How Two First Ladies Weathered a Most Unusual Presidential Transition

The incoming first lady was arguing with her husband about whether she could keep working as an English professor, bucking concerns that it would be too much for her to handle. The outgoing first lady had taken to wearing terry cloth bathrobes during the day and sorting through an office aides referred to as her “swag room,” a locked room filled with key chains, crystal bookends and other trinkets from her time at the White House.

The winter of 2021 was a most unusual transition period for Jill Biden and Melania Trump, two first ladies who have pushed the boundaries of a much scrutinized, frequently criticized and often underestimated role in American politics.

As Dr. Biden worked toward becoming the first woman to keep a career while first lady, her predecessor, Melania Trump, was in Washington completing a similarly unorthodox (though drastically different) tenure. Over four years, Mrs. Trump showed how pretty much every aspect of being first lady, which carries no salary and no formal job description, is optional.

In nearly every way, the two women are a study in contrasts: Dr. Biden shaped the role in a way that allowed her to preserve her career and identity, while Mrs. Trump spent four years flouting many of the expectations about what a modern first lady should be.

In the process, they expanded the possibilities for the first spouses who follow them.

This year, during what is already a combative presidential campaign, the two women — and their influence over their husbands — will again become a focus of enormous public interest.

‘The third rail’

For Dr. Biden, becoming first lady was the honor of a lifetime. It just wasn’t her day job.

In the weeks after her husband won the presidency, Dr. Biden’s path back to the classroom at Northern Virginia Community College — she’d taken a leave of absence to help her husband campaign — was rockier than publicly known. She had told reporters during the campaign that she planned to continue teaching. But behind the scenes, she was still working to quell her husband’s concerns.

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