Joseph Epstein, writer, former lecturer, and holder of the prestigious title of BA in absentia, recently opined in the supposedly esteemed Wall Street Journal on an important issue during these times of crisis: the use of the “Dr.” honorific by Jill Biden, wife of U.S. President Joe Biden. Providing his unsolicited but clearly expert advice, Mr. Epstein urged her to “drop the Dr.” before her name, arguing that no one should call themselves by such a title unless he (my emphasis) has delivered a child. To clarify, the word doctor comes from the Latin docere and means “to teach.” Dr. Biden earned an EdD from the University of Delaware and teaches at Northern Virginia Community College.
Mr. Epstein’s vitriolic op-ed displays a closeted level of misogyny that has manifested itself during these past four years. He opens with a patriarchal and patronizing flourish when he refers to the 69-year-old Dr. Biden as “kiddo.” Mr. Epstein likely invoked Dr. Biden to generate headlines – and was successful in doing so. Fortunately, most of those headlines have been negative, save for a conservative subset of the population that eagerly latches on to these issues to decry the erosion of a society subsumed by political correctness, subtly revealing their own masculine insecurities in the process.
Mr. Epstein’s work reflects and perpetuates the overall minimization of women who hold advanced degrees and are employed in the world of academia. These women frequently face the blatant dismissal of their education, qualifications, knowledge and well-deserved titles, and are mired in a societal mindset that suggests their work and accomplishments are secondary to their marital status and motherhood.
These are the women who are statistically more likely to earn doctorates than men, yet less likely to receive tenure and more likely to receive less pay when they do so. They include people like myself, my colleagues and friends; women who have spent years passionately conducting research, writing and teaching, and in many cases doing so while “life happened.” That includes going through health struggles, multiple jobs, marriages, divorces, children, deaths, and ordinary familial responsibilities, just as Dr. Biden did.
I am writing from the perspective of a woman who has advanced degrees and, like many of her female colleagues, has found herself in unnecessary, awkward and at times frustrating situations. By students, I have been referred to as sassy, have been asked my age, and have had my looks and clothing commented on in front of my class. I have observed that while men have been referred to as Dr. so-and-so, I am referred to by my first name. I have listened patiently while others speak of their work, yet have been conveniently interrupted when I speak of mine.
For women, the inconsistencies are glaring. I have found myself refraining from mentioning my PhD to strangers for fear of alienating them, minimizing it in front of family for fear of appearing too career-oriented, and questioning whether or not I should even include it in my social media platforms for fear of receiving backlash if I appear “too feminist.”
My male colleagues are wonderful, but I know few who have had these experiences or have felt this way. At times, I envy their unapologetic embrace of their professional titles, and the unabashed touting of their accomplishments, ones which may be lesser than my own. As women, we are socialized to minimize our accomplishments, and it is time for a grand finale to that outdated mentality.
As a Dr. writing this article, and as a daughter of immigrants who is proud of the values her parents instilled in her, that she could do anything she set her mind to and that she should be proud of her accomplishments, I am going to reiterate the importance for us, as women, to embrace those accomplishments, big or small, academic title or not. We need to tout them when necessary, and encourage and applaud other women for doing the same.
If Dr. Biden wants to refer to herself as such, it is her choice. In embracing that title wholeheartedly, she will serve as a positive role model for girls everywhere. In her words, “Together, we will build a world where the accomplishments of our daughters will be celebrated, rather than diminished.”
Editor’s note: for the record, University Affairs uses the honorific “Dr.” in second and subsequent reference for anybody with an earned doctorate degree, i.e., Jill Biden in first reference and Dr. Biden after that.
Dr. Diana Cucuz is an instructor in the history department and the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University.