On Dec. 11, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed titled, “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.” degrading the incoming first lady, Dr. Jill Biden. Written by Opinion and Commentary writer Joseph Epstein, its contents were pretty atrocious from the start, subtitled: “Jill Biden should think about dropping the honorific, which feels fraudulent, even comic.”
Epstein condescends to Dr. Biden by calling her a variety of names, each more egregious than its predecessor and ending with the atrocity “kiddo.” He suggests dropping the “Dr.” before her name despite her Ed.D., or doctorate of education from the University of Delaware, and he gibes at her dissertation.
Epstein then turns the focus to himself, listing his credentials. He has a bachelor’s degree in absentia from the University of Chicago, he’s taught at Northwestern University for 30 years and he has an honorary doctorate.
He contends that the many times he was referred to as “Dr.” denoted him “bush league” in comparison to those in the social sciences and humanities who instead included the initials Ph.D. for their doctorate of philosophy following their names, implying that the use of the title by nonmedical doctors cheapens the honorific. While the explanation of his personal experience is meant to support his point that he is undeserving of the title, the section still feels boastful because he asserts that Dr. Biden should follow in his footsteps by not using it.
Epstein argues that the Ph.D. is losing its prestige due to a relaxation of university education standards. “Getting a doctorate was then an arduous proceeding,” he writes. “Dr. Jill, I note you acquired your Ed.D. as recently as 15 years ago at age 55, or long after the terror had departed.” He later says that her degree may have been hard-earned, but it feels quite disingenuous following that blow.
The article finishes with an appeal to Dr. Biden to drop the title and insinuates that her position as the incoming first lady is much more thrilling than her degree.
Northwestern responded with a statement separating the university from the former lecturer. “While we firmly support academic freedom and freedom of expression, we do not agree with Mr. Epstein’s opinion and believe the designation of doctor is well deserved by anyone who has earned a Ph.D., an Ed.D., an M.D. or any other doctoral degree.” The statement declared Epstein’s views as “misogynistic” which fails to adhere to the school’s dedication to equity, diversity and inclusion.
Many jumped to Dr. Biden’s defense, including former first lady Michelle Obama through an Instagram post praising her accomplishments, as well as Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who tweeted, “This story would never have been written about a man.”
Dr. Biden responded to the article indirectly in a tweet: “Together, we will build a world where the accomplishments of our daughters will be celebrated, rather than diminished.”
Northwestern hit the nail on the head by titling the article misogynistic, which was clear from the start. It’s not only the content of the piece, but the tone Epstein uses. He patronizes her in the first sentence of the op-ed by stating, “Madame First Lady — Mrs. Biden — Jill — kiddo” and later furthering this name-calling with “Dr. Jill.”
While one could argue that the debate over which academics should use the honorific is age-old and Dr. Biden’s degree makes her an example in that conversation, there was absolutely no need to degrade her as Epstein did. We see benevolent sexism creep in with the gross use of “kiddo,” and he once again belittles her by inappropriately referring to her by her first name rather than by her surname.
It’s small but intentional; there’s a tendency to call professional women by their first names or first and last names while men are referred to by only their last names. Kamala Harris isn’t just Harris, but Joe Biden is most frequently called Biden and Mike Pence is just Pence.
Studies from psychology researchers at Cornell University explored gender bias in naming, concluding that it perhaps relates to the conceived “maleness” of surnames, which are more frequently passed from men to women and from father to child. Doctoral student Stav Atir asserted that the inclusion of first names signifies a woman in a male-dominated field. Chair of psychology Melissa Ferguson said that the first or full name phenomenon may undermine a woman’s prominence because it implies she isn’t as well-known.
And honestly, it’s pretty bold to downplay someone else’s doctoral credentials and the difficulty of the accomplishment with only an honorary doctorate that did not require academic work. It’s a baseless and unfair criticism to attempt to discredit something you didn’t undergo yourself; I’d call that arrogance, but perhaps that’s just me.
Then, there’s the deriding conclusion: “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.” Her work to earn the title of Dr. Biden is a significant feat and her valuable education is important, not just her role because of her relation to her husband.
Emhoff made a good point: The article would not have been written about a man. The pompous scrutiny of her title is rooted in sexism and misogyny. It’s unlikely that such a story would have centered around a man. Even if Epstein wrote an opinion piece bashing a man with a doctorate of education, it might not have had the same flavor with the name-calling. And unfortunately, the article is yet another example of the unique criticisms that women in the spotlight constantly face.
Dr. Joseph — Mr. Epstein — Joe — kiddo: Forget the small thrill of diminishing Dr. Biden and settle for the larger thrill of respecting the accomplishments of women.