So last Friday, Joseph Epstein — yep, the guy who thinks we were better off when WASP men ran everything — has written a Wall Street Journal column lamenting that Jill Biden thinks her PH.D entitles her to be called doctor: “Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo: a 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.”
Epstein then goes on to say that he “taught at Northwestern University for 30 years without a doctorate or any advanced degree,” but was repeatedly addressed incorrectly as “doctor.” Um, okay, but how is this relevant to whether Dr. Biden, who does have a doctorate, should be called doctor? Why does he complain that honorary doctorates are handed out too freely — again, this has nothing to do with Biden, whose doctorate is not honorary (someone suggested online that Epstein assumed it was, then when he learned differently couldn’t be bothered to rework the article)?
In fairness to Epstein, this is not a novel idea: I remember reading articles back in the 1980s saying that it wasn’t appropriate for a Ph.D. to call themselves a doctor; that should be reserved for medical doctors. Then again, IIRC most of my college professors with PhDs were doctors, or professors. And I doubt Epstein would be writing to tell Dr. Henry Kissinger this. Nor would he address Kissinger as “kiddo.” According to one of his former students, he is a sexist ass in class.
Which leads to the point Monica Hesse and Libby Ann both make, that women use these titles precisely because men like Epstein, and people who are much less sexist, don’t give women their due. In situations where they’d address a man as “doctor,” they’ll address a woman as “Jill” or “kiddo”; even female doctors deal with this. As Libby Ann puts it, “we live in a world where men are granted authority automatically, but women have to claim it. In that world, a man who drops formalities and goes by his first name risks far less than a woman who does the same.”
Professor Debbie Gale Mitchell said on Twitter that she gave her students the choice of calling her Debbie or Dr. Mitchell, until one of them asked if she’d ever get her Ph.D.: “I discovered that for me, the use of my title is VITAL to remind students that I am qualified to be their professor.” As I said a few years ago, white male achievement is never doubted the way POC and women’s accomplishments are.
Or consider Ben Shapiro. He’s referred to Sebastian Gorka online as Dr. Gorka, but Dr. Biden? ROFL: “If you’re at a dinner and somebody introduces himself as ‘Dr. Smith,’ you’d be rather upset to learn that he had a doctorate in musicology if you were to suffer a stroke at the table.” What, does Shapiro think people plan their strokes based on the assumption there’s a doctor in the house? As Hesse says, “nobody is worried that if a pilot gets on the intercom and asks, ‘Is there a doctor on this flight?’ Jill Biden is going to leap from her seat and try to perform a tracheotomy.”
Perhaps, the point, as Hesse says, is in Epstein’s concluding advice that Dr. Biden should just forget about her personal achievements and revel in “the larger thrill of living for the next four years in the best public housing in the world as First Lady Jill Biden.” Isn’t being Mrs. Biden more important than personal achievement? Or as Libby Ann points out, now that increasing number of women are gaining Ph.Ds, maybe men are starting to devalue them, the same way salaries go down when a job becomes predominantly female.
Either way, Epstein fails to convince.