Before she was catapulted into the national spotlight when her husband became Vice-President of the United States in 2008, Dr Jill Biden was known to have kept a relatively low profile in her home state of Delaware.
It was only after she had stepped into the upper echelons of the White House that the world was forced to sit up and take notice of the 69-year-old community college professor who has been Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s partner and most trusted political adviser for nearly five decades.
On the second night of this years’ virtual Democratic National Convention (DNC) in August, former Vice-President Biden joined his wife as she stood in the middle of an empty public school classroom in Wilmington, Delaware where she had once taught dozens of students English nearly 30 years ago.
“For all of you out there across the country, just think of your favourite educator who gave you the confidence to believe in yourself. That’s the kind of first lady… Jill Biden will be,” he told the tens of thousands of American voters who had tuned in to watch the event, beamed live on screens across the country.
With weeks to go before the presidential election and almost every major poll predicting a victory for Biden, his statement may soon be put to the test as Jill could be looking at another stint in Capitol Hill, except this time as the first lady of the United States.
The early life of Jill Biden
Born in New Jersey, Jill spent most of her childhood in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania with her four younger sisters and her parents. Her father Donald worked as a teller at a bank, while her mother Bonny was a homemaker.
After graduating from high school, she briefly pursued a degree in fashion merchandising, but ultimately decided to major in English at the University of Delaware. She attended college with her first husband Bill Stevenson, who she later divorced in 1975.
Jill headlined the second night of the four-day DNC, where apart from extolling the many virtues of her husband and urging all Americans voters to elect him as their new president, she also shared her own personal story of love and loss in the intimate speech she delivered from a classroom in Delaware’s Brandywine High School.
“How do you make a broken family whole?” she asked, looking straight at the camera. “The same way you make a nation whole: with love and understanding and with small acts of kindness.”
In 1972, Joe lost his first wife Neilia and their one-year-old daughter Naomi in a devastating car accident. Joe nearly gave up his political career as a Delaware senator to care for his sons Beau and Hunter, who escaped the crash with severe injuries; but was convinced otherwise by a few of his colleagues.
Three years later, he met Jill on a blind date. “She (Jill) gave me back my life,” Joe wrote in his memoir ‘Promises to Keep’ in 2007. “She made me start to think my family might be whole again.” The couple got married in 1977 and welcomed their first child together in 1980.
But in 2015, tragedy struck again when Joe’s eldest son Beau succumbed to brain cancer, leaving behind his wife, Hallie Biden, and their two young children. “My life changed in an instant. All during his illness, I truly believed that he was going to live, up until the moment that he closed his eyes, and I just never gave up hope,” Jill said in an interview with USA Today last year.
But despite all the ups and downs, Jill has resolutely stood by her husband’s side through all three presidential bids (1988, 2008 and 2020), both terms as US Vice-President, as well as a fair share of crippling political scandals.
Jill’s career as an educator
Jill’s career as an educator took centerstage when she became the only second lady in history to hold a full-time job outside the White House while her husband was serving as Vice President under the Obama administration.
Teaching is not what I do. It's who I am.
I'll be giving my convention speech tonight from my former classroom.
Brandywine High School. Room 232. pic.twitter.com/NXx1EkqVGq
— Dr. Jill Biden (@DrBiden) August 18, 2020
She began her career as an English teacher in local public schools and a psychiatric hospital right after graduating from the University of Delaware. Later, she earned two masters degrees — one in reading and another in English — all while working and raising a family with Joe. She taught English composition at Delaware Technical and Community College for 15 years.
As second lady, she worked as a full-time professor at Northern Virginia Community College. When Joe was named Obama’s running mate in 2008, she was known to join her husband on the campaign trail only during the weekends when she wasn’t teaching. Between stops, she would grade papers aboard their campaign bus as it drove through different US states.
“Jill is always grading papers,” former first lady Michelle Obama said during their joint exit interview with People Magazine. “Which is funny because I’d forget, ‘Oh yeah, you have a day job!’ And then she pulls out her papers and she’s so diligent and I’m like, ‘Look at you! You have a job! Tell me! Tell me what it’s like!”
According to a report by the Washington Post, Jill has taken a break from teaching for the first time since 1981 to be by Joe’s side for his presidential campaign this year. But in a recent interview with CBS News, Jill said she has every intention to return to the classroom if Joe is elected.
“If we get to the White House, I’m gonna continue to teach,” she said. “It’s important, and I want people to value teachers and know their contributions, and lift up the profession.”
Her role as Second Lady
Given her vast experience in the field of education, it does not come as a surprise that she was put in charge of an initiative to raise awareness about the value of community colleges in 2009. Later in 2012, during a ‘Community College to Career’ bus tour, she helped promote links between community colleges and local businesses.
During her term as second lady, Jill along with first lady Michelle Obama also came to be recognised as champions for military families. They founded the Joining Forces Initiative in 2011, and made several visits to the Center for the Intrepid, which is a rehabilitation facility for amputees and burn victims in Texas.
Experts say education and benefits for military families are likely to be the two causes she most vocally supports even if she returns to the White House as First Lady after the upcoming election.
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Over the years, Jill has faced ire for consistently defending her husband in the face of some particularly damning allegations. A controversy that reared its head yet again this year addressed Joe’s poor handling of the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, in which law professor Anita Hill accused the then Supreme Court nominee of persistent sexual harassment.
Joe was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time and was widely criticised for allowing Thomas to testify before Hill. He also did not take testimony from three women who offered their own stories about Thomas.
When asked about the controversy in a recent interview with NPR, Jill said it was time “to move on”.
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Jill has also been known to sidestep questions about accusations from several women who claim that Joe Biden touched them inappropriately and made them feel uncomfortable. Jill responded to the allegation by saying her husband had learnt he “needs to give people their space”.
In her recent book ‘Where the Light Enters’, she wrote that the former vice-president came from a “family of huggers”, but added that the women were “courageous” for coming forward with their allegations.
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