On December 11th, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by Joseph Epstein, titled “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.” that received a generous amount of feedback, to say the least. In his piece, he referred to the future First Lady as “kiddo.” He also indicated that her professional title, Dr. Jill Biden, as fraudulent and comedic. As you can see, the overall tone of the piece was misogynist, demeaning, and disrespectful.
Dr. Jill Biden has been an American educator for over three decades. She is not just a wife, mother, or grandmother. She also is certainly not your “kiddo.” Dr. Biden received her undergraduate degree at the University of Delaware in 1975. She went on to earn a master’s degree from West Chester University and Villanova University. Lastly, Dr. Biden earned her Doctorate in Education from the University of Delaware in January of 2007. Her dissertation was titled, “Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs,” and focused on maximizing student retention in community colleges, which Epstein called unpromising.
Although people are not fainting and passing out anymore to receive their doctorates like was mentioned in Epstein’s article, it does not mean they are meaningless, or those doctorates have not been earned. While earning my undergraduate degree in Media Studies at the University of Virginia, I worked on my thesis for two years and stayed up many nights to get it done. I cried a few times from stress during the progress, but I pushed through.
Most of all, I gained a deep appreciation and respect for my professors and the professionals that have pursued this path. I received a small glimpse of what it is like to do the work to earn a Ph.D. or a doctorate, and I can assure you that it takes a lot of time, dedication, commitment, and sacrifice.
It is clear from the title and the tone of the article it was structured in a way to grab readers’ attention. Epstein wanted a reaction. He wanted his opinion on Educational Doctorates and the prestige of doctorates to be heard. But is this an excuse to be misogynist and sexist in the process? Is it also an excuse for him to undermine her work on maximizing student retention in community colleges?
No, it is not.
Additionally, would Joseph Epstein have said the exact same things if Dr. Jill Biden was male? Do you think he would have written this piece that specifically mentions Dr. Biden if she was not going to be the First Lady of the United States?
I have a feeling that the answers to these questions would also be no.
Of course, academia and institutions need to be critiqued and questioned. Research and dissertations are allowed to be critiqued and questioned as well. However, this opinion piece is not the way to do so. I doubt that we should be simply listening to the wise man that said no one should call himself “doctor” unless he has delivered a child. It is 2020, not the 1700s.
Also, if we want to get technical here, the word doctor is actually derived from the Latin root verb “docēre,” which means “to teach.” The term was originally used by a select few theologians. It was not until the 14th century that physicians began calling themselves doctor. In the Renaissance qualified academics and medical practitioners both used the term. Both can rightfully claim the title of doctor.
Epstein claims that asserting advanced degrees titles within humanities and social sciences are now pathetic, bush league, and meaningless. He tries to begin a larger conservation within higher education. But his language and use of Dr. Biden to “introduce” his point make it clear that he has never had to think of the value and significance of these titles and the work to earn them from the perspective of a woman. What bothers me the most is that the article was clearly written from a place of male privilege.
Historically, women have been denied opportunities to receive an education, and in many countries around the world, they are still denied that opportunity. Women were mostly excluded from attending college in the United States until the 19th century. The University of Virginia, where I attended, did not even begin full coeducation until 1969.
Additionally, women still face discrimination, harassment, and gender biases in academic spaces today. Several studies have been done in university settings that document gender biases against women in teaching evaluations. A recent study conducted by Emily Khazan, a Ph.D. candidate in ecology at the University of Florida, demonstrates the tendency of female professors and teachers’ assistants (TA) to receive more negative reviews than their male counterparts due to students’ perceptions and gender biases.
In Khazan’s study, she split her virtual asynchronous online class of 136 students in half and assigned the students to a male TA or female TA. What the students in the class did not know was that Khazan was posing as both the male and female teachers’ assistants. In the study, out of the six negative evaluations reported in the study, five of them were for the female TA. This means that the female TA was given five times as many negative reviews as the male TA, despite them being the same person.
The degree of gender bias and discrimination in academia cannot only render and have implications on the careers of women but also discourage and cause a lack of motivation for women in those spaces. In college, I read an article by Minh-Ha T. Pham called “I Click and Post and Breathe, Waiting for Others to See What I See”: On #FeministSelfies, Outfit Photos, and Networked Vanity that taught me about the narrow connotations of vanity and the important role vanity has when it comes to the “social visibility and social recognition” of marginalized and unrepresented groups. It is important for women to not downplay their experiences, accomplishments, achievements, and who they are for the sake of others. Showcasing the work of a woman is important and academia needs more women. The American Association of University Women that only 27 percent of tenured faculty at four-year institutions are women in the United States.
Women are right to assert their earned titles. You claim that her title is comedic and fraudulent, but is actually encouraging and uplifting for other women to see. It can actually inspire other women to pursue careers in academia and women already pursuing a similar path. Dr. Biden is the professional title that she earned, and she certainly does not need to drop the “doc.”
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