Dr Jill Biden: meet the ‘Philly girl’ first lady

The US president’s other half is also a community college teacher, cancer research campaigner and grandmother

Joe and Jill Biden exit on Air Force One after flying into RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk
Joe and Jill Biden exit on Air Force One after flying into RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk
(Image credit: Joe Giddens/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Being first lady of the United States is undoubtedly time-consuming but Jill Biden has made clear that she won’t be giving up her pre-existing responsibilities any time soon.

The teacher, grandmother and long-time cancer research advocate is in the UK with her president husband this week for the G7 summit in Cornwall and is also due to meet the Queen at Windsor Castle on Sunday. But despite her busy schedule as first lady, the doctor of education is continuing her professional career during her husband’s presidential term - a decision that has been met with both praise and criticism.

Speaking to Stephen Colbert on The Late Show in December, she expressed her “surprise” at a controversial article by Joseph Epstein in The Wall Street Journal advising her to “drop the ‘Dr’ before your name” and “settle for the larger thrill of living for the next four years in the best public housing in the world”.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

That she has ignored this advice is unlikely to come as a surprise to those who followed her stint as second lady during Joe Biden’s vice-presidency, between 2009 and 2017.

While residing at the VP’s official residence, Number One Observatory Circle in Washington D.C, Jill carried on teaching as professor of writing at the city’s Northern Virginia Community College, a role that she still holds today. “Teaching is not what I do. It’s who I am,” she tweeted in August last year.

Lady of learning

Jill Biden, née Jacobs, was born in the New Jersey town of Hammonton on 3 June 1951, but spent her childhood in Willow Grove, a northern suburb of Philadelphia. The eldest of five daughters, she described herself as “that girl from Philly” - a label that “if you’re from Philadelphia”, you know means she’s “down-to-earth, but also tough”, Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor at New Jersey’s Rutgers University-Camden, told Vox.

The future first lady married her first husband, Bill Stevenson, in 1970 before going on to study at the University of Delaware. She graduated with a degree in English in 1975, the same year that she and Stevenson divorced.

After a stint as a high-school English teacher, she completed a master’s degree in education specialising in reading at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, and then a master’s of arts in English from the state’s Villanova University.

Following years working in community colleges, as well as a psychiatric hospital, she was also received a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Delaware in 2007.

Johnsons and Bidens

The Johnsons host the Bidens in Cornwall

For better or for worse

The 44-year marriage between Joe and Jill “hasn’t always been a straightforward fairytale romance��, Vogue noted during the former’s stint as VP. His first wife, college sweetheart Neilia, and one-year-old daughter Naomi were killed in a car accident in 1972. His sons Beau and Hunter were also in the car but survived.

The future US leader met Jill three years later, according to the White House - although her first husband told the Daily Mail last year that he suspected she had cheated on him with Biden, with the alleged affair dating back to at least August 1974. Stevenson claimed that he and his then wife had first met Biden while working on his campaign for Senate in 1972.

But those claims have been refuted by multiple sources, who say the future White House residents first met in 1975 on a blind date set up by the president’s brother.

The couple married in 1977, although the then-senator had to propose five times before she accepted. Their daughter, Ashley, was born in 1981.

Tragedy struck in 2015, however, when Beau Biden died from brain cancer. The politician’s son had battled ill health for years, suffering a stroke in 2010 and undergoing surgery to remove a legion from his brain three years later, shortly before being diagnosed with cancer.

Reflecting on her marriage in her 2019 memoir Where the Light Enters: Building a Family, Discovering Myself, Jill wrote that “we have had our hearts wrung and broken”, but added: “One thing in my life has stayed the same: Joe and I have always had each other.”

Triple challenge

During her time as second lady, Jill began “tackling a traditional trio” of causes comprising cancer prevention, the military and education, says Philadelphia Magazine.

The Obamas and the Bidens eat breakfast together on campaign trail 2008

The Obamas and the Bidens eat breakfast together on the campaign trail in 2008
(Image credit: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images)

Having established the Biden Breast Health Initiative in 1993 to educate girls about breast cancer, in 2016 she helped launch the Cancer Moonshot initiative, a national coalition of cancer researchers. The initiative has “yielded rapid progress in the understanding, detection, and treatment of cancer”, reports The Lancet, which is joining calls for the now president to launch Moonshot 2.0 in order to “expand and amplify this progress”.

The first lady has also authored a children’s book, Don’t Forget, God Bless Our Troops, which was published in 2012 and encourages support of people serving in the military and their families.

And the seasoned educator has long championed the role of community colleges in America’s education system. She hosted the first White House Summit on Community Colleges during Barack Obama’s presidency, and as honorary chair of the College Promise National Advisory Board, advocated for making the first two years of college “as free and universal as high school”.

Taking centre stage

As well as continuing her work for the causes she took up as second lady, along with her teaching job, Jill has spent her first few months as first lady visiting Covid-19 vaccination clinics and healthcare centres across the US, to support for the country’s healthcare workers.

She is also facing calls to help stamp out the Trumps’ legacy in the White House, with more than 79,000 people signing a petition asking her and second gentleman Doug Emhoff to “restore” the famous Rose Garden to its former pre-Melania design.

All the same, as a familiar face in US politics, Jill “hasn't received an overwhelming amount of media attention in the same way some of her predecessors did”, says USA Today.

But “compared to previous first ladies, she’s off to a fast start” , historian Myra Gutin, a professor at New Jersey’s Rider University, told the newspaper. “This is not Jill Biden’s first rodeo - she really does know what goes on at the White House because she had a front-row seat to the first lady's role.”

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.