Who Was Joe Biden's Mom Catherine "Jean" Biden, Who Profoundly Influenced His Life?

"She would always tell us, 'Without courage you cannot love with abandon.'"

Joe Biden's mother
(Image credit: Andy Nelson)

Joe Biden, the former vice president and Democratic candidate for president in 2020, frequently cites his parents, particularly his mother, as profound influences on his life. Catherine Eugenia Finnegan, later Catherine E. F. Biden (her family called her Jean) was born in 1917; her family hailed from Pennsylvania. She married Joe Biden Sr. in 1941, and Joe Jr. was born in 1942. The family fell on hard times when Joe was younger and the family eventually settled in Delaware, where they continue to reside today. Both his mother and his father played key roles in both his personal and political life, but for different reasons. Jean shows up as an inspirational, supportive figure in Joe's life, and he can be heard quoting her words and actions throughout his political speeches. Jean passed away in 2010—but she's still present in Joe's mind and in his political views.

Jean Biden had important words of advice for Joe.

Jean apparently played a "formidable" role in his upbringing, according to a New Yorker article: "In grammar school, he recalls, a nun mocked him for stuttering, and his mother, a devout Catholic, told her, 'If you ever speak to my son like that again, I’ll come back and rip that bonnet off your head.'" She supported Joey as he worked to overcome a childhood stutter, saying it was “because I was so bright, I couldn’t get the thoughts out quickly enough.”

She had words of advice when Biden's first wife and infant daughter were tragically killed in a car accident. "She told me, 'Joey, God sends no cross you cannot bear.'" When Joe later had political successes, "she was quick to remind me it was because of others." But she also encouraged people (including her son) to let out their emotions. And she had words of inspiration too. She helped Joe campaign for the Senate in 1972, and for the president in 2008. She also joined him on the campaign trail when he was selected as VP.

Jean's family also played a role in Joe's decision not to drink; alcoholism apparently plagued that side of the family. Asked why he was sober, Joe explained, "There are enough alcoholics in my family."

Joe's mother came to live with him after her husband died.

Joe's father Joe Sr. died in 2002, and Jean came to her son with an idea. "She said, 'Joey, if you build me a house, I’ll move in here.' I said, 'Honey, I don’t have the money to build you a house.' She said, 'I know you don’t.' She said, 'But I talked to your brothers and sister. Sell my house and build me an apartment.'" The result was a small cottage on the Biden property from a renovated garage, where Jean lived.

When Joe accepted the VP nomination in 2008 as the Democratic National Convention, he mentioned Jean (who was in the audience), saying, "My mother’s creed is the American creed: No one is better than you. You are everyone’s equal, and everyone is equal to you."

Jean Biden passed away in 2010.

When Jean passed away, she was surrounded by loved ones including her great-grandchildren. "At 92, she was the center of our family and taught all of her children that family is to be treasured, loyalty is paramount and faith will guide you through the tough times. She believed in us, and because of that, we believed in ourselves," the Bidens said in a statement. "Her strength, which was immeasurable, will live on in all of us."

Joe wished Catherine a Happy Mother's Day in May 2020 with a montage of photos:

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And it's clear that he continues to think often about her, 10 years later.

Katherine J. Igoe

Katherine’s a Boston-based contributor at Marie Claire who covers fashion, culture, and lifestyle—from “Clueless” to Everlane to news about Lizzo. She’s been a freelancer for 11 years and has had roles with Cosmopolitan and Bustle, with bylines in Parents, Seventeen, and elsewhere. It’s “I go to dinner,” not “Her huge ego,” but she responds to both.