other hand, saying no meant walking away from three people I had grown to love more than anyone.”
Joe and Jill married on June 17, 1977 at the United Nations Chapel in New York, with Hunter and Beau standing beside them at the altar.
The Bidens have never used the term “step” to describe Jill’s relationship with Joe’s boys. Beau and Hunter always insisted on calling her Mom, while Neilia is referred to as Mommy.
“Whether it’s adoption, divorce, same-sex marriage or any number of iterations of family… people should be able to define their own relationships,” says Jill. “And so that’s what we’ve done.”
People should be able to define their own relationships, and so that’s what we’ve done
Four years after marrying, Joe and Jill had a daughter together, Ashley. Jill says she worried that she wouldn’t be able to parent the children the same because one was her biological child and the other two weren’t.
The relationships were different, but that was partly because she and Ashley bonded over “traditional girl stuff ” that the boys weren’t interested in.
Mother and daughter have always been able to talk openly and honestly. But they also fought more. Jill says Ashley, now 39, would constantly test her, and during her daughter’s teenage years, her solution to their headbutting was to go for a run to calm down. “We argued so much, I became a marathon runner.”
Looking back now, she says she has loved each of her children in different ways, with her love “moving and changing and growing, flowing to where it’s needed and back again. And in the end, though it is uneven, it equals out.”
And she has the satisfaction of knowing the boys never felt they were treated differently to their sister. Hunter, now 51, once told her he never doubted she loved them the same because “you yelled at her just like you yelled at us”.
When Beau died of brain cancer in May 2015, aged 46, Jill, like Joe and the rest of the family, was utterly devastated. She describes her sorrow as “cold and quiet” and says she is still not healed. But along with knowing the power of pain, she now knows the power of compassion.
“My family is broken, but we are still holding on to each other for dear life,” she wrote in her book.
One of the things that has helped her through the difficult times has been her work. Apart from taking a couple of years off when the children were small, Jill has continued to teach as well as being a political wife, and will balance her teaching schedule with a calendar full of events, appearances and interviews as first lady.
Joe has always supported her decision to work and, when he was vice president, she lived a double life, alternating between receptions and official visits as second lady and helping older students at the community college in Virginia where she teaches to open the doors to more opportunities in life. Often that meant marking papers while flying to different parts of the country or changing into a cocktail dress in the toilets at the college before heading to a White House function.
Now, as first lady, she will face those challenges again, and they’re likely to be tougher, with extra demands on her time thanks to her new role as the president’s wife. Jill wants to continue supporting causes that became close to her heart when she was the second lady, such as breast cancer campaigning and helping out military families, as well as being there whenever Joe needs her.
But teaching is not only what she does, it is who she is, and as well as imparting knowledge to students, she wants to do her bit to encourage people to value teachers.
Juggling the two parts of her life is not going to be easy, but if anyone can do it, feisty, smart, determined and compassionate Dr Jill Biden can.