You’d have to be living under a rock these days to not hear of the absurd op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal by (not Dr.) Joseph Epstein, offering some unwelcome, unfriendly, and profoundly sexist advice to soon-to-be First Lady Jill Biden:
Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo: bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the “Dr.” before your name? “Dr. Jill Biden” sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic. Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title “Student Retention at the Community College: Meeting Students’ Needs.” A wise man once said that no one should call himself “Dr.” unless he has delivered a child. Think about it, Dr. Jill, and forthwith drop the doc.
This piece was striking in many respects, not the least of which is the arrogance of some two-bit retired lecturer who thinks he’s in a good position to lecture the wife of the President-elect on her use of an earned title.
Adding insult to injury, Paul Gigot, the opinion editor of the Wall Street, responding to mountains of criticism about the Epstein piece, bemoaned cancel culture and blamed the outrage on an “identity politics campaign” coordinated by the Biden campaign. Rather than grapple with the very real criticism that the piece was deeply sexist and should not have been published, Gigot fell back on false equivalences—he suggests that saying Epstein’s piece is sexist is just like when Trump says the press is the “enemy of the people” (wut?)—and confused the right to publish with the right to publish without criticism. Epstein had the right to voice his opinion, and Gigot had the right to choose to give him a national platform; and readers have the right to criticize both of them for those choices.
Gigot claims that the complaints about the piece “began as a trickle but became a torrent after the Biden media team elevated Mr. Epstein’s work in what was clearly a political strategy.” I suspect I speak for many other women when I say my outrage over the op-ed had nothing to do with tweets by the Biden media team or campaign representatives. It had everything to do with the feeling that my head was going to explode after reading Epstein’s sexist, condescending, insulting, pointless diatribe because this should not still be happening in the year 2020. Here’s why.
“Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo”
From the opening line, Epstein made clear he planned to condescend to Dr. Jill Biden. His suggestions for how to address her alternately define her only by her relationship to her husband, President-Elect Joe Biden, or with a diminutive more appropriate for a child or perhaps a close friend. This is not random, but rather the reflection of a society in which we routinely do both of those things to women—allow marriage to obfuscate their identity or infantilize them. For centuries, married women had their legal identities subsumed by the identities of their husbands upon marriage—a system known as coverture. The practice of adopting a husband’s surname was an outgrowth of that system, in which married women ceased to have an independent legal existence. While coverture is dead (repealed in a series of statutes adopted between 1850 and 1950), the cultural norms persist. The practice of using Miss/Ms./Mrs. is telling—it signals immediately a woman’s marital status and, most likely, whether she has adopted her husband’s surname. We tend to draw inferences from both of these pieces of information. Why is there no comparable distinction between married and unmarried men? We do not assume that men are changed by marriage, nor that the kind of men who get married are different in kind from those who don’t. Men get to be individuals, married or unmarried, while women do not have that luxury. It is profoundly sexist to suggest that Jill Biden should refer to herself only in ways that define her as a derivative of her husband’s name or title. And in case she didn’t get the message yet, he finishes the op-ed by exhorting her to “Forget the small thrill of being Dr. Jill, and settle for the larger thrill of living for the next four years in the best public housing in the world as First Lady Jill Biden.” What if being herself is the thrill?
Moreover, the suggestion that she might just be “Jill” is not random. This, too, is a well-documented and common sexist practice. Women are frequently referred to by their first names, even when their male counterparts are referred to by or with their last names. One study, for example, looked at speaker introductions and found that male scientists were significantly more likely to be referred to by their surnames than female scientists. (For a discussion of some other relevant studies, read here.) While this may be unintentional in many cases, it often reflects an unconscious bias against women. In a piece that is supposedly about her use of the title “Dr.,” Epstein doesn’t even include her full name without a title as one of his suggestions: Jill Biden. This is not a coincidence.
As for “kiddo”? I have no words for the absurdity of this one (nor Gigot’s suggestion that it must be acceptable because her husband refers to her in that way). This was not a term of endearment. One simply does not refer to adult women in this manner unless intentionally talking down to them.
“‘Dr. Jill Biden’ Sounds and Feels Fraudulent, Not to Say a Touch Comic”
There’s so much packed into this sentence. First, it is not “fraudulent” for a person who has received a doctorate to use the title “Dr.” It’s just not. Dr. Jill Biden received a Ph.D. in Education, a degree she worked hard for and earned as a returning student in her 50s. She has a doctorate degree and is entitled to use the title “Dr.” It’s just that simple.
I can’t say why that might “sound” or “feel” fraudulent to Epstein that she uses a title she has earned, but I think that says more about him than about her. Perhaps he just can’t imagine that a woman would receive the highest degree in her field—or that she would want to be recognized for that accomplishment? Refusing to use women’s titles is another form of rampant and well-documented sexism. Men are routinely given the respect that might come with a title, while women are routinely denied it. If this had nothing to do with gender, we would expect the patterns of title-use to be the same for men and women—but they are assuredly are not. The same study that looked at surname use looked at the use of “doctor” in speaker introductions. The researchers found that women introduced by men were significantly less likely to be called “doctor” than were men introduced by men. This is similar to patterns identified in academia, where male faculty are referred to as “professor” more often than female faculty, as well as in other contexts.
Epstein takes his criticism a step further, though, by labeling it “comic” for her to use the title she has earned. Excuse me for not seeing the comical element.
What is perhaps comical is that while Dr. Jill Biden earned a Ph.D. and teaches at a community college, Joseph Epstein managed to land a teaching gig at Northwestern University with only a B.A. that he himself describes having earned “in absentia” after taking a final exam on a pool table. He laughs about the fact that people have wrongly called him Dr. over the years—assuming, incorrectly, that if he teaches at an elite university he must have a Ph.D. He laughed when people made the same mistake during his tenure as editor of the American Scholar, the magazine of Phi Beta Kappa. Ha ha, he was neither a “Dr.” nor a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Silly you if you assumed that his trappings of academic success reflected that he had done the usual work necessary to obtain them.
But the strange thing is that he finds it funny that people mistakenly assume he has a Ph.D. when he does not AND that it is funny when Dr. Jill Biden correctly signals that she does have a PhD. This is only explained by the next paragraph in his op-ed in which he denounces all graduate education, declaring that while the Ph.D. “may once have held prestige,” it no longer does. He bases this conclusion on his unsupported suggestion that students taking oral exams or defending their dissertations used to cry and need comfort from the department secretary (another sexist trope, while we’re at it) but now they attend something that is closer to a “kaffeeklatsch.” I think faculty and graduate students the world over would be surprised to learn that the Ph.D. no longer has value, though, in typical academic fashion, they might demand some evidence for this devastating conclusion.
“The prestige of honorary doctorates has declined even further.”
Wait, why are we talking about honorary doctorates? Epstein mentions that he once received one—and that the university president who bestowed it upon him was then, in an unrelated occurrence, fired. Captain Obvious then points out that many honorary degrees are bestowed upon the rich “usually in the hope that they would donate money to the schools that had granted them their honorary degrees.” And in case you’re worried that they might still have some value, Epstein insists that any “true honor” is undermined by the fact many slates of honorary degree recipients now include an African-American woman. All told, he claims, “just about all honor has been drained from honorary doctorates.”
Maybe yes, maybe no. But what does this have to do with whether Jill Biden should use the title “Dr.”? Her title reflects a degree she earned not a degree bestowed upon her as an “honor.” Perhaps Epstein doesn’t understand the difference. After all, the subtitle to his piece says she should consider “dropping the honorific.” But the word “honorific” is generally used to describe titles bestowed as a matter of courtesy or respect—not a title signifying that the person has earned the highest degree in their field. Maybe this is just semantics, or maybe it suggests that he thinks Dr. Jill Biden is making a play for respect that he can’t believe she deserves.
Oh, What I Wouldn’t Give for a Good Case of Imposter Syndrome Right Now
No, Joseph Epstein didn’t write these words, but he should have. Across the world, there are wonderful, accomplished people wondering whether they are the “real deal” and whether they have any business doing the thing they are eminently qualified to do—teach, practice medicine, run a scientific lab, preside over a company, or any number of other things people who have worked hard in their field might do all day. Though doing exactly what they have trained to do, they fear being exposed as a fraud, an imposter. This is something many women and people of color will experience—what if, they worry, the doubters were right?
Epstein seems to have whatever is the opposite of imposter syndrome. He managed to teach at Northwestern University, surrounded by people with the highest degree in their fields, without having a comparable educational credential of his own. But rather than surveying the crowd and worrying whether he’ll be exposed as a fraud or imposter, he condemns them for bothering to obtain what he deems a worthless degree. But did he not obtain it because it’s worthless, or is it worthless because he did not obtain it?
Epstein’s comfort in a job for which he was ill-qualified bespeaks an amazing level of white, male privilege. I guess it’s no surprise that he would mock someone who had to work for the positions she has held.
Sexism is No Joke
Paul Gigot seems genuinely surprised that so many people criticized one op-ed. But it was one dismissive op-ed too many for women who face rampant sexism all day, every day, in every walk of life. It is sexism when women are criticized more for their voices than are men. It is sexism their accomplishments are attributed to team effort, while those of men are attributed to the individual. It is sexism when course evaluations use gendered terms to disparage female faculty and when they are evaluated for their looks rather than competence. It is sexism when women are judged as harshly for being too good as not good enough. It is sexism when women who are more qualified than men are not selected for jobs. It is sexism when managers dole out more criticism to female employees than to male ones. It is sexism when women in leadership positions are judged more harshly for missteps and rewarded less for successes. It is sexism when women’s scientific findings are judged as less meritorious than those of men. It is sexism that women are paid less to do the same work. It is sexism that there are more CEOs of Fortune 500 companies named John than who are women.
And it is sexism to dress down a woman for daring to identify herself by her own credentials rather than those of her husband.
Having delivered three children of my own, I meet Joseph Epstein’s definition of a doctor. I prescribe that sexism be canceled.