First came Joseph Epstein’s Wall Street Journal opinion piece, which suggested Jill Biden — who refers to herself as Dr. Jill Biden and holds a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware — should “drop the doc” from her title. Then came the swift backlash.
After the op-ed was published Friday night, women who hold a doctoral degree as well as those in the process of earning one took to social media to widely criticize the piece, calling it sexist and misogynistic.
Epstein began the article by addressing Biden as “kiddo,” and offered his unsolicited advice to her: “Any chance you might drop the ‘Dr.’ before your name?” he wrote. “‘Dr. Jill Biden’ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.”
Biden, who holds two master’s degrees along with her doctorate, is a long-standing English professor at Northern Virginia Community College. She plans to continue teaching during her husband’s presidency — a momentous departure from past first ladies, none of whom has maintained a full-time career while in the White House.
Epstein’s reasoning for urging Biden to drop the honorific was that she is not a medical doctor, and therefore isn’t deserving of the distinguished title. He further contended that he himself refuses to be called “Dr.,” despite receiving an honorary doctorate during his teaching career at Northwestern University. (Northwestern issued a statement about Epstein over the weekend.)
Dana Gary-Pathare, a 37-year-old who holds a doctorate in chemical engineering, said she was appalled by the article, though not surprised. “We are always questioned or challenged as to whether we’ve really earned the credentials to carry the title,” she said. “I see it happening all the time, and it never really happens to a man. No woman with a doctorate is unfamiliar with that kind of condescension.”
On Sunday, Biden appeared to respond to the article in a pointed tweet: “Together, we will build a world where the accomplishments of our daughters will be celebrated rather than diminished,” she wrote.
Former first lady Michelle Obama also weighed in on Monday, writing on Instagram: “Right now, we’re all seeing what also happens to so many professional women, whether their titles are Dr., Ms., Mrs., or even First Lady: All too often, our accomplishments are met with skepticism, even derision.”
Many women with doctorate degrees agreed. They said Epstein’s column laid bare a common experience by underscoring the belittlement and doubt often cast upon women in academia. In response, some started putting their academic credentials in their social media bios over the weekend.
Felissa Luque-Gonzalez, 42, earned a doctorate in education — the same degree as Biden — in educational leadership and policy from California State University at Northridge. Throughout her education and career, she said, her credentials have been doubted and depreciated.
For her, the prejudice is compounded: “Being Latina, there are very few of us in the field. People treat me differently,” she said.
“The article felt personal,” she continued. “A man I worked with who has his PhD would refuse to call me doctor, but he called himself doctor.”
The dichotomy between men and women with the same professional degrees is one Anne Terese Powell knows well. Terese Powell, 39, holds a doctorate in toxicology. Her husband holds one in molecular biology.
“It is very common for me to be referred to as ‘Mrs. Powell,’” she said. Her husband, on the other hand, is often called Dr. Powell without question.
“Even though I have the same credentials as my husband, I am not treated the same — professionally or socially,” Terese Powell said.
In his opinion piece, Epstein demeaned the stature of doctorate degrees on the whole. “The Ph.D. may once have held prestige, but that has been diminished by the erosion of seriousness and the relaxation of standards in university education generally, at any rate outside the sciences,” he wrote.
Historically, the Dr. title has been applied to both qualified academics and medical practitioners alike. In fact, the Latin origin of “doctor” comes from the word meaning “teacher,” as Merriam-Webster pointed out. According to federal statistics, it typically takes nearly six years to earn a doctoral degree from a U.S. graduate school.
Megan Janasiewicz, 37, took particular issue with that aspect of Epstein’s piece: “That is what is most aggravating to me; the way the author wrote about the relaxation of standards,” she said. Janasiewicz earned a doctorate in higher education at the University of Georgia as a part-time student, which allowed her to work at the same time. She said the degree took her seven years to complete.
As she put it: “We fought tooth and nail to get these credentials, only to hear it equated with an honorary degree.”
Susan Cummings, 61, a medical doctor in D.C., said she is proud to share the Dr. designation with Biden, as well as with others who hold a doctoral degree.
“I don’t think my opinion is unique with regard to how MDs feel about PhDs,” she said. “We respect their effort, and we don’t own the title of doctor.”
Plus, she added, “They work hard. It’s a commitment.”
As a first-year history doctoral student at Yale University, Molly Harris, 24, believes the article has raised a necessary conversation.
“There are institutional inequities in academia, and they often fall along the lines of race and gender,” she said. “It shouldn’t go under the radar that women, non-binary people and people who are not White are treated with less respect.”
Kate Kafonek, 28, a doctoral candidate in criminology who will complete her degree in the spring at the University of Delaware, agreed.
“I stand with Dr. Biden and all the women PhDs,” she said. “This makes me even more determined to finish my dissertation and graduate. Our resilience is more powerful than any man attempting to devalue our professional achievements.”